At one time I believed that baptism offered me a new beginning. Mine took place at sunrise on Easter morning. I lived in South Florida at the time and will confidently impart that even the tropical waters of the Atlantic are cold at 6:00 am in March. I shivered as the icy water crept through the fabric of my dress and st-st-stuttered the word “yes” to each of the pastor’s questions. Felt his hand around my back and a rush as I went down into the dark, cool water to release my past. I rose to applause and arms outstretched. I licked salt from my lips and felt daylight’s roseate glow through my sleeves, wet and white.
Over 800 people were baptized with me that morning. The voices of their respective parties competed with the screeching of seagulls and the disinterested, rhythmic lapping of waves on the shore. These melodic sounds, woven together, were the backdrop to a magical, mystical, liberating thought:
I am a new creation.
On rare occasions, I am asked why I was drawn to religion. I wasn’t raised in a religious household, but was curious enough to try it on for size as an adult. Though it’s clear to me now that many of the teachings are negative and harmful, Christianity does have its selling points. This concept of being reborn, erasing past mistakes, having a do-over…well, who could ask for more? When I rose out of the water that Easter Sunday, I no longer had to confront my wrongs. I could evade the painful process of addressing the underlying causes of many of my poor decisions. I could throw away the cigarette without acknowledging the teenage angst that led me to my first puff. I could sweep my past under a rug of sea and sand, change into dry clothes, and start my life again as a 35-year-old newborn.
Now in defense of Christianity, baptism is only intended to be a public confession of belief. According to the Bible it is not required for admission to heaven, nor does it automate any physical or emotional healing. However, the concept of baptism being a figurative death and rebirth with Christ is certainly derived from scripture (Romans 6:4). This is the belief that induces a positive sensation in the believer, the story of dying and being reborn with no sins through a simple profession of faith and subsequent dunking.
If I was happy to be forgiven of my potty mouth, my lust and the occasional bender, just think how happy baptism must have made Gary Ridgway, Jeffrey Dahmer, or David Berkowitz. How nice to know that it doesn’t matter whether you rape, kill, or dismember people. You still get a free pass to heaven! Meanwhile this guy, who is spending his life feeding and caring for the poor, will be punished for all eternity because he’s not Christian. Baptism and the “salvation prayer” are such convenient recruitment tools! As I’m writing this, I can almost watch it like a con artist scene in a silent film, the scene that makes you laugh because it is so transparently absurd.
The downside to religious rituals (like religions themselves) is that they can be mistaken for a magic button. When the addict gets “saved” he is not automatically free of addiction. The lack of proper intervention can lead to continued addiction, suicide, or death. In the US, children have fallen gravely ill or died when parents have relied on prayer to heal them, denying them access to standard medical treatment. Mental illness may go unrecognized and untreated in the Christian community, perhaps because it conflicts with the societal perception that religious people are stable, happy, and making healthy choices. In fact, according to this source, most serial killers in the United States were raised in strict religious homes.
You probably already figured out that the old, sinful me didn’t die that morning in the cold Atlantic. It was a beautiful sentiment, and it impacted my life in a concrete way. But the truth was, I was still me. I was no better equipped to deny myself that cigarette the day my husband packed his things and left me with a crying toddler. The “new me” sent him text messages that week that would make Richard Pryor blush from the grave. Along with the coping skills I needed to face this new one, all of my past sorrows and prior rejections wormed their way to the surface. I had not buried them eternally under that rug of sea and sand. And I wasn’t sorry to see them.
I was relieved.
It took me years to come back completely. Without the convenience of divine forgiveness, I had to go back and pick through my mistakes. I had to forgive myself for the things I knew I had done wrong. But as hard as that was, it was harder still to “un-forgive” myself for things that weren’t so wrong after all. Christianity had spent years teaching me that my “old self” was shameful, sinful, and embarrassing. When I broke free from religion, I was able to combine the scattered chapters of my life into a cohesive and beautiful story. I didn’t need to erase the lovers of my youth, or repent of jokes I’d shared, or passions I’d felt, or stories I’d written (occasionally under the influence of whiskey straight). All those things made me strong, artistic, compassionate, complex, me.
Why would I want to die and be reborn? I love the me that was born the first time! I love my scars and intricacies, my lusts and passions, and my curious, wandering soul.
May 2018 bring clever anecdotes to add to your wondrous life story!