There’s a new trend in Italy: de-baptism. By the time they reach young adulthood, many people who grew up in the Catholic Church are ready to leave. In September 2019, 25 year old Mattia Nanetti had reached that point. He found a form online and filled it out. “Two weeks later, a note was put next to his name in the parish baptism register, formalizing his abandonment of the Catholic Church.” (Christian Century, December 15, 2021, p.18)
Have you ever thought of doing that? Getting de-baptized? Have you ever looked at the church–perhaps the church in which you grew up–and said, “Forget it? The church has gotten so far from Jesus, I just give up.”
To be honest, I’ve done it myself, contemplated de-baptism. It gets a little complicated for someone like me, though, who’s been tripley baptized. Which baptism would I give back? Would I have to fill out three forms, once for each baptism?
What is the big deal about baptism? It’s one of two sacraments we celebrate in the UCC. The other is communion. Sacraments are rituals that take us to thin places. Through rituals and materials of Earth, something of God becomes more real, clearer…that’s what sacraments do. So, what of God becomes more real, what becomes clearer in our baptisms? Do our baptisms bear any meaning for us, or might we, too, be ready for de-baptism?
This morning in Faith Exploration, we looked at how each Gospel writer tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew and Mark show us Jesus’ baptism. We see John lower Jesus into the Jordan River, Jesus come back up, a dove descend, and a voice say some version of, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well-pleased.” Luke relates Jesus’ baptism after the fact. It’s in his after-baptism prayer that God calls Jesus beloved and says God is well-pleased with him.
That part of the story of Jesus’ baptism–God claiming Jesus as his beloved child…God saying how well-pleased God was with Jesus just as he was? That’s what happens to all of us in baptism. When we’re baptized, God claims us as God’s beloved child. God tells us God is well-pleased with us, just as we are.
I want to ask all those de-baptizers–Do you really want to give that up? Do you really want to throw away the symbol of God’s deep and abiding love for you? God’s acceptance of you just as you are?
I realize, though, that I’m asking the question out of my individualist Protestant upbringing. My individualist, BAPTIST upbringing, to be precise. I grew up in a tradition that focused on what happens to the individual believer in baptism–whether it’s getting saved or…avoiding hell fire…or accepting God’s love for us as God’s beloved children… There’s a tendency in Protestant traditions of seeing baptism as a ritual in which an individual participates.
Since most of the de-baptizers in Italy are Catholic, I suspect their motivation for de-baptism isn’t disconnecting from God, but from the Catholic Church. In Catholic tradition, baptism means you’re part of the church, you’re part of the institution, you’re part of the wider community. For many people, that connection to the institution of the church no longer sustains them. From that perspective, de-baptism makes sense.
The sticky wicket for me when discerning whether to seek ministerial standing in the UCC was infant baptism. Baptists practice believer’s baptism, which means you aren’t baptized until you, as an individual, make a conscious decision to do so. In infant baptism, babies are baptized into a community, a community that pledges to help the parents nurture their child into the Christian faith until the children can choose the path for themselves. That’s what happens at Confirmation. We experienced it last Fall with Gaven, Ethan, and Byron.
An interesting note in the article about de-baptism… Some theologians suggest that de-baptism–erasing one’s baptism–isn’t actually possible. “Daniele Mombelli, professor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, says it’s not possible to ‘erase the baptism, because it’s a fact that historically happened, and was therefore registered.” So, while the procedure does “formalize the person’s abandonment of the church,” it can’t change history. The baptism happened. That historical fact can’t be erased.
At some point, parents of those who were baptized asked the wider church community to receive their baby into membership and help them to nurture faith in their child. The one who was baptized can abandon the community, but for the community to abandon the one who was baptized? That’s a whole different thing.
I’ve already mentioned one difference between Luke and Mark and Matthew–Luke doesn’t show us Jesus’ baptism; Luke reports it after the fact. There’s another difference in Luke worth noting. It has to do with how Luke fromes the story. Listen. When all the people were baptized, Jesus also came to be baptized.
Instead of framing Jesus’ baptism as a one-on-one encounter with John the Baptist, instead of focusing on Jesus’ individual experience of baptism, Luke frames Jesus’ baptism in the context of the community. When all the people were baptized, Jesus–just like everyone else in the community–also came to be baptized.
The rest of this month, this season of light, as we begin the journey with our community star word “clarity,” we’re going to focus on Beloved Community. As we seek clarity on what Martin Luther King, Jr.–and the Apostle Paul–among others, meant when they talked about beloved community, as we seek clarity about our own beloved community here at First Congregational, we’ll do well to think more about our baptisms as a communal ritual. Baptism isn’t just something we do as individuals; baptism is the ritual by which we followers of Jesus enter into the beloved community.
A story from Will Willimon illustrates what I’m talking about. A college student home on summer break stopped by to tell his pastor he’d be taking a pass on church for the summer. “When the pastor asked him why, the young man said, ‘Well, you see, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about religion while I was at college, and I have come to the conclusion that there is not much to this religion thing. I have found out that I don’t need the church to get by.”
The pastor responded that he found that interesting. “Aren’t you worried? The young man said. I thought you’d go through the roof when I told you.”
“No,” the older man said. “I’m interested but not overly concerned. I’ll be watching to see if you can pull it off.”
“What do you mean ‘pull it off?’ I don’t understand. I’m 19. I can decide to do anything I want to do, can’t I?’”
“I’m just not so sure you’ll be able to get away with this.”
“Why not?” the increasingly confused young man said.
“Well, for one thing,” his pastor said, “You’re baptized.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, you try forsaking it, rejecting it, forgetting about it, and maybe you’ll find out.”
“I can’t figure out what being baptized has to do with me.”
The pastor said, “For one thing, there are people here who care about you. They made promises to God when you were baptized. You try not showing up around here this summer, and they will be nosing around, asking you what you’re doing with your life, what kind of grades you made last semester, what you’re doing with yourself. Then there’s also God. No telling what God might try with you. From what I’ve seen of God, once God has claimed you, you don’t get off the hook so easily. God is relentless in claiming what is God’s. And, in baptism, God says you belong to God.”
“The boy shook his head in wonder at this strange, unreasonable brand of ecclesiastical reasoning and more or less stumbled out the door of the pastor’s study. In a week or so, he was back at his usual place on the second pew. The baptizers had done their work.” (Adapted from Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life. Nashville: The Upper Room, 1980.)
As baptizers, are we doing our work? After Confirmation Sunday last October, one person told me, “I have a goddaughter. I haven’t been doing my job! When will the next Confirmation class be? Will it be virtual?” That was a baptizer remembering and recommitting himself to the work of baptism, which, in part, is the work of nurturing others in the community into faith.
As we renew our baptismal vows today, may we remember our belovedness in God’s eyes. And may we also remember and recommit ourselves to the rest of the community of the baptized. How might we, as individuals, act our First Congregational community into wellbeing? And how might we, as the First Congregational community, act the world into wellbeing?
As we seek clarity in this season of Epiphany, may these be the questions that guide us.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeem us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2022