By Caryn D. Riswold
Today is the first anniversary of Owen’s baptism. On 10/10/10, he was the fifth child with whom my husband and I stood, alongside his parents, and made promises: To care for him, to teach and instruct him, and to love him. The first time we were present for another godson’s baptism, it was eighteen years ago, as the presiding minister prayed for “the spirit of wisdom and understanding” and “the spirit of joy in your presence.” Then, as now, the future was full of hope.
Four weeks ago, the Westboro Baptist Church came to our town waving their hate-filled signs to protest at the funeral of a local young soldier killed in Afghanistan. One of my students, already a veteran at age 25, attended the counter-protest with the Illinois Patriot Guard and reported back to our class his dismay at seeing a young child among the WBC group holding a sign telling the world precisely who God hates.
This child of Westboro has parents and probably even godparents too.
Eboo Patel writes about the importance of motivating and organizing young people in his memoir Acts of Faith. How is it that some young people grow up to throw bombs and others grow up to become interfaith community service advocates? Someone taught them. Young people don’t become suicide bombers or community organizers ex nihilo. They are socialized and taught and affirmed in their many choices day after day. For Christians, baptism is one place where a commitment to young people takes place.
Of course there is an ongoing theological debate about the permissibility of infant baptism. Those advocating adult or “believers” baptism argue that it needs to be something that an individual chooses for herself or himself. That this makes it more meaningful. Those of us who affirm infant baptism as sacramental, on the other hand, contend that baptism is not something we do anyway. It’s something God has done and is still doing; that grace is not something that we choose or make fall upon one head or another. Baptism is a recognition of gifts already given and promises for a life that is yet to unfold.
This is why I love the small scene in Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 book Gilead that begins “Once, we baptized a litter of cats.” Eventually, the narrator asks his father what would happen to a cat if one were to baptize it. His father responds by saying that one ought to respect the sacraments, and the narrator concludes “We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats.”
Respect for the sacrament combines here with a deeper understanding that there is something of worth in those cats deserving recognition. Each of the children in our lives, related to us by blood or promise or proximity, has a life that has yet to fully unfold, deserving recognition. Parents and godparents and friends and community members wrestle with how to best influence that life every day. How can we help make their life and their world more just and more joyful.
Elizabeth Warren, candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, has emerged as a favorite of progressive political groups for her work on economic issues. In a speech on the campaign trail in August she made remarks about taxing millionaires:
“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
There is something about the next kids that deserves recognition: Their future. When Warren talks about how factory owners rely on roads and bridges built by tax revenue or workers that public money educated, she describes a social fabric and infrastructure on which we all rely. Conservative efforts to protect wealthy people and corporations from taxation only weakens this social fabric, disproportionately affecting the weakest among us.
Consider the future of these kids all around us. Will they become hateful protesters at a military funeral, or members of the Patriot Guard protecting a family in their moment of grief and pain? Will they have a public library or a community center to go to after a decent day at public school, or will they turn to the seductive logic of violent extremists all too happy to name enemies and offer vengeful solutions in online chats?
In many ways, it is up to us.
Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is the godmother of five boys, aunt of seven nephews and one niece, and associate professor of religion at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She is the author of three books, the most recent of which, Feminism and Christianity, is now available as a Kindle ebook as well as for print purchase in the U.K. It also remains available the old-fashioned way through your local independent bookseller in the U.S. You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.