I have a new essay today on CNN that I thought I'd share with the community here. I approach Palin's "baptism" comment not from the perspective of a Christian offended by her blasphemy, but as a historian.
Palin's public rhetoric relies on crafting existential binaries between "us" and "them," creating a kind of sacred empowered victimhood among her listeners. She draws from the language of militant Christianity to claim the status of both persecutor and persecuted. This is not an accident.
I'm an historian. While people of faith are concerned about blasphemy, I worry about history. When powerful Christians such as Palin start speaking about forced baptism to a cheering throng, they evoke, intentionally or not, some of the worst episodes in Christian history. Here's one.
On Valentine's Day 1349, the citizens of Strasbourg, Germany, rose up against the Jewish population of their city. The Chronicle of Mathias of Neuenburg describes it as follows:
"And so, on the following Saturday (February 14), the Jews were conducted to the cemetery to be burnt in a specifically prepared house. And 200 of them were completely stripped of their clothes by the mob, who found a lot of money in them. But the few who chose baptism were spared, and many beautiful women were persuaded to accept baptism, and many children were baptized after they were snatched from mothers who refused this invitation. All the rest were burnt, and many were killed as they leaped out of the fire."
This is just one of the many examples of forced baptism of Jews and Muslims under threat of massacre. Notice the specifics. The Jews were forced into a building, stripped, robbed and burned alive. Their only pathway out was through baptism and rape. As parents died, babies were taken from their mothers to be baptized.
The church condemned these practices, but if someone went into a church and was baptized, even under threat of death, it counted. Such issues led to the terrible excesses of the Spanish Inquisition in which forcibly converted Jews and Muslims were held under constant scrutiny and suspicion.
There's the history. Here's the present:
When Palin stood before the huge crowd of mostly white people, she told her audience to be afraid and to be prepared for civilian violence. She spoke about "that evil Muslim terrorist Maj. (Nidal) Hasan ... his Allah Akbar (sic) praising jihad." She said, "Ammo is expensive, don't waste a bullet on a warning shot." She divided the world between "us" and "them," with no room for dialogue. At one point she pretended to apologize for saying all liberals were hypocrites, then joked, redrawing the divisive line, "I'm kidding, yes they are."
Finally, she said, "If I were in charge," and paused to let crowd cheer. Then, with great deliberation, she linked a torture method that makes the sufferer feel like they are dying to the ritual of Christian inclusion. The crowd went wild. "Thank God," she said, "more and more Americans are waking up." I don't read her invocation of a deity as accidental. For Palin, this is a holy struggle.
I conclude by talking about her use of "blood libel" and argue that, "Sarah Palin and her followers want it both ways. They are the persecuted chosen people of God, targeted by lies and threatened with violence by those who do not share their faith. They are also the Christian triumphalists, ready for a Day of Reckoning in which all will be converted or destroyed."
This is not a mistake. It's not a joke. It's very dangerous.
UPDATE: Thanks for all the recommends, and especially thank you for reading.
UPDATE 2: I don't agree with all of you, but I love that we can have a thoughtful conversation. Thank you.
I am a freelance columnist, blogger, long-time Kossack, and History Professor. You can read my blog at How Did We Get Into This Mess? This diary is an edited version of today's blog post.
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