Is Baptism a Male Birthing Ritual? By Michele Stopera Freyhauf
Quite a number of years ago I had a conversation with one of my professors, a feminist theologian, who posed the question “Why do I need a man to purify my baby with the waters of baptism? Is there something wrong or impure about the blood and water from a mother’s womb – my womb?” Before you jump and shout the words Sacrament or removal of original sin, this question bears merit in exploring, especially in today’s world where women are taking a serious beating religiously, politically, and socially. In today’s world, violations and rants are causing women to stand up and say STOP! This is MY Body. This outcry was provoked by chants of ethical slurs against women– Slut! Prostitute! Whore! The cry got even louder when the issue of religion and government was raised in the fight of healthcare coverage of contraception. The cry got even louder with the enactment of the laws in Virginia and Texas (and many other states to follow suit) that forces women to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds in early stage abortions. The mandatory insertion of a wand into a woman’s vagina (mandated by the government, mind you), is a violation and has women crying RAPE!
The memory of this conversation did not re-appear by chance, it was prompted by a book I read for my History of Sexuality Class – Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context by Anne McClintock who addresses the notion of baptism through origins, property, and power. So many things are currently being taken away from women and reading McClintock’s assertion regarding male baptism is perplexing. She believes that male baptism or baptism by a man takes women’s role in child bearing and diminishes it. These are the same men who historically treated and regarded women as vessels. She further asserts that this act is a proactive removal of creative agency with respect to a woman’s ability to have the power to name. That is, the last name of the child belongs to the husband. A point that supports the notion that patrimony marks the denial of women. Anyone doing genealogy encounters a perplexing struggle to identify mothers because their names are essentially erased from memory and rarely attached to a child’s name.
Returning to McClintock’s statement about baptism, she believes that the baptismal rite is actually a “surrogate birthing ritual, during which men collectively compensate themselves for their invisible role in the birth of the child and diminish women’s agency” (29). Baptism re-enacts childbirth as a male ritual. “The mother’s labors and creative powers (hidden in her ‘confinement’’ and denied social recognition) are diminished and women are publicly declared unfit to inaugurate the human soul into the body of Christ. In the eyes of Christianity, women are incomplete birthers: the child must be born again and named, by men” (29). They also act as male midwives, and by using the waters of the baptismal font, the same waters blessed by the same man that is conducting this ritual cleansing – a cleansing that removes the mother’s tainted blood and water from that baby.
Patriarchy overruns women’s lives. Though people will argue a scriptural basis for this act because of Jesus’ action of being baptized by John the Baptist, it should be remembered who authored the text. Baptism, as it is referred to is derived from Jewish purification rituals that men as well as women will undergo when they are “unclean” and need purified. It is not a one-time event. In Judaism, original sin is not part of their teaching. It is never mentioned in the Old Testament. This teaching and understanding emerged from Augustine at a time in the Christian Church’s history that was overrun with patriarchal dominance. At a time, where women’s voices were being silenced either through martyrdom or through the emerging Christian church in the 5th century C.E. Prior to that, it was considered to be more of an initiation ceremony NOT a purification ceremony to remove original sin.
Women have emerged as mere property to a state of vast independence. However for all of the progress that we have made, we seem to be on a backslide. Thinking about what is currently going on in the United States and examining baptism as a removal or diminishing of a woman’s agency, what else can be taken away from us? What more of our lives can be controlled? Will we continue to backslide, or continue to cry out STOP – this time with a louder voice!
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She also has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Professor at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf and can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.