Locating the ‘glocal’ in baptism

Most of us probably traveled “home” at some point during the holidays. Why? Because there is no place like home. 

But if your family is like many today, you can have one son with three family units to visit, another son with four, a 90-year-old mother who lives half the year with one of your siblings and the other half with another, and more. Divorce and distance are common guests at the holiday table.

Home may be like no other -- and it can find us on the road at the holidays. We experience our multiple placements, our mobility, our family messes acutely during the time so unfairly simplified by slogans like “to grandmother’s house we go.”

Environmental wisdom understands the value of both local place and global place. We understand exile as well as place, diaspora as well as settled. Sometimes we nickname this wisdom the “glocal.” We know we need roots and that we are often rootless.

Oddly, baptism is a place where we can find both the local and the global integrated. We are baptized into particular local water. The water may even be polluted, as Steve Thorngate said in a December essay for Christian Century magazine. He and his wife walk along the Chicago River, a marvel of muck as well as a marvel of technology. Once dirty, it is now (sort of) clean.

In the piece, Thorngate described his baptism in the backyard swimming pool of his pastor; in doing so, he brings us to a theology of baptism that is glocal. He also reminds us of the great flood prayer of the theologian Martin Luther: “Through the baptism of your dear Son, you sanctified and set apart the Jordan and all waters as a blessed flood.” Indeed, we may get a glimpse of Jesus the man at Bethany, becoming particular, and Jesus the God, as he began his adult wandering.

Another theologian Thorngate references, Gordon Lathrop, says that baptism is locative and particular, as well as liberating and global. Lathrop noted that the local is often insular and enjoys the purity of one kind of home. He also said that baptism is subversive, turns us toward the world’s great uncleanness. The insular often goes toward purity, the global toward mestizo. And mess. 

Baptism joins us to a particular community and a universal one at the same time. We belong not only to God but also to our place of origin. We belong not only to God but also to the whole earth.

“Downton Abbey” may help us understand the relationship between the whole and its parts. In “Downton” the lead character is often viewed as “the house.” The story also unites upstairs and downstairs, in a way similar to the way baptism unites local and global, servants and masters. Environmental wisdom is a kind of advanced placement. It locates us in both our home place and our exiled place.   

Anyone who looks deeply enough at their own life will find that this earth of a house -- and house of an earth -- is the lead character in their lives, too. It matters where we come from, how we treat the whole. What is “said in the garage does not stay in the garage,” as much as we might hope for that kind of privacy and its painful disconnection.

You can’t just parachute into your glocal home. Nor can you just call it in. Whether you want to or not, like it or not, you live in the house, with all the others.

Voters increasingly want elected officials with deep local roots, people who were born and raised with their constituency, even if the constituency wasn’t born in the district itself. People want somebody who knows what is happening with the local river. People don’t like people who “call it in” or “parachute” to power. They want a bird who has found its branch, a barnacle who has found its boat.

Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore said that “Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for the tree.”  Aesop told a great truth in his tale “Country Mouse and City Mouse.” Both wanted to be where the other was.

Environmental wisdom joins folk wisdom in being expansive enough to understand that home is both local and global. One is too small, the other is too large. We do live stranded by our baptism and also secured by its wisdom.

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