Perhaps you’ve heard by now Sarah Palin’s infamous comment about that if she were in charge, “they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” The crowd at the NRA annual meeting went wild with applause.
Aghast, commentators from across the political spectrum chastised her for employing the sacrament of baptism as a torture device. And, unsurprisingly, Palin refuses to recant. And why would she? She wants “to put the fear of God in our enemies.” This is the mighty god she serves.
This rhetoric is the medieval language of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. In other words, this is the well-aged language of institutional power and violence. It’s worse than simply a case of bad taste. It’s an appeal to a kind of political theology that does not even feign a nod to just war theory. Palin’s god weaponizes his (sic) sacraments, inverting their signs and points of contact from the desire for flourishing encounter to the desire for inflicting debilitating pain. Palin’s god is simply cruel. And theocratic Palin proclaims that she would enthusiastically and readily employ such cruelty for the “defense” of our nation.
This kind of language isn’t something suddenly brought back from centuries ago. Back in 1990, the controversial prosperity gospel televangelist Benny Hinn made a similar theological threat against fellow evangelist John MacArthur, who disagreed with his teachings. Hinn wished that he had a “Holy Ghost machine gun” and wished he could “blow your head off.” Hinn’s PTL audience, like Palin’s NRA audience, cheers and applauds.
I am not attacking Pentecostalism. I am citing two examples of how theology is utilized by two public, influential conservative Christians, who perceive themselves threatened. They weaponize key theological aspects that provide protection, the former being the ritualized performance of Christ’s death, resurrection, and triumph over death and suffering and the latter being the Paraclete, the Helper. The difference between Palin and Hinn is that Palin muses about political power and might in the inter/national political circus. Hinn only has his studio and TV audience, his Bible, and a personal axe to grind. Still, both examples are not a healthy engagement in theological debate. It’s a hit job.
Palin’s unsophisticated worldview is fairly easy to ascertain. When she speaks of the threat of (her word) “annihilation” of Americans, she metes out beyond-eye-for-eye retribution against her enemy. “Terrorists” are not people and they should not be treated as such. In her act of dehumanization of her enemies, she dehumanizes the ritual, act, and meaning of baptism. She transforms something integral to Christian life into an accessory to American imperial power and abuse. She readily recommends waterboarding as a sanctioned tactic, if she were in charge. Such rhetoric travels beyond Biblical narrative and ventures into actual crimes against humanity.
In Christian theology, baptism is the ritual burial and resurrection to new life. In the CIA’s torture tactics, waterboarding is the real drowning to near the point of death. Baptism is death. Waterboarding is dying. Baptism is time conquered. Waterboarding is time stretched to seeming infinity. Baptism is in public. Waterboarding is in black sites. Baptism is in community. Waterboarding is in isolation. Baptism is in love. Waterboarding is in hate. Baptism is by choice. Waterboarding is by extraordinary rendition. The readily-available dialectics go on and on.
But I think that it’s worth examining Palin’s own understanding of her baptism and her “life-changing moment.” Contrast her idea of terrorist baptism with her own:
Palin’s weaponizing of baptism – even in the realm of rhetoric – is to go beyond even the limit of the Constantinian shift, when and where Christianist geopolitical power is legitimated into the institutional structures of the nation-state, itself. Palin and her NRA audience become something new and viciously creative, hellbent on acts beyond retribution and into the surplus of suffering disguised in appeals to and apologies of righteousness, freedom, and self-determination. Palin transforms personal baptism from, in her words “a confession of faith” into a state-sanctioned weapon of sustained pain, suffering, torture, terror, and oppression.
Andrew Sullivan, contra Palin, accuses her of fascism, writing
Except it’s worse than that. Even totalitarian regimes have publicly denied their torture. Their reticence and lies are some small concession of vice to the appearance of virtue. Not Palin – who wants to celebrate brutal torture as the American way.
And then she manages to go one step further. She invokes torture in the context of a Christian sacrament. Not since the Nazis’ Deutsche Christen have we seen something so disgusting and blasphemous in the morphing of Christianity into its polar opposite.
This woman, this elected official, the 2008 GOP nominee for Vice President, baptized as a young teenager in an Alaskan river with friends and family, who professes Christ as her Lord and Savior, celebrates and incites violence beyond violence to an audience whose identity is grounded in the unfettered access, display, and use of instruments of violence. This weaponization is an act of creative evil. In her casual, off-the-cuff, unrepentant comment, she reveals the nationalistic civic religion of the Tea Party that offers not Christian love, grace, or forgiveness, but rather the creative cruelty once reserved for the bloodthirsty Olympian Ares, himself.