National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

Election, stampedes and baptism


Before the recent election in Spain, al-Qaeda seemed to be killing people, well … just because. Without any achievable objective, without a negotiating agenda. Now, they might reasonably believe that randomly killing civilians can influence Western elections -- a short step from using the same tactic to influence government policy.

But although sudden and decisive changes of government usually look orchestrated, people don’t actually vote in full knowledge of others’ votes. They just react. All in the same way, all at the same time. It’s not an idea; it’s a stampede.

Let’s look at the banners that appeared in the handful of days between the massacre in Madrid’s subway and the massacre at the polls. They read, “Your war (Mr. President) -- our dead.”

I’m at that annoying age when the majority of my life is behind me, but I can’t retire yet. There’s almost always something from my past that relates to what’s happening now. Hearing about those banners -- “our dead” -- took me back to a church meeting in the 1980s. The subject was baptism, and the leader -- then a professor of theology -- was recounting a story from his once-and-future life as a parish minister.

A member of the worship committee -- a farmer, as most congregants were -- had come in all thoughtful one night. He’d been thinking about the meaning of baptism. Too much time on the combine, maybe. “Once we baptize these kids,” he said, “they’re ours. If we see one of our kids downtown, getting into trouble, we have to intervene. If we see one who has the ability, but not the money for university, we have to help them out. It isn’t good enough to say, ‘Isn’t that too bad.’ They’re our kids too. That’s what baptism means.” The committee meeting ended sooner than most that night, according to our raconteur. No one particularly wanted to hear about the radical cost of Christian community.

“Once they’re baptized, they’re ours.” It is a radical thought. Even more radical is the notion many Christians have that baptism is just the outward sign of an existing reality. So with or without baptism, that means they’re our kids too.

“Our dead.” “Our kids.” The headline linking with a 20-year-old memory put a shudder down my back.

Those kids out there -- the ones who are starving, dying, caught in labor bondage, struggling to find themselves, killed in the literal crossfire in ghettos and ruined in the metaphorical crossfire in upscale neighborhoods -- those kids are our kids too. And adults are just grown-up kids, aren’t they? We are one people, one family.

Your war -- our dead.

Yes, sir. We are all on that Madrid subway, we are all cowering under a barrage of smart and not-so-smart bombs, we are all trapped in the stairwells in the burning and collapsing towers, we are all conditioned to hate our cousins enough that we can blow ourselves up as long as we take some of them with us.

In this mess of action, reaction, counteraction -- at some level we are all victims. But we are all perpetrators, too, from someone else’s point of view. If we’re not literally dropping the bombs and having the nightmares, we are certainly trapped by our upbringing, by the berth we were born into on this lifeboat through space.

Your war -- our dead.

I’m tempted to say that there will be more killing before it’s over. That it will get worse before it gets better. But I’m feeling maybe that’s too optimistic.

Maybe it won’t ever be over. Maybe it won’t ever get better. Two thousand years ago, or so the Gospels tell us, Jesus wept on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!” he said.

Would that we did, too.

Your war -- our dead.

Peace is a big task. But maybe we could start here -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, blacks, aboriginals, whites, men, women, conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, young and old. Maybe we could start with a radical idea from a Canadian farmer -- an idea that a Jewish carpenter and a Hindu civil rights activist would recognize.

With or without baptism, they’re all our kids.

Isabel Gibson is a Canadian management consultant and freelance writer.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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