The Borders of Baptism: Identities, Allegiances and the Church
by Michael L. Budde
2011, Cascade Books, Eugene Oregon
A provocative collection of essays, arguing that in practice, North American Christians understand ourselves as Canadians or Americans first, and as Christians only second.
To accept that claim is to agree that North American Christians often end up denying in their social and political practice, the very claims of the faith they profess each Sunday. In other words, Christ is our King, as long as his claims don’t conflict with those of the nation to which we give our primary practical allegiance. As the cover image suggests, Budde is an American, and his examples and arguments are mostly from that context, but as a Canadian I think much of the book is still relevant.
As the title suggests, the book’s essays compare the respective claims and formative influence of church and state on the lives of modern western Christians. And Budde argues that, in practice, the claims of the state tend to trump those of Church for most of us.
One of the underlying premises of Budde’s work is that even we Christians tend to discern among the respective claims on our allegiance of church and state on terms that are in fact, defined by the state.
Specifically we tend to adopt the prevailing understanding that government is “public” and objective and faith is “private” and subjective. And so there must exist a “public” space into which “private” Christian claims regarding justice and morality must enter to be adjudicated. The trouble with this is that it presumes that those Christian claims are by definition partial and incomplete — hence private. And further, that somewhere out there in the “public” space, we can find a more comprehensive standard by which Christian claims can be judged. Not exactly words we would be eager to apply to the Gospel!
The usual rationale for such a public/private distinction is the mere existence of various competing claims regarding justice and morality. But for the distinction to be necessary, we must also assume it is impossible to discern any hierarchy of truth among those competing claims. Only if both are true – if there are a variety of competing claims and no way to meaningfully discern among them — does the rationale of a public/private distinction seem plausible.
But even if we accept its plausibility, what often seems to happen in practice is not so much a rational discernment among competing truth claims, but the hidden privileging of one set of claims against another. Anyone who has tried to argue for the Church’s teachings on marriage and family, for example knows that they are very often not so much argued against, as simply declared illegitimate. And this, I would suggest, because they are understood as “private” — or its virtual synonym, “religious” — convictions.
You can find a better elaborated exposition of this argument in the work of Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh, especially in his small book, Theopolitical Imagination. (And a more pointed version in this essay). But Budde provides a number of interesting case studies in these essays.
One of the most interesting comes in the chapter titled: “Whose Communion?: Globalization, Solidarity and Communion.” Here Budde cites (not uncritically, but mostly approvingly) the Post-Synodal exhortation “Ecclesia in America” written by John Paul II in 1999.
The synod from which the Pope’s exhortation flowed had the advantage of considering the place and life of the Church not merely in industrial, technological North America but also in South America. Consequently, says Budde, it focuses strongly on the bonds of solidarity that flow from our baptism. Such a focus contrasts the willingness of many Christians to fight, torture and kill other Christians, in wars and “police-actions” whose justice we seem content to have determined solely by the state. That those interests are most often put forward under the rationale of promoting justice and freedom, does not free us from the obligation to discern them in the light cast by the good news of Jesus Christ, Budde says
Ecclesia in America he continues:
“gives some understanding of how, when taken seriously, baptism and eucharist are radical processes that create a new people and new persons. By bringing into the world that which the world cannot know on its own – Christ as the ultimate gift and revelation of God – the church exists as a people gathered out of the particularities of nation and tribe, gender and race, even as it affirms whatsoever is good in the particularities of these identities and distinctions. In choosing the church to continue Christ’s work in the world – the priorities of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount … God offers the world an experiment that dares to suggest that forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than violence and exclusion, can sustain a people.” ( Budde, p. 132).
Budde is passionate in his convictions, and compelling in many of his arguments. But the practical challenge as always, is how to turn theoretical critique into Christian praxis. To do so effectively, we will need much more attention given to what we North American Christians too often assume is the unproblematic relationship between our Christian calling and our secular citizenship. Reading this book might be a worthwhile starting point.