Baptism & Progressive Christianity

Responding to a Reader Question

This week I’m taking some time to respond to a question a friend asked recently: 

Why baptism if there is no resurrection and no need for the cross?
How does progressive Christianity explain baptism? 

Before I share what baptism means to me now as a Progressive Christian, I want to make a couple of comments about the cross and resurrection. These comments will not be a full treatment of how I have come to see these two central events of the Christian Tradition, but a brief sketch. 

Let’s begin with the cross. The cross is, and always has been, a central symbol of the Christian Tradition. This is still true for me as a Progressive Christian. However, my understanding of the meaning of the cross has changed significantly. In my earlier paradigm, the cross was necessary to sate the wrath of an offended God—God needed, even demanded, the death of Jesus to atone for the sins of all humankind. Today, I see the death of Jesus very differently. 

I find it helpful to differentiate between the historical reasons for Jesus’s death, and the theological interpretations of his death that emerged later. Both are important. 

Historically speaking, the cause of Jesus’s death is not a mystery. Jesus was executed by the state, the Roman Empire, for the crime of treason. Pilate indicates as much with the formal charge against him: “The king of the Jews.” Jesus advocated another kingdom, another way of ordering the world—religiously and socially, politically and economically (because they knew then what we refuse to see now: they are all inseparable). The cross was Romes emphatic “no” to the vision of Jesus for the world.

Theologically, the cross has significant meaning for me as a Progressive Christian. The cross is a symbol of the love and compassion of God. The cross is not about God’s wrath, but about God’s response to human wrath. God-in-Christ meets human wrath and violence with divine love and compassion. In this way the cross reveals the heart of God and the true nature of the divine. God is not a punisher; God would rather absorb wrath than inflict it. The nonviolent crucified Christ does not make our forgiveness or acceptance by God possible. He reveals the nature of God has always been forgiving and that we have always been embraced. 

What about the resurrection? It’s fair to say that without the Easter experience (whatever it was), there would be no Christian faith. What does it mean, though?

  If the cross is the empire’s “no” to Jesus’s vision and message, the resurrection is God’s “yes.” The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus and his message. It’s not important to me how you see the resurrection in terms of what could have been captured by your phone camera if you’d been present on Easter morning. Instead, for me, it’s the recognition that Jesus was right about God and the way the world should be, and also that Jesus is a continual, abiding presence with us, even today. To say that God raised Jesus up from death is to affirm that the meaning of Jesus has been taken into the meaning of God. I love digging into the what ifs and details of this particular conversation, but that will have to wait for another time. 

Baptism, of course is tied to these two events. In baptism Christians are symbolically buried and raised with Christ. I love the way John Dominic Crossan puts it:

“Think about it like this: Rome had officially, publicly, and legally executed Jesus, but God had raised him from the dead. Jesus was therefore dead to Rome and alive to God. Similarly, in baptism, the followers of Jesus had died to the basic values of Rome’s empire and been reborn to those of God’s kingdom.”

This is one of the key meanings of baptism, I think. It’s political. It’s about where one’s allegiance lies and what vision for the world one embraces. Followers of Jesus are dying to an old system of values, and being raised into those of Jesus’s kingdom vision. 

Baptism is also an important right of passage for Christians. It’s a way of identifying oneself with the community, and celebrating that we find belonging and affirmation here. Sadly, many Christians end up seeing baptism as almost a rite of exclusion. That makes it into more of a weapon than a celebration. In baptism we do not celebrate that now, because we’ve prayed a prayer and been splashed with some water, we are finally beloved and accepted by God. On the contrary, baptism is a celebration that takes place when we realize that belovedness and belonging have always been ours. 

I hope these quick thoughts have been helpful in giving some perspective into how Progressive Christianity might approach the meaning of the cross, resurrection, and baptism. Of course, I can’t speak for all Progressive Christians. This is my brief contribution to the discussion.  

Do you have a question about a Progressive Christian take on a specific concept or issue? Let me know! Send me an email (refaithnet@gmail.com) or drop it in the comments section. 

Thanks for reading!