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Torture Is to Baptism as the Demonic Is to the Holy

04/29/2014 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2014

During Holy Week (the week before Easter) this year I got a voicemail on a day that felt too hectic to deal with voicemail on a landline. Who does that anymore? The message was "Hi, This is Alan Ginsberg. I'd like to get baptized when the bishop comes to St. Mark's."

The Poetry Project at St. Mark's in-the-Bowery in New York City was founded by Allen Ginsberg and other poets back in the day, the Allen Ginsberg. This was clearly another Alan Ginsberg, but I now eagerly check voicemail on my landline several times a day, and I have a "favorite voicemail ever" file.

Alan Ginsberg and I met to discuss baptism, and he was baptized when the bishop came to St. Mark's. To be baptized in the Christian community as an adult means to publicly profess a faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God; to promise to follow his life and teachings in the context of a Christian community that will love and support you to do so; to promise to reject the powers of evil that are destroying the world; and to promise to work to overcome them. Alan was ready to do so at 60, and we were honored to support him.

Sarah Palin has recently made the news a little for comparing the torture of suspected terrorists by the United States to a kind of baptism into how we do things. The use of the term baptism in the context of torture is demonic.

William Stringfellow the Episcopal layman/lawyer/theologian, considered among the finest theological minds of his time, wrote extensively about what the apostle Paul calls "principalities and powers" in the New Testament and in the Hebrew Scriptures, Satan or the angel of death. A biblical term Stringfellow used to name them both was demonic. By demonic he meant forces of death that defy God's deepest desire and intention for creation, which is its flourishing.

What does that mean? For Stringfellow principalities and powers are institutions and ideas, the kind that run our lives: banks, corporations, government, religious institutions, ideas like racism, equality or homophobia. Institutions and ideas do not have to be demonic, they can be of God or life-giving, but he writes that their inclination, linked to the idea of the Fall at the beginning of creation, is towards the demonic, a perversion of human possibility, a constant hovering danger.

So why is equating torture to baptism demonic? Baptism is the primary sacrament of Christian people. All but the Salvation Army do it. It is the welcome rite by the community, and it is the acknowledgment for a Christian person that a Creating God calls us to more holy living than we can manage on our own. It links us to an ancient heritage of people who have tried in their time and place to be bearers of the Christ light. It symbolizes being born anew into a vision of a Creation that has not fallen -- beyond our imagining healing for ourselves and the world. Good stuff.

Torture is the abuse of a body for the purposes of the torturer. It is demonic. It is known to produce the effect of the tortured telling the torturer what they expect to hear or anything at all they need to say or do to make the torture stop. It violates international conventions that govern the international community. We as a nation are an outlier among our peers in even considering that torture is defensible.

How else can a torturer be satisfied but to be indulged? Where is the pursuit of truth in that? We lie to ourselves, collectively, and permit the abuse of human beings, sometimes to the point of death. It is demonic. Christians would have to be the clear-headed, courageous people who would reject it first.

But, here we are as a still nominally Christian nation, with a politician who claims to be Christian, speaking to a self-professed Christian audience comparing the abuse of a human person for its own sake to our most holy sacrament.

So, why is this demonic and not just something I think is wrong? We are told that the nature of demons is that they know us. They call us by name, the Bible says. They occupy those tender places between our unrealized potential and our fear or society's fears. They speak to and from those most vulnerable places where hope is created and most desperately needed. Those places that rely upon faith, Demons introduce ideas that betray our compassion. They destroy our faith. Faith is the capacity to risk because of what we imagine might be possible, not what we know for sure. Demons remind us we do not really know anything. Demons remind us that faith is naive. Demons tell us we shouldn't speak out for fear of being mocked. Demons tell us our fears are justified, and hatred and violence are appropriate responses to the challenges of this life. Demons try to keep us tied to our worst selves as individuals and as groups of people. The principalities and powers of this world tell us this evil is necessary.

To take the most holy and life-giving rite of our faith and compare it to torturing a prisoner is demonic. C'mon Christians, shine some of that light of resurrection. Don't let the demons have the last word.