Should a person with an intellectual disability be denied baptism if they cannot cognitively or rationally understand what it means to confess faith in Jesus? Does this decision affect just the individual, or the whole church?
Two weeks ago I saw an early screening of The Birth of a Nation. While I have many thoughts on the movie as a whole, what I want to discuss is one particular scene. If you want a take on the movie as a whole, I suggest checking out this one.
There were a lot of scenes that aroused some pretty strong emotions. But there was one in particular upon which the entire story (as portrayed in the film) hinged. It also happened to be the scene that caused me to weep uncontrollably.
Nat Turner baptizes a white man in the pond on the plantation where he is enslaved. This particular man was a felon, and the act of a black man baptizing a white man, on his master’s plantation no less, was too much to bear. It was this act, a baptism, that resulted in the first public beating Nat received and subsequently fueled the rebellion he led and ultimately died for.
That was the moment that changed everything in the movie: the baptism of a white man by a black man.
Why did this scene affect me as much as it did?
Two reasons. First, the audacity of Nat to baptize this man is inspiring. He must have known the consequences for this and did it anyway – not out of defiance or rebellion – but in obedience.
Second, the whole time all I could picture was my brother. I imagined my brother, unable to walk and unable to speak, being carried into the water to be baptized. I don’t actually know if my brother has been baptized. This was the first time I even thought to ask that question. Which led to me then ask: How many other people with disabilities haven’t been baptized?
“John’s baptism in Jordan was intended to symbolize the new exodus from bondage, and the eschatological entry into the promised land of the divine kingdom. In this respect the baptism of John was particular and unique… It was not an initiation rite for an existing society; it was the eschatological sign of the setting forth out of present oppression towards the immediately imminent freedom of the divine rule. Going down into the waters of the Jordan is to be understood as the step out of the old life of unrighteousness into the new life with the righteous God.”
– Jürgen Moltmann
The baptizing of people with intellectual disabilities – not as infants or children – but as adults, is a scandalous move. People would tell me that I need not worry about my brother: God loves him and will save him because he doesn’t have the ability to confess Jesus as Lord. God won’t hold him accountable and will save him anyway. Oddly enough, these are more often than not the same people who believe that God is directly responsible for my brothers condition, whether as punishment for the sins of my family, or as a way of purifying him for the next life.
While I do have a problem with the reasoning used to exclude people like my brother from being baptized, I am more bothered by the practice of excluding people from baptism. I am willing to bet that as a church we first denied adults with intellectual disabilities baptism (and probably other sacraments like communion) and then rationalized our behavior.
If baptism is a sign and symbol of our freedom from oppression into the life of freedom of the divine kingdom, denying adults with intellectual disabilities the chance to be baptized is doing two things. First, it is denying them a wider framework in which the meaning of their life is understood, namely, that of God’s history with the world. As Moltmann says, “baptism joins a fragmentary and incomplete human life with the fullness of life and the perfect glory of God.”
Second, and this is more to my overall point, denying adults with intellectual disabilities the chance to be baptized turns baptism into, “an initiation rite for [the] existing society.” Baptism then becomes the sign that you are a member of a particular in-group: the church. When what baptism should be is the response of one who has come to faith in Christ and the future hope he brings. It is not a membership into an elite group, but the sign of a new life in the all-encompassing kingdom of God.
“Baptism as the calling event in the life of the individual person corresponds only to a church that follows Christ’s call, the ‘call to freedom’. Baptism as the liberating event in a person’s life corresponds only to a church which spreads the liberty of Christ.”
– Jürgen Moltmann
In my last post I tried to make the case that the church is only the church when it begins with fellowship of the last, that is, the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the imprisoned. The exodus of the whole world from bondage begins with the sick, the blind, and the poor.
“In the gospel of Jesus the specific form of the coming rule of God is the fellowship of the blind who are to see, the prisoners who are to be freed, the poor who are to be happy, and the sick who are to be healed. With them the exodus of the whole people begins. They already praise and thank God here and now in the fellowship of the wretched.”
– Jürgen Moltmann
But, if the church is only the church when it is formed with the fellowship of the last, and baptism is a call in response to the new life that only happens when the church “follows Christ’s call,” then baptism must also begin with the last. The call to baptism arises from the church forming from the fellowship of the last, not the other way around. That is, the call to baptism doesn’t create the church, the church, insofar as it is participating in the mission of Jesus, generates the call to baptism.
What this means for adults with intellectual disabilities is that when the church functions as the church, that is, as fellowship with the last, then the call to baptism naturally arises from that fellowship as a sign of the entry into the new life of the kingdom of God. Baptism isn’t the doorway through which you enter new life, it is the sign of having already entered through fellowship with the last.
The exodus begins with the last.
The church is formed in the fellowship of the last.
Baptism is the sign of this exodus.
The rebirth of the nations begins with the last.
If baptism symbolizes the, “exodus from bondage, and the eschatological entry into the promised land of the divine kingdom,” and the “specific form” this takes is the fellowship of the poor, the blind, the sick, the imprisoned, and the exodus of the whole people begins with the poor, the blind, the sick, and the imprisoned, then baptism should begin with the last.
Further, the new life of baptism, while representing a severing of ties with previous relationships and identities, should always point toward the service of others. Moltmann puts it this way:
“In this history of a person’s life this means the pain of alienation from his present associations and groups, and often enough an exodus like the exodus of Abraham. But it leads him into a freedom in which he can ‘be there for others.'”
Baptism, along with the other sacraments, is one way for the church to be able to understand and recognize itself as the church. Baptism is the sign that the church is the messianic fellowship, “in the world and for the world.”
“As the mediations and powers of the Holy Spirit, [the sacraments] lead the church beyond itself, out into the suffering of the world and into the divine future. It is precisely in its character as a fellowship in word and sacrament, and as a charismatic fellowship, that the church will understand itself as a messianic fellowship of service for the kingdom of God.”
– Jürgen Moltmann
What this means for adults with intellectual disabilities remains to be seen. But, if the church is to be the church, I believe this cannot mean denying baptism to adults with intellectual disability, regardless of whether or not they can cognitively or rationally understand what it means to confess faith in Jesus.
The church can only be the church when it starts with the fellowship of the last, including adults with intellectual disabilities. The baptism of adults with intellectual disabilities must not be the way for them to enter into the new life of the messianic kingdom, but must be the sign that they have already begun the exodus of all people.
To deny adults with intellectual disabilities baptism is, in some sense, to deny the exodus and the rebirth of all people and the new life of service for the kingdom of God.
This will not be easy for many people to swallow. It will require a radical shift in the way we understand not just intellectual disability and how it relates to faith, but in how we understand the role of baptism in our communities.