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Politics of Scripture

The Political Theology of Jesus’ Baptism: Towards a Counter-Cultural Lent

Lent can become a season of personal and societal transformation as people of faith respond to the counter-cultural call from Jesus’ baptism. It challenges us to examine our own attitudes and behaviours, encouraging a shift towards a more compassionate and just way of living.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good newsofGod and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:9–15 (NRSVue)

As the Lenten season begins, Christians globally reflect on the significance of Jesus’ embarkment on a transformative journey leading to his death and resurrection. Mark starts the gospel with Jesus’ baptism that he positions as a prelude to Jesus’ ministry. Exploring the meaning of Jesus’ baptism in the context of the first-century audience and seeking its relevance for the followers of Christ today becomes a pertinent contemplation as Christians embark on the Lenten season.

Inclusivity over Exclusivity

Jesus’ baptism stood as a counter-cultural act, challenging the familiar practices of his time by emphasising inclusivity over exclusivity.

The practice of baptism, or immersion in water, was not unfamiliar to the first-century community when John the Baptist initiated the ritual. The community was already familiar with this practice, likely influenced by their familiarity with the liturgical use of water in Jewish traditions. The Book of Leviticus, especially in its priestly source, places significant importance on the concept of purity, particularly concerning the ritual aspects of the temple. Purity and impurity indicate the status of individuals or objects in relation to the Temple. Top of Form

 For example, according to the law, individuals, particularly priests, were required to undergo cleansing by washing after specific sacrifices, and those affected by infectious diseases had to undergo ritual cleansing by water (Numbers 19:1-22; Leviticus 14,15, 16:24-28). This emphasis on ritual purity was closely tied to temple sacrifices and worship.

During the second temple period, various groups adopted diverse immersion practices, particularly highlighted by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which indicated that the Qumran community engaged in ritual purification as a prerequisite for community membership. Many scholars associate the Qumran community with the Essenes, and some even suggest that John the Baptist may have originated from this group. This group is a people who opposed Hellenism and the imperial power that prevailed in the later part of the Second Temple period. So, the ritual purification through water maintained by these groups mainly focused on accepting individuals into their community by way of purification and rejecting the imperial rule of that time.

The first element which is connected to Jewish ritual of water is understood in the context of purity and pollution connecting it with temple practices. The second element associated with the Essenes’ ritual with water is about including people into their community while separating or excluding themselves from rest of the world. In both cases purification seems to be a central theme of ritual immersion, whilst those that are considered impure have been excluded from the temple and from their community.

However, John the Baptist introduces a radical departure by shifting the emphasis from ritual purity to repentance, and from exclusivity to inclusivity. John, instead of focusing solely on external cleansing, urged individuals to turn inward, acknowledging and repenting for their sins. John’s call for repentance can be understood in light of Jesus’ baptism.

Mark quotes the prophesy from Malachi where the context is for the people of Israel and Judah to turn away from their wickedness, The prophecy that Mark quotes from Malachi warned about a coming day of judgment against unfaithful Israel and Judah.  In Malachi 2:17, the prophet declared, “You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, ‘How have we wearied him?’ By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.’ Or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?'” The next verse that presents God sending a “messenger” (Malachi 3:1) is quoted by Mark in describing the role of John the Baptist.

In the context of Malachi, the coming messiah will set things right and deliver the weak and disadvantaged from their cruel oppressors. By quoting Malachi, Mark is trying to say John is preparing the way for the Lord who brings justice to the world in the context of injustices. So, the repentance which John is proclaiming is a call to turn away from oppressing the poor and to live life justly. Jesus, for whom John has come to prepare the way is an epitome in offering an alternative way of life. In the Kingdom of God, baptism is a symbol of initiation, striving for such an alternative just way of living. Jesus’ baptism therefore is a public symbolic expression, lifting up justice and removing barriers that divides people. Jesus’s participation in this inclusive practice emphasises a departure from exclusion, signalling a new era characterised by openness and acceptance.

Reflecting on Jesus’ baptism becomes particularly significant within the framework of India’s caste system, where exclusionary practices are deeply entrenched, and a transformative message of equality is essential. The Indian caste system, deeply rooted in notions of purity and pollution, categorises individuals into hierarchical groups, with Dalits facing severe marginalisation. The caste system maintains untouchability (an insidious form of physical segregation) with religious authority grounded in the concept of karma. Karma, in essence, encompasses the sum of an individual’s actions, whether good or bad, shaping their future existence. This concept ties every current state to past actions, and current actions to repercussions in future lives. The interplay of karma within this societal structure has led to the marginalisation of certain groups, such as the Dalits, whose marginal state is attributed to bad actions in the past, rather than societal structures of inequality. This categorisation deems them impure, leading to their exclusion. Referred to as ‘polluted persons,’ the mere presence of Dalits is believed to taint the perceived ‘purity’ of those born into so-called higher castes. All these element work towards Dalits’ forced segregation and marginalisation.

For Dalit Christians, the act of baptism holds a profound significance, symbolising a liberating and inclusive act that breaks free from the caste system’s confines. By participating in baptism, Dalits become part of a community built on inclusivity, echoing the community initiated by Jesus through his own baptism. This transformative ritual signifies a departure from societal norms that label them impure based on birth or caste, thus challenging discriminatory ingrained beliefs.

In a caste-conscious society, baptism becomes a powerful symbol of equality for followers of Christ. It represents a spiritual rebirth that transcends societal divisions, dismantling barriers erected by caste-based discrimination. This transformative message challenges hierarchical structures perpetuating discrimination, emphasizing the intrinsic worth and dignity of every individual, irrespective of their social background.

Jesus’ baptism, within the context of the caste system, issues a compelling call to inclusivity, challenging the rigid boundaries imposed by caste-based discrimination. Through his acceptance of baptism, Jesus rejects the exclusivity embedded in the caste system, advocating for a more inclusive and egalitarian understanding of humanity. Baptism, therefore, holds not only spiritual significance but also serves as a catalyst for societal re-evaluation, calling for a more inclusive and just social order.

Resistance against Imperialism

Baptism, as introduced by John and embraced by Jesus, is counter-cultural because of its resistance against imperialism of the empire.

The act of baptism emerges as a form of resistance against imperial rule. If John is associated with the Essenes, known for opposing Hellenistic imperial dominance, then Jesus aligns himself with a movement that similarly rejects imperial power. However, a notable distinction arises: while ritual immersion in the Essenes community is meant for separation from the world, Jesus imparts a different significance to baptism—a commitment to a counter-cultural life within the broader societal context.

In the context of Roman imperialism, where the ruling elites held power over the country during Jesus’ time, the imperial system established a hierarchical structure that mandated obedience to authority. This extended beyond common regulations for all citizens, with individuals in the military required to pledge an oath, often referred to as “sacramentum,” to join the armed forces (Daniel G. Van Slyke, “Sacramentum in Ancient Non-Christian Authors,” 2005, 168). Emperors, asserting divinity, adopted titles such as gods and lords, reflecting the prevailing kingdom paradigm with which people were familiar.

In the unfolding ministry of Jesus, baptism stands as a powerful symbol of resistance and the establishment of a counter-cultural community, rooted in values of justice, compassion, and equality. It becomes an assertion of authority beyond imperial powers, challenging identity control by colonial forces.

Baptism, in the perspective of Jesus, embodies a resistance to imperial rule that wielded the power to include or exclude individuals based on their identities. Rather than advocating for separation, Jesus’ baptism challenges us to be countercultural within the world we inhabit. It calls for active participation in a movement that resists oppressive systems and societal norms. The transformative act of baptism, according to this understanding, signifies a commitment to live out counter-cultural values amidst the existing oppressive socio-political landscape.

Baptism involves a symbolic shift of allegiance. Instead of pledging loyalty to the prevailing political authority, in this case, the Roman ruler, individuals commit themselves to the principles and values of a higher, spiritual kingdom. This redirection of allegiance challenges the mainstream cultural narrative. Jesus’ baptism signifies such shift of allegiance.

Baptism signifies a personal transformation that extends beyond individual beliefs to impact social interactions and relationships. Participants are called to live out principles that challenge societal norms, fostering a counter-cultural ethos within the community. Jesus’ baptism is an expression for such a counter-cultural commitment.

Baptism creates a distinct community of believers who share a common identity and purpose. This community challenges established social hierarchies and norms by prioritising unity, compassion, and collective well-being over individual success or societal expectations. Jesus’ baptism is an act of solidarity with the rest of the people who came to be baptised by John, and Jesus becomes part of a community for change. The act of baptism often involves a commitment to a life of service and selflessness, countering cultural values that may prioritise personal success, wealth, or power. This emphasis on servanthood challenges prevailing cultural norms that prioritize individual achievement, which is exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus.

In essence, baptism of Jesus is counter-cultural as it challenges the status quo, redirects allegiance, fosters alternative values, and forms a community committed to a different way of living that stands in contrast to the prevailing cultural currents.

The political theology of Jesus’ baptism, as depicted in the Gospel of Mark 1:9–15, unveils a counter-cultural vision that carries profound significance for the Lenten season. As Christians partake in the season of Lent, the baptism of Jesus serves as a compelling call to challenge societal norms that perpetuate exclusion based on caste, race, gender, and other human made barriers. It calls people of faith to confront unjust power structures that exploit and marginalise individuals and communities. The baptism of Jesus becomes a transformative invitation, urging Christians to embrace a lifestyle aligned with the kingdom values of love, compassion, justice, and peace. Lent can become a season of personal and societal transformation as people of faith respond to the counter-cultural call from Jesus’ baptism. It challenges us to examine our own attitudes and behaviours, encouraging a shift towards a more compassionate and just way of living. Happy counter-cultural season of Lent!

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