In one of those turns of thought that sometimes open like a door, I wondered this morning how the Philippian jailer and his conversion in Acts 16 might have been greeted if he were to try baptizing all his household today.
Then [Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.
This is not the only time when an entire household was baptized. Just a few verses before this story, Lydia of Thyatira is baptized with all her household. As a successful business owner, her household likely included servants or slaves. The jailer’s family doubtless included a wife and children. In the modern instance, wouldn’t our first question be whether the central convert had imposed a chosen faith on a collection of dependents who had not chosen it?
Verses such as these are part of the argument for infant baptism, indicating a precedent whereby the “age of reason” or even basic egalitarian agency seem to be missing from the decision to become Christian. What can we make of that now, surrounded by voices declaring that everything, absolutely everything, should be a choice?
Today’s secular western culture would object to this baptism hastily and heartily. Did the jailer’s wife want to be baptized? Did he ask her? Even if he did ask her, did she really feel free to object if she wanted to? Were Lydia’s servants actually converted, or did they receive baptism in the same spirit as they received the roof over their heads and their inability to leave it of their own free will?
Little, if anything, is known about the actual historical people in question. We don’t know even the jailer’s name, let alone the identity of his family members, and Lydia’s household is equally cloaked under thousands of years of lost information. We can’t know what they thought, or why. Speculation is all that remains to us.
Thus, I speculate that this question of consent and freedom is wholly modern. And that it is modern not simply because, at least in the secular west, we no longer own slaves, we allow women to vote, and far more decision and intelligence are attributed to children now than may have been then. (One could argue that we attribute less to them, as they are boxed into a supervised and regimented existence long after their ancient counterparts would have been able to fend for themselves on the streets. But that is a topic for another day.)
The question of whether it was fair for the jailer, Lydia, and others to baptize their entire households is modern because it is based on a modern understanding of religion. Religion now is a legal right, a choice, an act of self-expression, and something considered safe to choose or not choose for oneself or others. In the time of Acts, religion could hardly be called by that name at all. It was almost a default – a powerful, expected force, something no one could or did imagine the world without. The idea of choosing a religion was more a question of whether you guessed right, whether you safely attached yourself and your loved ones to the real God, the right God, the God who could protect and save you and was attentively considering your every move and responding accordingly.
Seen in that light, God was as vital and ordinary as food or water. Stunned and convinced, the jailer would no sooner have decided to convert by himself than he would have chosen to provide any other necessity only for himself, while his household languished and died in want.
It reminds me, surprisingly, of an old Peter, Paul, and Mary recording of a folk song called, alternately, Bahamian Lullaby or All My Trials. The speaker in the song is a mother on her deathbed, comforting her children by reminding them that her suffering will be over soon, and that the Tree of Life and paradise are awaiting her. The religious imagery seems odd to me for a song that became popular in the 1960s, when perceived conventions of every kind were overthrown. Yet there it is. And in this song is a line that speaks directly to the jailer and his family, and Lydia and her household.
“If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.”
If the jailer, the male and the wage-earner for his family, the only member with something approaching power, were to hear the Gospel and keep it to himself, it would not be a sign of respect for his family’s liberty or self-expression. It would be an act of selfishness, even cruelty, and a direct violation of the generous Christ he had so newly embraced.
This is what we have lost, I think. There is much of the old world that deserved to die, and perhaps nothing more so than slavery and oppression. But in our striving to avoid those old wrongs, we have formed the habit of avoiding too many other things besides. We are frightened of conviction, wary of acting on behalf of anyone but ourselves. It’s as if we no longer trust discernment, or truly believe there is anything beyond the tangible to discern. If everything is personal and relative, our sense of rightness, our faithfulness, somehow becomes a flaw.
Can we even imagine that moment of conversion? Could we step into the wretched prison and hear the hymns? Would we survive the earthquake and the suicidal urge to destroy ourselves before the destructive judgments of our peers can do it for us? What shattering beauty must have been his as the jailer risked his life to bring these prisoners home and bathe their wounds. The world as he understood it up to that point had ended. He had no precedent for men who praised God in shackles, who stayed when they could have escaped, and who offered him salvation when vengeance would have been understandable, even expected. He himself was likely outside the limits of his own imagining. If someone had asked him the day before whether he would risk his life to save two hymn-singing prisoners, how would he have answered? Who in his world could even have formed the question?
And so I conclude that our relativity has, ironically, made us rigid, unable, unwilling to peer outside the acceptable rut. It is our courage that suffers most, in this age of judgmental tolerance and litigated freedom. More even than physical courage, do we lack mental courage? Are we still able to conceive that what we cannot accept exists, that it is even possible for it to exist? Are we able to believe that the common judgment of reality is no more final and perfected now than it was when Paul and Silas lay in prison and were free?