Brad R. Braxton is the chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at St. Luke’s School in New York City, founding senior pastor of the Open Church in Baltimore, and curator for the Living Religions in Twenty-First-Century America program at the 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Emory University and was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in England.
The African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” sung often in African-American baptism services, insists that God is “gonna trouble the water.” In the spirit of this troublesome God, our baptism services should be more politically provocative. In other liturgical moments, we can soothe people’s “souls” with images of God, the Eternal shepherd, who leads us beside still waters (Psalm 23:2). Baptism, however, is an opportune time to remember a God who champions oppressed people and struggles alongside them. This God troubles the waters of the Red Sea in order to enable the oppressed to be free. James Cone poignantly characterized the God of the oppressed:
"Unlike the God of Greek philosophy who is removed from history, the God of the Bible is involved in history, and [God’s] revelation is inseparable from the social and political affairs of Israel….Yahweh is known and worshipped as the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. [Yahweh] is the political God, the Protector of the poor and the Establisher of the right for those who are oppressed."
To baptize people in the name of this God is to immerse them in politically turbulent waters. Baptism services should not be polite. On the contrary, they should create a guttural awareness in those about to be baptized, and in those already baptized, that following God will at times be costly. A major currency for payment of that cost is struggle, and this struggle may exact a toll from our bodies.
When baptizing children, and especially when christening babies, I congratulate families for their desire to inaugurate a child’s life with a spiritually significant ritual. Yet baptism is vacuous if it morphs into a genteel moment to acknowledge godparents, provide a gilt-edged baptism certificate with filigree font, and share an after-church baptism brunch for family and friends at an upscale restaurant.
It is incumbent upon me pastorally to puncture the politeness of the moment with politics. I remind families, or the candidates for baptism if they are old enough to comprehend, that when Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized, he signed his death certificate. I then tell the families, or the baptism candidates, that in addition to baptism certificates we also should provide them with death certificates. To serve God is to be willing to struggle for our freedom and the freedom of others, even to the point of death. Baptism is not a cleansing of our souls from sin; it is a marking of our bodies for struggle!
At baptisms, we should call the names of those who have been martyred in movements for righteousness, and especially in the arduous, ongoing movement to affirm that black lives matter. Imagine a baptism service where before the baptism occurs, the names of martyrs are interspersed throughout the spirited singing of “Wade in the Water.”
The roll call obviously would include names such as John the Baptizer and Jesus. The roll call also might include the names of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. These four, precious black girls were attending Sunday school on September 15, 1963, at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. They were killed when a terrorist bomb revealed that America was still savagely judging black children by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character. The savage judgment meted out by that bomb was the exact opposite of the inclusive justice about which Martin Luther King, Jr., had spoken in this famous “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington less than three weeks before the bombing.
In that same baptism service, it also would be fitting to call the names of: the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson. These nine Christians were slaughtered by a white supremacist on June 17, 2015, at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, as they read scripture in what they thought was a sacred, and safe, place. Tragically, we also must add to this growing litany the names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, who were some of the latest victims of police brutality and white, vigilante (in)justice.
The Birmingham Four, the Charleston Nine, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others are embodied reminders that in the fight to make black lives matter, “we have come over a way that with tears has been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” We must say their names, and especially the names of black female martyrs whose stories often are rendered invisible in public protests and national dialogues.
Salty water flows in our baptism fonts and pools. The water contains the saline tears shed by those who mourn the martyrs of the movement. God’s tears also are mixed in those baptismal waters. We present our bodies in baptism in the hope that one day God will wipe away all our tears and that we will wipe away all God’s tears. When we create a world that is committed to appreciating—not asphyxiating—black lives, God will weep no more.
Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from Brad R. Braxton, “Baptism and Holy Communion: Affirming that Black Lives Matter” in T&T Clark Handbook of African American Theology, ed. Antonia Michelle Daymond, Frederick L. Ware, and Eric Lewis Williams (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 197–212.