Becoming New: Racial Formation and Baptismal Identity

“What are we to do with a church that speaks to people on the basis of their gender or race, all the while baptizing them on the basis of Galatians 3.28?”

“In baptism, the text becomes Scripture for us, canon, laid on us as a new story that illumines our stories. In baptism, we are adopted into the people who answer to this story and are held accountable to its description of reality. … ‘Scripture’ suggests that authority has shifted from ourselves to Scripture’s use of us. … Baptism asserts that we meet and speak under an identity that challenges and endangers all other identities.”

William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, p. 5, 12-13

When a person becomes a believer in Jesus Christ, the action is often described as “giving one’s life to Christ.”  One’s life is no longer a personal possession; it is not to be shared with Christ but the life and is nature is lost, dying with Him in baptism.  It is given to Christ not to be kept but to be killed.

Not only do we lose our life but the relationships associated with it become secondary: “He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10.37). Symbolically, we are resurrected but with a new life, positioned in Jesus Christ. Who we are to become can only be found in Him.  Christ’s call for us to follow Him as His disciples involves self- denial and a daily death (Luke 9.23; I Corinthians 15.31).

So, when one is baptized with Christ, what of our life before Christ remains?  Are there only some parts of our lives that become new and the rest recycled?  What of our identity symbolically and/or socially dies with Christ in the ordinance of baptism and what is imperishable?  And are we resurrecting identities that should have died with Christ?  The Church’s continued use and employment of race in its decision- making and descriptions of others would suggest that who we are racially does not die with Christ but is somehow a part of God’s plan for us. However, the new heaven and earth that Christ promised did not include the inequalities that race maintains. Race also does not support the social re-ordering described by Christ wherein the first would be last and the last would be first (Matthew 20.16).  His description of one who would be considered greatest in the kingdom of heaven also conflicts with the definitions of greatness as it relates to race (Matthew 18.4).

Thus, can one continue to be formed racially even while becoming a new creature in Christ Jesus (II Corinthians 5.17)?  The answer is no.  William Willimon says, “Baptism asserts that we meet and speak under an identity that challenges and endangers all other identities.”  His words suggest that there is no collaboration of the social and spiritual identities.  Who we become in and through baptism, our baptismal identity, threatens the existence of all other identities.  As baptized believers, we are now responsible to the story of sacred Scripture and our utility is based upon its desires.  We cannot live in two realities.  We cannot be two people, racially formed and baptized believer.  In order to become new, we will have to let our racial identity die.

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Seeking to lead words and people to their highest and most authentic expression, I am the principal architect of a race/less world.

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