Vantage Points

Sacramental Torture: Sarah Palin, Baptism, and Waterboarding

Apr. 30, 2014

by Corey Markum

“...If I were in charge, [enemies] would know that waterboarding is how we’d baptize terrorists.” In these remarks that have now gone viral, Sarah Palin—author, politico, television host, and former Alaska governor—described this process (widely held to be illegal; almost universally held to be torture) in sacramental terms. The entire speech can be seen here, with the immediate context spanning roughly the 6:15–7:30 mark. Palin was a guest speaker at the National Rifle Association’s “Stand and Fight” rally, held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Palin is not the first to correlate torture-by-water with baptism (see, for example, this circa-2009 speech by Texas Senator Ted Poe), though the public platform and marked intensity with which she made the comparison is largely unprecedented in recent history. And if there were any doubt about Palin’s intentions or meaning, she recently defended and reaffirmed her statement on her Facebook page, deeming those who took offense at her analogy “overly sensitive wusses.” Yet I point out that she is unique in recent history, because her usage of baptism in the context of sardonic murder is but a recent manifestation of a rather old tradition.  

In a Western Christianity history course that I am privileged to teach at Freed-Hardeman University, I describe the intense vitriol and violence that marked religious divisions during the European era of reformations. Through much of Europe, the greatest threat to the lives and well-being of practicing Christians came from, well, other Christians. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, and others were hardly hesitant to utilize violence to achieve or maintain their view of doctrinal purity. But a faith community particularly marked for persecution—by virtually all of the above—was the Anabaptists. Often considered a subset of the “radical reformers,” Anabaptists most distinctly characterized themselves by their renunciations of state and nationalism in favor of a spiritual community owing allegiance only to Christ, their pacifism, and their belief and practice of “believer’s baptism” (“adult” baptism following a clear confession of faith). Among many variations of violence and persecution used by their adversaries, a favored means of punishment for Anabaptists was drowning. Because most converts to Anabaptism had been baptized as infants, their believer’s baptism was often referred to as “second baptism.” Building off of and mocking this designation, paedobaptist persecutors respectively labeled Anabaptist drownings as their “third baptism.”

Thus Palin’s analogy and the practice she so zealously endorses certainly have longstanding historical precedent. But while that realization is an important one and worthy of reflective consideration, it is the deeper spiritual and doctrinal implications of Palin’s words that inspired my greatest revulsion.

As a sacramental Christian—one who believes that God extends grace in and through the observance of Christian rites such as the Lord’s Supper and baptism—I believe Palin’s conflation of waterboarding with baptism to be, simply put, evil. Evil in the sense that the comparison not only mocks one of the most sacred actions of divine relationship, but that it inverts and defies the Christ-infused meaning of baptism itself. Throughout his teachings and ministry, Jesus of Nazareth introduced his followers and audiences to a radical ideology of peacemaking and reconciliation—one marked by enemy-love, unlimited forgiveness, and the relinquishing not merely of violence, but of hatred itself. In his injunction to “love as I have loved you,” Christ directed a profound and uncompromising standard of grace for his followers’ engagements with both friend and adversary. Righteousness was displayed not in the self-defensive slash of Peter’s sword, but in the self-sacrificial submission of Jesus to the cross. Justice was exhibited not in the annihilation of Jesus’ murderers, but in the consumption of death by resurrected life. Sin was defeated not by human wrath, but by divine grace.  

And among the many components of Christian faith and practice, perhaps none better illustrates the radicality of the Jesus Way than baptism. Baptism is nothing short of an immersion into the emptiness of the incarnated Christ: it is a dying to self and sin, a renunciation of the world’s definitions and channels of power, and a commitment to pursuing redemption for a fallen creation rather than the further destruction of creation. It was this transformative baptism that led the earliest Christians to preach the Gospel using every means available except violence. That inspired them to defy laws yet submit to those very laws’ consequences. That moved and empowered them by the Spirit to turn kingdoms upside down, but never to overthrow them. Baptism is the foundational and fundamental expression that we as Christians will not be defined by a fallen world’s understandings of justice, persuasion, diplomacy, and war-making. Evil will never be the solution for evil.  

That is why I reject and renounce Sarah Palin’s co-opting of baptism for nationalistic and militant purposes. Her message seeks to replace the grace-extending offering of sacrament with the dehumanizing coercion of torture. It seeks to present the assurance of the Holy Spirit—you have life anew!—with the lie of the flesh—you are dying!  And it seeks to undermine the Kingdom of God in the name of preserving the kingdom of man. May God forbid that we pervert the beauty and the holiness of His covenant in water and Spirit. In doing so, we would baptize ourselves into a far greater Hell than anything we could unleash on our enemies.

*Because it is nigh impossible to discuss a figure such as Palin removed from the specter of partisanship, I should issue the following disclaimer/disclosure. I subscribe largely to the “conscientious non-participation” political philosophy of my Restorationist forefather David Lipscomb, particularly as manifested in the modern ideology of Christian Anarchism (for one of the best synopses of Christian Anarchism, see this excellent article by Lipscomb University history professor Richard Goode). In other words, I eschew voting and formal partisanship, or even the quasi-partisanship of ideologies such as libertarianism. In further disclosure, I am a pacifist, and renounce violence as a form of diplomacy, retribution, or justice. I disclose all of that in order to say that though I am ideologically wired to oppose Palin’s statement on both political and militant grounds, neither of those approaches forms the primary basis of my criticism in this post. Instead, I seek to focus on the ecclesiological and theological role of baptism and the fundamentally problematic nature of Palin’s analogy in that context.