Caesar and the Sacrment

Baptism--A Rite of Resistance

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R. Alan Streett
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , January
     202 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When the early followers of Jesus Christ were baptized, they participated in a rite of political resistance against the Roman empire. In baptismal waters, they pledged fidelity to a Lord other than Caesar and were ritually inducted into a radically different kingdom where there was no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. So argues R. Alan Streett in his sequel to Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century (Pickwick, 2013). 

Prior to engaging New Testament texts, Streett begins with context (chapters 1-3). Two specific points are stressed. First, Streett considers the meaning of the term “sacrament” within its Roman context. In the empire, sacramentum referred to a soldier’s oath of allegiance to his comrades, to officers, and, ultimately, to the emperor. For Streett, Christian baptism paralleled this practice. As a ritual act of oath-taking, baptism was a pledge of loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord. 

A second point regards the story of Israel. Following the lead of such scholars as Norman Gottwald, Walter Brueggemann, and Richard Horsley, Streett interprets Israel’s story as one “of life amid exploitative greedy empires” (xi). In that political context, intentional practices were necessary to maintain Jewish identity. As Brueggemann says in the book’s foreword, the people of Israel were an “anti-royal resistance movement” sustained by ritual acts that instilled “a dissident identity” (xi). Streett contends that the early Christian movement, as an heir to ancient Israel, was also a resistance movement to Roman authority. 

Streett’s argument pivots on John the Baptizer and the baptism of Jesus (chapters 4-5). John “launched a non-violent anti-temple” movement of political deliverance (41).  His practice of a preparatory ritual of purification by immersion symbolized a turning away from present allegiances and a reorientation to covenant faithfulness. Jesus was an insurrectionist whose life, death, and resurrection challenged the status quo of any human political order and reimagined the present and future in light of God’s reign. Streett makes much of the Gospel of Luke’s emphasis that at his baptism a dove descended “in bodily form” on Jesus (Lk 3:22). Luke used “in bodily form” as a literary device to convey to his readers that Jesus’s baptism had counter-imperial implications. Luke’s use of avian imagery (a dove, not the eagle of Roman domination) and his unique description of the Spirit’s descent and rest on Jesus’s body signaled Jesus as God’s choice to rule the world. 

In light of Jesus’s baptism, Streett attends to the story of Jesus through the interpretative prism of baptism, resurrection, and the restoration of Israel as the renewed people of God (chapter 6). He interprets Jesus’s story using three resurrection passages from the Hebrew Bible (Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 24-27, and Daniel 2-12), since each “is situated ‘in an imperial context’ and carries ‘clear counter-imperial force’” (65). The gospels tell the story of Jesus gathering and commissioning his followers to undertake a counter-imperial mission to baptize disciples into a new community of belonging and unleash a revolution in the power of the Spirit. 

In the remainder of the book (chapters 7-11), Streett persuasively argues for the centrality of baptism in the New Testament as a liberative, political act of allegiance and obedience to Jesus as Lord. He engages the Acts of the Apostles, several of the undisputed Pauline letters, as well as Ephesians, other epistles, and the Apocalypse. It is noteworthy that Streett ignores the Letter to the Colossians, an epistle that could bolster his argument. Overall, the line through these texts is that the message of the resurrection of Christ in the 1st century was essentially a counter-imperial, subversive proclamation (157). Energized by the public act of baptism, believers who joined the body politic of Christ committed to an alternative way of life in the world, freed from and in defiance of imperial expectations. 

I gladly welcome Streett’s strong case for the centrality of baptism as a rite of resistance in the New Testament. He consistently and persuasively argues that baptism placed believers at odds with Caesar and the Roman imperial system. “Christian baptism was an intensely political act that symbolized one’s death to the present world order and allegiance to an all-encompassing kingdom of God” (7). While this quote references the cross, Streett does not obsess over linking the death of Jesus to the political nature of baptism. Neither does he ignore the cross in his argument. What I am gratified to see is a stress on the resurrection of Jesus in his analysis. To be immersed into Christ’s redemptive love and then raised as a new creation in Christ was (and is) to embrace a “holy insecurity,” a pledge to act justly and peaceably in generative and liberative ways without the security of theoretical or political structures. 

Indeed, Streett contends that the political nature of baptism as experienced by early Christians has been lost in the contemporary church. Without offering a supporting argument, Streett asserts that in the post-Nicene era shifts in understandings of “sacrament” led to a spiritualized view of baptism that obscured its political character. It may be more appropriate to say that in a post-Nicene era the political significance of baptism shifted to its role in the project of Christendom. Streett assumes, in some measure, a “Constantinian fall” narrative of the church, which is highly contested by some historians, theologians, and ethicists. Despite this assumption, I believe he is right to assert that the role of baptism in the project of Christendom has resulted in a profound amnesia of baptism’s political significance as a rite of resistance, which is how it was understood by the earliest Christian communities. While Streett identifies the harmful condition of amnesia, he does not offer any form of therapy as he calls for Christians to re-learn that baptism capacitates persons for transformed public life. Such therapy can be found in Michael Budde’s The Borders of Baptism: Identities, Allegiances, and the Church (Cascade Books, 2011). Engaging a range of issues from immigration and race, to peace, war, and globalization, Budde explores the theo-political implications of being baptized into Christ. Budde’s excellent book on the seriousness of baptismal commitment could be paired with Streett’s much-needed biblical study of baptism as a political rite of non-violent resistance.

About the Reviewer(s): 

 Mark S. Medley is Professor of Theology at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

R. Alan Streett is Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas. He is author of Subversive Meals (Pickwick, 2013).


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