Torture, Baptism, and the Via Dolorosa

Please note: This post is not a statement about my position on any particular political party, or the NRA, so please do not read it as such. This post is meant to focus particularly on a theological statement about torture and baptism asserted this past Saturday night.

Normally, I try to overlook stupid or offensive things that politicians say because it pretty much happens every single day. Conservative, liberal, or radical, politicians are frequently putting their feet in their mouths. Yet in the address Sarah Palin gave at the NRA’s Stand and Fight Rally on Saturday night she made one of the most theologically offensive statements I have heard in a long time. In her twelve-minute speech, she makes this statement:

“If I were in charge, they’d know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

Not only did she actually make this statement, but it was also received with resounding applause. I was flabbergasted and appalled by this statement as a Christian. My first reaction was to rage against Sarah Palin and those who hold similar ideologies. Then my second reaction was to take a step back, recognize that people like Palin will continue to say theologically offensive things in order to promote their own “civil religion,” and instead, use this as an opportunity to talk about torture, the nature of baptism and the life of Christian conversion.

So first, let’s talk about torture.

We often see torture as something that is inflicted against particular individuals, but in reality, it is something that inflicts violence upon society as a whole as a means of compliance, coercion, and a reinforcement of the position of those in power. To read more about the violence that torture inflicts upon social bodies in addition to individual bodies, I recommend William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, but know that it is a difficult read.

In short, Cavanaugh argues that the practice of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) is not just a symbol, but a real, cathartic, and enacted practice that forms people in the the Body of Christ in a way that produces a social body with a deeper sense of communion than any nation-state, and thus acts as resistance to torture which seeks to fragment all social bodies other than the body that maintains power.

“Torture is an efficacious sign by which the state enacts its power over its subjects’ bodies in purest form.” (Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, p. 34)

Torture is fundamentally about violence and coercion. It is an act that dehumanizes, fragments, and violates. While torture is often deemed justifiable in the name of “protection” or “national security,” ultimately, it is nothing more than violence cloaked in often-patriotic and nationalistic language and purposes. Torture is seen as a legitimate means of coercion by many when it is done by the authority of the state because we, as citizens, have entrusted our protection to that body. Yet we decry torture when it is performed by insurgent or fringe bodies who use torture with the same practice and intent.

While I can certainly understand the sometimes perceived need for the use of torture (even if I don’t agree with it) and this falls into the larger conversation of just war, right now, I think that the important thing to consider, whether you feel torture is ever justified or not, is that it is certainly, clearly, absolutely an incredible violence and an act that dehumanizes both the torturer and the tortured.

When Sarah Palin said that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” she was making a theological claim about baptism (whether she really meant to or not). As Christians, we understand baptism as a sacrament that marks the entrance into the community of faith, of entrance into the Body of Christ. Baptism is a means of grace that underlies God’s first move for us. It is about grace, love, mercy. It is about being brought into communion with Christ, with each other, and the church in every time and place.

“There is one baptism as there is one source of salvation-the gracious love of God. The baptizing of a person, whether as an infant or an adult, is a sign of God’s saving grace. That grace-experienced by us as initiating, enabling, and empowering-is the same for all persons. All stand in need of it, and none can be saved without it” (By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism)

To read more about understanding baptism, you can read this whole document online.

Baptism is not about force or violence. It is an invitation to grace, which is the exact opposite. The first thing that came to mind when I heard Sarah Palin’s statement was to think about the often violent history of Christianity as it became a tool of empire. Historically, as the Church became increasingly tied with the state, from the Roman Empire, through the age of conquest, and up through today, the language and practice of Christianity have be co-opted to legitimate and carry out the desires of the state. We hear accounts of Christianity being spread throughout the Roman Empire by mass baptisms at sword point. We hear stories of the conquistadors evangelizing the Americas through violence and coercion. And now we hear Sarah Palin using the theological language of baptism to advocate for torture. Now I don’t believe for a second that she is actually talking about any kind of desire to convert terrorists to Christianity (and note her unspoken assumption that terrorists are always something other than Christian), but I don’t believe that the Roman emperors cared a mite about whether or not his conquered subjects underwent actual conversion experiences. In both cases, I believe that the language or practice of Christianity is being used to create compliance with the ruling body.

So why do I care so much about an obviously ridiculous and offensive statement? Why not just let it go unnoticed and not give it any attention? While Sarah Palin’s remark is extremely far out there, nonetheless, I think it highlights not only the continued problem of Christianity being co-opted to legitimate violence, but it also points to the absolute falsity of civil religion in contrast to the truth of radical discipleship.

In his The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck says,

“The crusader’s battle cry “Christus est Dominus” [Christ is Lord], for example, is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance). When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood.” (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, p. 64).

Lindbeck’s point is that there is a way for Christians to falsify the truth of the gospel when actions are not cohesive with belief. In this particular example that Lindbeck uses, the crusader who declares that Christ is Lord, but then uses violence to demonstrate that Lordship is fundamentally undermining that truth because violence is the complete opposite of the via dolorosa, or the way of suffering of Christ.

We are just a little over a week into Eastertide, where we continue to celebrate the risen Christ and the new life we have in him. But in order to get to Easter, we had to go through Holy Week. We remembered and enacted his way of suffering on the way to the cross. Then we like to skip to Easter and think about his glorious and triumphant resurrection. But even the resurrected Christ still had the wounds on his body from his torture and death. As my theology professor at Duke, Geoffrey Wainwright liked to remind us, “Christ reigns from a tree.”

In other words, Christ’s Lordship and kingdom are not triumphalist, full of fanfare and might, but are characterized by the suffering servant, by the one who lowers himself and gives himself always for the sake of his beloved children.

When Sarah Palin linked torture and baptism in her statement, she was ultimately undermining the work of Christ, the nature of the kingdom of God, and the gift of grace that we are offered in baptism to be a part of that kingdom community.

Christians are called to a life of radical discipleship. For those who profess Christ as Lord and claim to be a part of the Body of Christ, we must seek after Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into people who more fully reveal who Christ is to the world. While there will always places in which our lives deny Christ because we are not perfect, and we are all hypocrites in certain ways, we must seek to be of the same mind of Jesus Christ, who,

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11, CEB)

Violence, coercion, and dehumanization, in whatever form they take, whether it is torture, or otherwise, is not only a violence against others and violence against communities.

It is a violence against Christ himself.

But we know that Christ does not respond to violence with violence, but rather, he has made peace through the cross.

As much as I want to rage against Sarah Palin and call her all kinds of creative names, in the end my prayer is that she comes to understand God’s grace and the gift of baptism as something not to be used as a weapon (even though she may not have meant to make a serious theological claim), but instead that it is a means of grace that welcomes anyone who will receive it as an invitation to a life that is characterized by grace, mercy, and love.

*I originally posted this on my church blog at on Monday, April 28, 2014.



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