Monday, January 11, 2021

Troubling the Waters: Brad R. Braxton on Baptism and Black Lives Matter

A Facebook friend recently reminded my that many of the African-American spirituals contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture as they made their way to freedom.

The website Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad, notes, for instance, that Harriet Tubman used the spiritual “Wade in the Water” to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water so as to throw the slave-catchers’ dogs off their scent.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, this past Sunday was the first Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the Baptism of the Lord. One of my New Year resolutions is to get back into attending the Sunday services of my faith community, Spirit Catholic Community (formerly Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community). Of course, given the pandemic, Spirit, like the vast majority of faith communities, is meeting via Zoom.

The contemporary reading at Spirit on Sunday was an excerpt from an essay by scholar Brad R. Braxton (right) entitled “Troubling the Waters: Baptism and Black Lives Matter.”

In this essay, Braxton makes the compelling case that “our baptism services should be more politically provocative,” especially since the God of “Wade in the Water” is a “troublesome God,” or, as the late John Lewis would say, a “good trouble”-inspiring God.

It’s the “good trouble” of various forms of civil disobedience in the name of justice and compassion; the type of activism that can be seen today in movements such as Black Lives Matter and Idle No More.

Following is the part of “Troubling the Waters: Baptism and Black Lives Matter” that was shared yesterday at Spirit.

The African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” sung often in African-American baptism services, insists that God is “gonna trouble the water.” In the spirit of this troublesome God, our baptism services should be more politically provocative.

In other liturgical moments, we can soothe people’s “souls” with images of God, the Eternal shepherd, who leads us beside still waters (Psalm 23:2). Baptism, however, is an opportune time to remember a God who champions oppressed people and struggles alongside them. This God troubles the waters of the Red Sea in order to enable the oppressed to be free.

. . . To baptize people in the name of this God is to immerse them in politically turbulent waters. Baptism services should not be polite. On the contrary, they should create a guttural awareness in those about to be baptized, and in those already baptized, that following God will at times be costly. A major currency for payment of that cost is struggle, and this struggle may exact a toll from our bodies.

. . . It is incumbent upon me pastorally to puncture the politeness of the moment with politics. I remind families, or the candidates for baptism if they are old enough to comprehend, that when Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized, he signed his death certificate. I then tell the families, or the baptism candidates, that in addition to baptism certificates we also should provide them with death certificates. To serve God is to be willing to struggle for our freedom and the freedom of others, even to the point of death. Baptism is not a cleansing of our souls from sin; it is a marking of our bodies for struggle.

– Brad R. Braxton
Excerpted from “Troubling the Waters: Baptism and Black Lives Matter
via The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs
June 15, 2020

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Rita Larivee on Being “Authorized by Baptism”
Why Jesus Is My Man
A Very Intentional First Day of the Year
Honoring George Floyd
Helpful Rebuttals for Racist Talking Points
Emma Jordan-Simpson: “There Will Be No Peace Without Justice”
Trevor Noah on the “Dominoes of Racial Injustice”
James Baldwin's Potent Interweavings of Race, Homoeroticism, and the Spiritual
Remembering Philando Castile and Demanding Abolition of the System That Targets and Kills People of Color
Carin Mrotz: Quote of the Day – November 25, 2015
In Minneapolis, Rallying in Solidarity with Black Lives in Baltimore
“And Still We Rise” (Part I)
“And Still We Rise” (Part II)
Tim Wise: Quote of the Day – November 25, 2014

Opening image:Harriet on the Underground Railroad” by Paul Collins.
Closing image: Johnny Myers.

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