A Theology of Immersion

Comedian Brian Regan tells a great joke about spiderwebs. For many of us the reaction is dramatic when walking into a spiderweb: arms flailing, freaking out at the invisible strands that have just accosted us. There are legitimate reasons for people to not want to walk into spiderwebs; a spider web is quite literally a device created and placed to trap and devour prey. But to anyone watching the drama unfold from afar, the whole scene appears far less rational, looking more like someone just buckled under life’s pressures and gave into insanity. “Did you see that guy?” Brian asks in character. “He just snapped!”

I can’t help but think in our recurring cultural divides that this joke has become a sad metaphor. There are those of us who judge from afar, pridefully thinking we know what is happening, but in reality we are too far removed to see the spiderwebs that entangle those crying out for justice. Their cries leave some bystanders astonished, thinking that they just saw someone walking peacefully down an ahistorical road suddenly snap for no reason.

Christians profess to serve an omnipresent and immanent God, and as his children, we are called to reflect those attributes in incarnational and immersive community. It is a call to proximity, listening, learning, growing, and serving. But this sadly isn’t often what the church looks like. It is no wonder that the trend of racial isolation (in and outside the church) leads to a lack of understanding and concern for the cries of those hurting. In their book Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe how this isolation breeds a sort of apathy and ignorance to the larger problems involved in healing deep societal wounds.(1) As Ravi Zacharias reminds us, “It is Christ who shows that unless a person’s pain is understood, one will never understand a person’s soul.”(2)

Several years ago in my seminary studies, I first heard about a man I would come to greatly admire, Samuel Hopkins. Hopkins was an 18th century Congregationalist minister (the most direct denominational descendants of Puritanism) and the closest disciple of New England theologian Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was a slaveowner who opposed the slave trade, but not slavery. Like many Christians in that day, he would have understood Africans as spiritually equal but naturally inferior and failed to see how his own theology convicted him. Yet Hopkins, who had previously agreed with Edwards and owned a slave himself, just one generation later would become one of the most ardent opponents of the slave trade and slavery itself, calling for immediate abolition and emancipation. He would even argue, quite ahead of his time in an era when many considered Africans to be a cursed race, that they were created by God “free and Equal with ourselves.”(3) And he did not just consider them spiritual equals, but equal “by nature, and by right,” which all could understand if they were able to rid themselves of prejudices.(4) So how did Hopkins rid himself of his own prejudices? By immersion in community.

Hopkins settled in Newport, Rhode Island, to begin his new role as minister of the First Congregational Church in 1770. A prominent woman of faith there, Sarah Osborn, had been holding prayer meetings in her home since 1742 due to the former minister’s struggles with alcoholism. Those meetings had turned into full-blown revival by 1765. There Osborn welcomed all, including enslaved Africans, though she was criticized by several ministers for doing so (not just for allowing Africans, but also for taking a leadership role as a woman).(5)

Through Osborn’s prayer meetings and proximity to slaves, Hopkins began to hear firsthand accounts of what slavery truly was and how it felt. The loss of dignity, the ripping apart of families, the harsh treatment. Ultimately, it was the inability to fulfill what Hopkins’s friend, enslaved African poet Phillis Wheatley, called a divine principle that lives in every person’s heart “which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”(6) The docks were not far from where Hopkins ministered. He more than likely saw many an African family ripped apart on auction blocks. His prejudices were confronted with reality. He was finally close enough to see the spiderwebs that entangled, and he was changed by the experience. He would be transformed by the close relationships he entered into here, and by those black saints he would later befriend.

Hopkins soon found that he was not the only one with an experience like this. He began to find others like Anthony Benezet, Moses Brown, and Granville Sharp who were part of the abolitionist cause. His mind was opened to a whole body of literature from people who had traveled to and studied Africa. Hopkins in humility had to admit that his ideas had been blatantly wrong. His understanding of the total depravity of man meant that it was no shock to him to think that a dominant culture would seek to domineer and create systems to oppress another culture for their own selfish purposes. What he learned must have felt, then, like a shock, but also no shock at all. He had his eyes opened to the bloody reality of racial discrimination. In this instance, the American colonies had “blood on their hands” and were under a curse because they “deface the image of God in [slaves], and set up in ourselves the image of the Devil, the Great destroyer of men.”(7)

It is no surprise that this is the method used by Jesus to confront the prejudices of his own disciples. He did not just tell them a shocking parable about a Good Samaritan; he confronted them with a Samaritan woman who became the first evangelist to Samaria. He showed them faith par excellence in the actions of a Canaanite woman, a woman from that most ancient enemy of Israel. From afar, they saw wickedness, but up close Jesus showed them Image and humanity. We were created for community, and Jesus died for the vertical and horizontal reconciliation of community. Bonhoeffer reminds us that first, as in the case of the disciples, we must pastorally “listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God.”(8)

What we are being called to in this world is not to spread a message of God’s love without ourselves living God’s love in ethical action. No, we are called to share this message and listen for cries of help and seek justice, as this is to love our neighbors.(9) We are called to restore shalom in vertical and horizontal dimensions. The call to immersion in community is like baptism: the genuine heart will not remain unchanged. Let us seek immersion in the milieu of the other so that they may be other no more.

Derek Caldwell is a writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) See especially chapter 6, “Let’s Be Friends,” in Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2000).
(2) Ravi Zacharias, The Logic of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 54.
(3) Jonathan D. Sassi, “‘This whole country have their hands full of Blood this day’: Transcription and Introduction of an Antislavery Sermon Manuscript Attributed to the Reverend Samuel Hopkins,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 112, no. 1 (2002): 89.
(4) Samuel Hopkins, A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans (Norwich, CT: Judah P. Spooner, 1776), 34, in Early American Imprints, Series 1: Evans 1639-1800, no. 14804.
(5) Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 217-288.
(6) Phillis Wheatley in a private letter to Rev. Samson Occom, a highly respected Native American convert, published in the Connecticut Gazette in March of 1774. In Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 153.
(7) Sassi, 67.
(8) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 99.
(9) Isaiah 1:17; Micah 6:8; Matthew 25:40; Luke 11:42.

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