Being Baptized in a Violent World

What specifically can you or I do about violence?

The vows in the newest formulary for adult baptism in the Christian Reformed Church include this line: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of evil that rebel against God?”

The person to be baptized answers, “I renounce them” (Service for Baptism, Acts of Synod 1991).

Those words have been said at baptisms since the second century, but whenever I hear them I’m reminded of a scene in the first Godfather film from the early ’70s.

Michael Corleone is about to become the new godfather of his organized crime family. The scene begins in a church at the baptismal font. Michael and his wife stand with an infant child and with the child’s parents, Michael’s sister and brother-in-law. “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” the priest asks Michael, the child’s godfather.

Abruptly the film flashes to several scenes of mafia executions that Michael has orchestrated to happen at this very moment. “I renounce them,” says Michael, just as these violent works of Satan are unleashed throughout the country.

It’s a powerful juxtaposition—the amazing contradiction and hypocrisy of the baptismal vow and then all that violence.

Satan’s Spiral

Satan loves violence. It’s some of his best work. Satan loves it when the image of God gets smudged or smeared or rubbed out in God’s human creatures. Satan therefore loved the Virginia Tech shootings and the Montreal Massacre. He loves the way young men shoot each other in inner-city neighborhoods in the United States, and the general acceptance of violence in our North American culture.

After years of decline, the rate of violent crime in the United States has increased in the past two years. And even though Canada is statistically a far less violent nation—with a declining number of murders last year—aggravated assaults jumped 5 percent, the second year of significant increase in a row. No doubt Satan is heartened by such trends.

As news items in The Banner indicate, such violence rocks members of the CRC too. When it comes to violence, both the victimized and the victimizers are among us as well.

In a Christmas Day sermon in 1957, which was written in jail, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” This destructive whirlpool is precisely what we have witnessed in Iraq, with its chaotic swirl of assassinations, blood revenge, collateral damage, torture, suicide bombings, sectarian hatred, and ethnic cleansing. As the U.S. has painfully and expensively discovered, such a spiral of destruction is terribly difficult to reverse. We see the same spiral lead to its terrible center of genocide in places such as Rwanda, Darfur, and Srebrenica.

We also see it on the interpersonal level: What begins as an argument swirls into angry shouting, then threats, then a push, and then fists, rocks, knives, or guns. The mathematics of violence multiplies the destructiveness of the confrontation.

This devilish work is not new. It’s been there since the fall. We feel the pull of this destructive spiral in the very first pages of the Bible—for example, in Cain’s murder of his brother and in Lamech’s boast to his wives: “‘I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times’” (Gen. 4:23-24). The spirit of revenge has been alive and well from the very beginning of the human race.

As those who bear the sign and seal of dying and rising with Jesus Christ, we too are called to renounce Satan and all his works. As those baptized into Christ, we must explore how we can renounce violence in our culture and neighborhoods, in our society and world, in our own families and in our own lives. Most of all, we need to find some way to move beyond our feelings of helplessness in the face of violence and actually do something—even a small thing—that goes against the flow of the descending spiral that is sucking us and our society under.

The violence in our world needs to be addressed on many levels. The CRC has done recent work on the global issue of War and Peace, concentrating on the government’s role as an agent of peace and our role as Christian citizens in calling our governments to promote justice in our world. But what specifically can you or I, as baptized individuals, do about violence? Let’s have no pretensions of grand solutions here—only something each of us can do.

As baptism itself demonstrates, it will involve being dead to sin and alive to righteousness (Rom. 6:11-13).

Saying No to Death

When I was a kid, I loved to play guns and war and army and king of the mountain. A pack of us boys from my neighborhood would go out to nearby woods and play army. We would shoot and kill and be killed. And we loved it. My parents, loving and gentle but not exactly pacifists, didn’t seem to mind. This was in the ’60s, when we would pray every day for “the boys in Vietnam” and hear reports every night on the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” about how many of them died. I still find it difficult to believe that my children are growing up with the very same thing.

Something happened when I was about 10, however. A close friend’s dad died—from illness not from violence. Yet in reaction to the death of my friend’s dad, I decided I would never play guns again. And I didn’t. I just quit. There was no pressure from anyone. No one talked   to me about it. I didn’t even tell anyone about it. Guns just seemed dumb because my friend’s dad died. And stuff dealing with death was just not fun.

I suppose I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape if I had a child who liked to play guns as I did (although it no doubt would make me cringe). There is a time, after all, when we get to act like a child, and for many children, boys in particular, acting like a child involves some aggressive playing at what looks like violence. But there is a time to put childish things away, as the Bible says. For me that time came when my friend’s dad died.

I now regard my decision as a way of living out my baptism. It was a way of saying, “I renounce Satan and all his works.” But I’ve got to figure out what that means for me right now. And so do you. We need to renounce Satan and his works every single day of our lives. What does that mean for us today, especially in regard to violence?

Well, maybe God’s calling you to give up playing guns—or maybe playing Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, or some other violent computer game. Maybe God’s asking you to stop listening to rap songs that celebrate death or metal bands that are really into the devil and hell. Some of you may have guns that you don’t use for hunting or target shooting; you just like guns. I think God’s asking you to examine your attachment to an instrument of death. What’s that about, anyway? And is Kill Bill 1 or 2 any good at all for your soul?

The news media talk self-righteously about the “public’s right to know,” but coverage of crime and violence is increasingly sensationalist, feeding our morbid fascination with violence with plenty of gory details and bloody video footage, while feigning horror at the crime. By playing into our worst instincts, it serves to celebrate Satan’s work.

It’s not that any of this turns us into criminals; it’s just that all this stuff contributes to our culture of violence, and each of us needs to examine the role of that stuff in our own lives. Will what you decide to do about it make a huge impact on violence in North America? No. But it will make an impact on your attitude toward it.

And think of it: if everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian in this country stopped renting those movies and downloading that music and buying those computer games and stopped watching sensationalist TV news, you’d better believe that would have an impact on our culture. Of course, we can’t control it. But we can do something about the choices we make. And that’s taking a step beyond the helplessness we all feel.

Peacemaking

There are bigger steps. Consider what James says in the New Testament: “The wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” And then this amazing statement: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (3:18). James means that those who plant seeds of peace produce a whole lot of good in this world.

Peacemaking goes beyond just saying no to sin. Peacemaking is actively saying yes to righteousness. It’s not just renouncing Satan and all his works; it’s actually advancing God’s kingdom of light in some places where evil has done its worst.

Making peace is also not the same as avoiding violence. In fact, making peace can place us in some pretty violent situations, but we enter into those situations to put an end to violence by doing what makes for peace. We sow in peace to raise a harvest of righteousness.

Professor Liviu Librescu, a holocaust survivor, was a peacemaker. When he threw himself in front of the door of his classroom at Virginia Tech and told his students to get out of that room by jumping out a second-story window, he was literally blocking violence from coming to his students. It cost him his life. Peacemaking is therefore not wimpish. It takes real courage.

When there’s a fight in the street in the middle of the night, it takes courage to do something to help stop the violence—even calling 911. It’s much easier to pull the pillow over your ears and go back to sleep.

It takes courage to ask your friend about her bruises or the cuts on her arm—who knows what horrors you may hear?

It takes courage to question parents who seem to discipline their children in a rage. Or to stop someone else’s kids from fighting. Or to ask a friend about why he’s so angry all the time or so fascinated with death.

It takes courage to be a mentor to someone just released from prison or to volunteer at a safe house for victims of domestic violence. It takes courage to reach out to an angry and isolated teenager.

Peacemakers do not avoid violence. They sow peace on some hostile territory. Nowhere do we see such costly peacemaking better than in Jesus. Jesus on the cross is a peacemaker. He sows his own body in the place of extreme and ultimate violence, and by doing so he raises up a whole harvest of rescued and redeemed men and women and children like us. That’s what his peacemaking has meant for us. And we follow this Prince of Peace.

Do you renounce Satan and all his works? Do something to say no to violence this week. But do something more—sow seeds of peace. Because peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. This is the wisdom from above—let’s follow it.


For Discussion
  1. Talk about places in your life where you experience violence. How does this impact your physical life, your spiritual life?
  2. What does it mean for you to “renounce Satan and all his works”?
  3. Name people you know who have worked against violence and for peace. What have they done?
  4. How can you plant seeds of peace in your family, neighborhood, culture, and world?
  5. What would encourage you to do this work?

About the Author

Rev. David Kromminga is pastor of Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

X