Breaking Barriers: Racial Justice Rooted in Baptism
By Rev. Dr. Israel I. Alvaran
Colonialism and slavery—the subjugation of entire nations and people—is the direct consequence of racism. When one race assumes power merged with a value system that undergirds the ideology that such race is more superior than others; that whiteness is paramount and at the pinnacle of humanity, thus denigrating the image of God in all people – this is the sin of racism. The United Methodist Church declares that “racism, manifested as sin, plagues and hinders our relationship with Christ, inasmuch as it is antithetical to the gospel itself” (UMC Social Principles: The Social Community). Individuals and institutions, including the Church, have been complicit and, sadly, continue to struggle against this evil.
Approaching racism from the stance of equality—that all human beings are created equal regardless of their skin color—is common among all people of faith and those with no religious affiliation. Respecting and protecting basic human rights regardless of race and ethnicity is a universal moral code shared by all, even if many only pay lip service to this principle.
It may have secular expressions in law and culture, but racial justice for Christians is deeply embedded in one of its most sacred beliefs and practice – the sacrament of Baptism. At every United Methodist service celebrating Baptism, we join together in affirmative response to this historic question:
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
Baptism invites the believer and the whole Body of Christ to resist and abolish the evil of racism and white supremacy. Breaking down racial barriers and lifting up equity to privilege the oppressed is explicit in our baptismal vows. Why is this so?
Baptism as an act of resistance and breaking barriers is clear in our United Methodist understanding of this sacrament as explained in the document “By Water and The Spirit” adopted by General Conference:
- Baptism is a visible sign of God’s grace for all people. The same is true of the sacrament of Holy Communion. We believe that “God’s presence in the sacraments is real” (By Water and The Spirit, #21). Because God’s love is for all people and the invitation to be part of God’s beloved community is extended to all, Baptism – through which believers are affirmed as part of the Body of Christ – opens the door to all with no exceptions. On Pentecost, the gospel was preached in different languages for all people to hear and understand (Acts 2). This open invitation is true of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), the first recorded baptism in the history of the church. He was not Jewish. He was considered a sexual deviant, and under the Torah he cannot be part of the faith community (Deuteronomy 23:1). The act of baptism performed by Philip broke that barrier. Every baptism celebrates the breaking down of barriers to the grace of God.
- Baptism is a covenant. We believe that “in baptism the Church declares that it is bound in covenant to God; through baptism new persons are initiated into that covenant. The covenant connects God, the community of faith, and the person being baptized” (By Water and The Spirit, #24). As such, we make promises during baptism, taking upon ourselves the responsibility of accepting and affirming the baptized person as God’s child and promising to nurture them in faith. At every baptism, we are reminded by our vows that we will resist any form of injustice and oppression against every child of God. This relationship of equals as God’s children united in Christ (Galatians 3:27-27), bound by our vows to make sure that no one is excluded from this covenant is an act of breaking barriers.
- Baptism signifies new life in Christ. We believe that “Sanctification is a gift of the gracious presence of the Holy Spirit, a yielding to the Spirit’s power, a deepening of our love for God and neighbor. Holiness of heart and life, in the Wesleyan tradition, always involves both personal and social holiness. Baptism is the doorway to the sanctified life” (By Water and the Spirit, #32). Jesus, in his parables explaining the Reign of God, centers the marginalized and humbles the powerful. Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self sums up the commandments in the Hebrew scripture. Both the admonition of the “golden rule” and the gift of a vision of the Reign of God are imparted to us in baptism. This new life is meant to break down barriers that separate people from each other.
As baptized people, therefore, we cannot abide the sins of racism.
We cannot look away.
We cannot cast a blind eye.
We cannot be silent.
Having received God’s grace, entered into a holy covenant, and born into a new life in Christ, we are called to be a loud and ever present prophetic witness against the tyranny of white supremacy and its collateral evils that befall unequally upon black, indigenous, and all people of color: war, hunger and poverty, lack of affordable quality health care, the plight of refugees and immigrants, gun violence and police atrocities, genocide, extra-judicial killings, and so much more societal immoralities perpetrated against God’s children because of the color of their skin.
By the waters of baptism and the power of the Spirit:
Break down barriers.
Open wide the doors for all.
Proclaim the Reign of God is upon us.