On Saturday, Diana Butler Bass posted an essay in response to the shootings in Tucson. She began by arguing that clergy needed to speak out on the events. Her question was “But who will speak for the soul?” It was a good question and challenged me as I was trying to rewrite my sermon in light of the day’s events.
But the last couple of paragraphs troubled me. Last Sunday was “The Baptism of our Lord” and the gospel reading was Matthew’s story of Jesus’ Baptism by John. As she sought to make a connection between the day’s events and the gospel, she contrasted two types of baptism, the baptism of water which is redemptive and life-giving and the baptism of blood. To illustrate the importance of the latter symbol in American religious history, she quoted Episcopal Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia, saying in 1862, “All nations which come into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.”
At the time, I prepared a blog post that was critical of this move. I thought better of it and deleted it before posting. I’ve continued to think about it, and I continue to be troubled by it. The baptism of (or by) blood has a long history in the Christian tradition, going back to the early church, where martyrdom was understood to be a baptism of blood. In Catholicism to this day, an unbaptized person, who makes a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and is martyred, is saved by that confession and by the baptism of blood without water baptism.
Then I came across this enlightening post by Daniel W. Crofts on The New York Times. Croft wrote about the lead-up to the Civil War. His column is about a speech on January 12, 1861, by William Henry Seward, New York Senator, and soon to join the Lincoln administration. In that speech, he sought compromise in order to avoid what seemed like imminent war. While many were critical, abolitionist (and Quaker) John Greenleaf Whittier wrote:
If, without damage to the sacred cause
Of Freedom and the safeguard of its laws —
If, without yielding that for which alone
We prize the Union, thou canst save it now
From a baptism of blood, upon thy brow
A wreath whose flowers no earthly soil have known,
Woven of the beatitudes, shall rest,
And the peacemaker be forever blest!
What did Whittier mean by using this imagery?
The rhetoric of both North and South was filled with violent religious imagery, including “baptism of blood.” One need only think of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It didn’t end with the Civil War. Such imagery returns with every war as we have seen in the last nine years. It’s not unique to America, either. I’m sure one can find similar language in the rhetoric of German pastors during World War I and World War II, or English pastors in the same wars, or ….
Bass is absolutely correct to see a preoccupation with blood in American religiosity. As I child, I sang “There’s power in the blood.” It may be especially prevalent in the South. Sometimes, it’s rather amusing like the fountain that used to be outside the mansion of a mega-church pastor in Spartanburg, SC. At night, the fountain’s water was bathed with red light, to remind passers-by of “the fountain filled with blood. But it’s not just the South. Think of Mel Gibson’s gory spectacle, The Passion of the Christ.
In spite of the excesses, it’s important to remember that the notion of “baptism of blood” can be, and often has been, life-giving and redemptive, especially for those Christians facing persecution. That it has been and is perverted is hardly surprising.