[Listen to Audio] “Choosing to get pregnant in a war is the closest experience I’ve had to the experience of getting baptized.”
In her wartime pregnancy, Sara Miles began a journey into suffering and love whose redemptive meaning cracked open in her Baptism. Unique as it is in its details, her story is the story of all the baptized. (“By Water and Fire“)*
Sara Miles got pregnant in the fall of 1988 while she was covering the civil war in El Salvador as a reporter. It was a brutal conflict. As she recalls, “Pretty much every morning during that fall of 1988 I’d go out and learn that a body had been dumped in the ravine [at the end of my street].” (“By Water and Fire“)
Death squads descended on men, women, and children. Military and guerrilla forces sprayed each other with bullets on public streets heedless of civilians in the line of fire.
This was not a safe place—or even a sane place—to be carrying a baby, especially for someone who could simply fly back to the United States. And yet, she was swept away by a longing for new life.
Before her pregnancy, Miles had reported other people’s suffering. But she had remained at a safe, journalistic distance.
Now that she was carrying a child in her own womb, suffering had become personal. She writes:
I saw hungry kids, maimed kids, lost kids, scared kids, sick kids, shot kids…. Night after night, I knew mothers and fathers were still awake, waiting for their children to come home alive. I was heading straight into that suffering, as well as into love. (“By Water and Fire“)
Miles felt in her own body what every parent I know can tell you. When your child hurts, your own heart breaks. Parents are forever vulnerable to the world through their daughters and sons. And Miles’ own tender vulnerability gave her a visceral feeling of solidarity with the sufferings of all those parents and children around her.
Baptism would provide the crucial redemptive element to the wartime lessons of suffering and love. Suffering for others can lead to new life.
Miles came to faith as a forty-something. She chose to be baptized. Or more accurately, a longing for new life drew her to the font. This was especially baffling for her, her friends, and her family. None in her circle had a religious bone in their body.
Her parents had raised her as a secularist. Over the years she had found no reason to think of religious beliefs as anything more than superstition.
For no apparent reason, she had wandered into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. Having not the slightest clue about what was going on, she stumbled her way through the liturgy and received communion.
When she took the bread and wine into her mouth, she knew instantly that Jesus had entered into her. That this Jesus character is real and really conveys himself to us in those humble elements. Well, strictly speaking this experience did not compute for her. What she tasted and felt clashed with everything that she understood to be true.
In time, and with considerable intellectual and emotional wrestling, she yielded to her desire for new life. She got baptized. And this is what her Baptism revealed:
Sometimes I felt so uplifted by the thought of being special, marked as Christ’s own, that I forgot baptism wasn’t about me. And it wasn’t about the event, the particular day the water would wet me…. I was baptized … into the crucifixion of the world. And into living, daily redemption. (“By Water and Fire“)
Like Miles, we are a all baptized into solidarity with each other’s suffering and hunger for new life. And we are baptized into Jesus. Jesus embraces and redeems the world’s suffering through our hands and feet.
Miles puts it this way:
For me, it’s about actually doing the work that Jesus gives his disciples: feeding, healing, touching the ritually unclean, forgiving, raising the dead. And entering into this work, following Jesus, allows us to believe what seems, on the face of it, ridiculous: that God has faith in us. That God trusts us — people no better or smarter or more faithful than the cowardly housewives and fishermen he chose as his disciples — to bear God in our bodies and do God’s work in the world. (“So Dang Jesus-y”)
We are the Body of Christ. We “bear God in our bodies.” Jesus loves through us to heal and renew our scarred and weary world.
The redemptive power of suffering and love helps us understand why Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek. (Matthew 5:39) Our first impulse is to avoid pain and to do what it takes to survive.
News reports and history books are filled with a common human story. We habitually depend upon the threat of violence to prevent others from hurting us.
When someone injures us or insults us, our animal impulse is to strike back, to hurt our attacker worse. We seek to bruise and to intimidate our opponents into fearful submission.
In other words, we seek to minimize our own suffering, even if it comes at the expense of someone else’s misery.
Jesus is very clear. This way of walking the planet will leave the world wounded and disfigured. Instead, Jesus teaches us to take up our cross and follow him. Only love—in all its vulnerability to the suffering of others and all its risk of injury to ourselves—will heal and transfigure the world.
So, when Jesus says,“Do not resist an evildoer,” he is not advocating passive submission to cruelty and abuse, oppression and deprivation. (Matthew 5:39) Instead, Jesus wants us to resist evil without becoming evil ourselves.
My friend Bishop Nick Knisely of Rhode Island shared a helpful clue about dealing with nastiness on social media that applies to the Christian response to evil and violence: The solution to pollution is dilution.
Don’t respond to nasty tweets or inflammatory Facebook posts in kind. Flood social media with truth and kindness and generosity.
Likewise, instead of trying to crush evil, overwhelm evil with good.
Feed the hungry. Help addicts get sober. Teach job skills. Share your support net with those who are falling through the cracks. Befriend the bullied. Not in condescension. But in solidarity.
Don’t withhold yourself for fear of injury to body or soul. Do the good that’s right in front of you. Every day.
Our own small acts of compassion and decency might not seem like much in this big, dangerous, aching world. But together, the billions of the baptized are a mighty force. The healing force of Christ’s own suffering love.
Be patiently relentless. Jesus’ love is not a magic wand. It is a centuries-long rising tide. From time to time it seems to recede. But eventually, the suffering love of Jesus will cleanse this world of hate and cruelty, degradation and persecution. And that love will flow through frail and fragile hands like ours.
*Check out Sara Miles’ Take This Bread and Jesus Freak to get richer, deeper detail. You won’t regret it.