I recently read a compelling and disturbing article written by William Schweiker entitled “Baptism by Torture.” The entire article can be found here.
In the article, Schweiker sheds important light on the torture technique known as “waterboarding.” Waterboarding might be defined as simulated drowning forced upon a person for the purpose of obtaining information. In waterboarding, an individual is immobilized on his or her back while water is poured over his or her face, thereby causing the inhalation of water into the lungs. Schweiker is particularly interested in the intersection between baptismal theology and water torture throughout the history of the church:
Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or ‘re-baptizers’ since these people denied infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins.
When I reflect upon the kind of theological misapplication that would lead people of faith to assign an almost sacramental identity to a particular form of torture, it becomes tempting for me to believe that the shared acumen of contemporary disciples would prevent them from ever accommodating such a primitive sacramentological distortion. After all, these days we are far too theologically advanced to mistreat and misapply the sacred.
How many times have I nurtured a secret prayer in my heart—”Lord, remove this negative and trouble-making parishioner from MY church”"—thereby reducing the sacred mystery of prayer to a spiritual hit-list?
How many times have I sat in worship with a critical spirit—”I would have preached that text from a much more creative angle!”—thereby reducing the sacred environment of worship to a reinforcement of my own proclivities and preconceived notions?
How many times have I smugly complained about various blog conversations—”Oh no! Not another discourse on the merits or dangers of contemporary worship!”—thereby reducing a potentially sacred dialogue between Christian brothers and sisters to an occasion for cynicism.
How many times have I had something other than the love of Christ in my heart as I shared the bread and cup with my people, thereby reducing Eucharist to a crass remembrance of who my “favorites” are?
If I ponder these questions honestly, I can come to only one conclusion: The impulse that once led the church to link the baptismal water with the water of torture is still at work within me. It is the impulse to distort the sacred for the purpose of justifying our own behavior and our own presuppositions. If left unchecked, this impulse can still lead to horrific theological reductions and heartbreaking patterns of behavior.
Forgive me if this post seems too personal and too confessional. But, then again, it is Advent. Repentance, I suppose, is somewhere very close to the heart of this holy season.
Thanks for being there.