Baptism offers a radical theology of liberation. A reenactment of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, it is an entry point into Christian faith and an exit strategy from the hierarchical and power-driven identities of race, class and gender.

Baptism is a process of transformation that is not complete when a new convert receives a certificate of baptism. Yes, smile and say, “cheese.” But the North American church needs to have a prolonged conversation on what we have gotten ourselves into when we get into the water for baptism.

Too often considered only a part of the requirements for church membership, an addendum to the regular worship service and/or only held on certain Sundays, we have lost our way when we lose sight of the importance of baptism.

What do we take from the water? What are the implications of self-mortification, of “dying daily” to our racialized, capitalized and militarized selves (1 Cor. 15:31)? What does baptism invite us to embody?

Taken to the water, this “watery grave” can serve as a reflection pool for the North American church, a reminder of how the body of Christ should see itself.

Jesus’ early followers were described as those who came “to turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Today, the North American church is often viewed as world’s away from the “kin-dom” Jesus proclaimed. Too often identified alongside Caesar, Christians have a history of forgetting their place.

Baptism speaks of a transcendent identity, freed from our bodies, social categories and their power plays. Paul shared the message with the member churches at Galatia and Colossae (Gal. 3:27-28; Col. 3:10-11).

Of all the verses that are quoted by religious leaders, it strikes me that these two passages are not thrown around. Perhaps, it is because we cannot take them lightly.

Max Dupree said, “The first job of a leader is to define reality.” I never wanted to be a leader, but I do believe in seeing things as they are and naming them as such. It is likely because of my upbringing; it was not safe for me to pretend or profitable for me to take flights of fancy. I grew up quickly. The eldest child, I had to take life seriously. As an adult, I still do.

Fair warning: It won’t make you popular, but it will give you a deep sense of knowing and peace in that understanding. Because there are plenty of examples of delusion.

“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb the rattling wagon of wishful illusion,” Zora Neale Hurston said. I tend to agree that it’s better this way.

I didn’t like the social reality that race handed to me and immediately began to question it. “Do I have to be black?” “Why am I identified as a colored person?” “What is the purpose of race, and do I have to stay in this social space? How can I move away from this racialized identity?”

The questions kept coming and, for me, it was race’s undoing. I had refused the internalization of its meanings.

Instead, I began to think long and hard about my identity as a Christian — not in a member of a church kind of way but as a member of Christ’s body. And it led me back to the water of baptism and baptismal identity.

Wendell Berry said, “And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet and learn to be at home.”

Howard Thurman referred to it as “the inward journey.”

An unplanned trip, I was getting to the center of what animates my being and quickly discovering that it wasn’t race. It produced the Raceless Gospel and, many years later, The Raceless Gospel Initiative at Good Faith Media.

TRGI is a multimedia initiative, with relevant articles, a podcast and other resources for faith leaders who seek to facilitate conversations about race, identity and what it means to belong to the body of Christ.

Recently, I created a few resources for our journey:

  • Take me to the water: A baptismal liturgy, offering a four-part framework to discuss race and baptismal identity.
  • Why a raceless gospel?: A brief explanation of why baptismal identity, not the social construct of race, should be the defining characteristic of Christians.
  • What is race?: A one-page definition of race that puts it in its place.
  • Embody: A conversation in four parts on race and baptismal identity, and an outline of the work we can do together.

Because going down in the water of baptism is easy but getting up and working out the implications for our bodies is a journey.

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