In the past two weeks, I have been lucky enough to see five baptisms. The first was a one day old baby; the second, a sixteen year old converting from another faith; and the third, the child of two young university students who had, shall we say, been caught out! The last two baptisms happened together. Two baby girls born to four very dear friends of mine. Each set of parents saw their own daughter baptised and acted as godparents to the other baby. In all cases, very happy occasions: a few tears, a choir of relatives looking on, and the predictable presence of people holding up their smartphones for a sneaky photo!
For Catholics – and other Christians too, of course – baptism marks the entry into a new life. A sort of gateway, complete with some powerful symbols: anointing for a mission, being washed clean of sin, receiving light, and so on. All a far cry from Sarah Palin’s equation of baptism with torture.
In the Catholic tradition, baptism is the first of the sacraments. It is required in order for all of the others to be valid – confirmation, ordination as a priest etc – and it is held in common among just about every Christian community. When somebody comes in to the Catholic Church from a Protestant or Anglican tradition, other sacraments will have to be repeated. Holy orders aren’t recognised, nor confirmation, and in some cases even marriages are a little sticky, but yet the basic dignity and importance of baptism is such that it is valid wherever it is done and whoever performs it. In fact, even a non-baptised person can baptise as long as they do so ‘with the intention which the Church would have’ and use the correct Trinitatian formula: I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Words taken directly from Jesus’s instructions at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.
A commentator could do all sorts of theological and scriptural gymnastics trying to draw parallels between water-boarding and baptism but in reality they’re all rather flimsy aside from the obvious pouring of water. Nevertheless, since Palin’s comments seem to have got a lot of people comparing the two practices, a few observations probably wouldn’t go amiss.
Baptism takes a person and gives them grace, redemption and a new beginning. Water-boarding takes a person – against their will – and puts them through terrible discomfort in an attempt to satisfy others.
Baptism is intended to strengthen a person. That’s why there is anointing with oil – the traditional symbol of empowerment for a mission. Water-boarding strips a person of power and strength by instilling fear.
Baptism also grants freedom. It opens up a life that is truly good by freeing a person from the baggage of the past. Water-boarding adds new baggage and compounds a very real lack of freedom.
Baptism also incorporates somebody into a community and gives them the grace they need to be a responsible part of that group. Water-boarding attempts to separate a person from his community by encouraging betrayal.
One is quite clearly done for the recipient out of love and kindness, and never against his/ her wishes. The other is anything but. But I do think it’s worth making the point that equating the practice with baptism is offensive. It takes a very basic parallel and uses it for a cheap laugh, ignoring the chasm of other differences.