Is blood thicker than water?

This is the second of a three-part article.

By Donald Schell Merchant of Venice, Shylock, Shakespeare’s imagined Jew, faces forced baptism on the terms of those in power. The outsider Shylock’s dilemma mirrors the plight and bitter choices of Roman Catholics in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Spain in the same period was also reinventing baptism, posting a different question of desire, a question something like this, “Just who do you think you are to imagine you could desire baptism and that it would make any difference to your blood line?” It had taken Spain about a century to come to that question (which would never have been spoken quite like that – after all, the questioners were Christians).

In Cervantes Spain around 1605, most Spanish communities included at least some first and second-generation descendants of forcibly converted Jews (conversos) and Muslims (Moriscos). In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella had given Jews and Moors the forced choice of baptism or exile. Many left Spain, but many also chose baptism to stay, trying to assimilate as good Catholic Spaniards. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, his poignantly appealing, mostly harmless deluded knight and Sancho Panza, the reluctant peasant squire wander through a society obsessed with the question of whether conversos (descendants of converted Jews) or Moriscos (descendants of converted Muslims) deserved society’s acceptance and could be trusted with responsibilities alongside “Old Christians” (people like Quixote himself who could claim his family had been Christian, “since time immemorial”).

Ferdinand and Isabella had founded the Spanish Inquisition as part of their 1492 plan for nation making. The expulsion wasn’t enough – they wanted to be certain that conversions of Jews who remained had been sincere. Quickly enough their Inquisition extended its concern to the descendants of Jewish converts, and then to families of Muslim descent, and finally to its broadest task of investigating the reliability of conversos, Moriscos, and heretics of Old Christian stock and their descendants.

Have you ever wondered why Spanish cuisine includes bits of Jamon or why seafood Paella includes pork sausage? Spanish cuisine is deliberately not Kosher or Halaal. Serving ham and eating ham declared (to vigilant neighbors) a nonchalant Catholic freedom from Islamic and Jewish dietary restrictions.

Still neighbors, servants and rivals found it easy to question some ritual hint they thought they might have seen or heard or they could wonder what an offhand remark about salvation or heresy or independent thinking might have meant. If a servant or passerby saw a housewife lighting candles on Friday night – was it just for light? And did that servant (who had perhaps suffered an unwelcome reprimand earlier in the day) think her mistress’ sigh sounded like Hebrew? Was she muttering a Sabbath prayer? The Inquisition welcomed such questions, creating a massive (and meticulous) investigative process and manuals for questioning suspects of possible Jewish or Islamic practice, or scrutinizing even off-hand remarks that might imply someone asking wrong-headed questions, reading forbidden books, or teaching troubling doctrine.

After investigation and judgment the Inquisition held regular Autos de Fe, publicly staged rituals of ‘reconciliation’ for those lapsed or heretics who confessed and were penitent. For severe offenders, those the Inquisition judged inadequately penitent or guilty of heresies that made them dangerous to themselves and others (even after recanting), the ceremony ended with turning them over to the Crown for legal penalties from loss of property and forced labor to imprisonment and execution.

Alongside the Inquisition another investigative profession emerged, genealogical and social researchers who would interview all possible witnesses in one’s home village or town, and research and make certified copies of ancestors’ baptismal records generations back to certify NO Jewish or Muslim ancestors and NO convicted or suspect heretic ancestors. The New World colonies and wealth made 17th Century Spain a real land of opportunity, but political office, military rank, ordination in the church, university admission or appointment, or any work in the New World was only open “Old Christians” of impeccable lineage and demonstrably Catholic theology.

Your baptism and whatever you thought desiring it might bring were not enough. Only “pure” or “clean” blood proved your reliability. Whatever we might imagine the proverbial phrase “blood is thicker than water” means now, we inherited it from the widespread, popular opinion that blood inheritance trumped the waters of baptism so baptismal community was only as reliable as the purity of the members’ blood (ancestry). Versions of this English saying show up in many parts of Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

And for the Inquisition blood shaped every conversation. After all, wouldn’t the child or grandchild of a Jew retain some essential Jewish “stain”? Shouldn’t we expect that sooner or later the grandchild or great-grandchild of Moor would “revert” to Islam? Once a heretic? Always a heretic. “It’s in the blood.” We’re talking biology. The same thinking had the Inquisition scrutinizing the lineage and orthodoxy of wet nurses. The milk of a wet nurse descended from Jew, Moor, or heretic, like inherited blood, was considered irremediably determinative of Jewish, Moorish, or heretical character.

Maria-Elena Martinez’s Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico, and Stuart Schwarz’s All Can Be Saved, Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (like Antonia Fraser’s English history of the gunpowder plot) raise deeply troubling questions about how power and privilege reshaped baptismal practice and theology, discarding desire and grace in favor of inheritance and ancestry. And ironically the choices the Inquisition and society couldn’t trust were the same choices the same authorities had compelled a few generations before.

Remembering our history and these contradictions of church practice challenges us today to clarify what we mean by ‘baptismal ecclesiology.’ Though the church has always claimed the baptismal candidate’s desire was essential for baptism (with the intriguing, nuanced exception of infant baptism where the desire belongs to parents, godparents, and community), through much of Christian history, the Church has, in various ways has kept the prerogative to define, compel and extort ‘desire’ for the sake of the candidates’ good, or for the sake of good order or political and social unity.

Our own Church of England history made baptism by state-authorized ministers the decisive watershed for insider identity. In Spain and the Spanish New World baptism was deliberately diluted to withhold insider as the church judged kinship, origin, blood and mother’s milk a more reliable measure of Christian identity than good faith baptism. Both Spain and England manipulated baptism to protect entrenched power and established order.

In the Dark Ages, centuries before the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes, some early missionaries bringing Christianity to heathen Goths and Visigoths, Celts, Saxons, and other tribes in the remote parts of Europe took an expedient short-cut to evangelization – encouraging or allowing a converted local chieftain to compel all his subjects to be baptized. More recently and closer to home, some slave ship captains baptized “their cargo” of enslaved Africans bound for the Spanish, Portuguese and English colonies probably congratulating themselves on the Christian charity that saw to what these unwilling baptismal candidates “really wanted.”

The church has found that enforcing baptism and withholding baptism can work equally well to enforce insider privilege. In the English colonies, sometimes slavery was enforced by withholding baptism, thus protecting slaveholders from laws that would have given rights to the baptized.

In living memory both the U.S. and Canadian native schools systems deprived native children of language, customs, and religion and often forced or ‘encouraged’ baptism as part a process of cultural assimilation.

What do these baptisms warped by power teach us new about baptism?

First, the history prompts us to ask hard questions about ourselves. For all of us, deep-seated fear of the stranger or outsider, and fear of losing our own power, in fact any fear that clenches God’s baptismal grace in our own hands and control will make us mistrust baptism. Unless our trust in Christ’s embrace of all is stronger than our fear of ‘the other,’ the stranger, and the outsider, our practice will proclaim that blood is thicker than water. Then our anxiety about the mixed character of our own faith and morals will recoil from those ‘others’ and strangers on whom we project our own faithlessness, impurity, and inherited, irrepressible immorality.

This history also makes me wonder how to free baptism into Christ from the church’s alliance with power. All this religious rationalization of oppression in Christ’s name has found some theological justification, most commonly a disingenuous asking, “Who wouldn’t want to be enrolled as a child of God and grafted on to the Body of Christ?” But honestly asking, “Do you desire to be baptized?” gives decisive power to the candidate. When the question is truthful and open, the baptizing church and minister make themselves servants not just of Christ but also servants of the candidate. Might this reversal of power be essential to ‘putting on Christ?’

This history of Christian betrayal of baptism leads directly into the American tragedy, the institutionalization of racism in the land of freedom.

In Limpieza de Sangre Maria-Elena Martinez argues that Catholic Spain’s obsession with bloodlines and pure descent gave us Europe’s first political attempts to define distinct races, a way of defining people that Protestant English colonies would turn into civil law.

In Virginia, 1675 Nathaniel Bacon and a few wealthy landowners mobilized widespread discontent among black and white indentured servants to defy the royal governor, leading genocidal raids against local Indians. Before the rebellion collapsed, Bacon’s men had turned on the capital itself and burned Jamestown to the ground. In 1676 the new laws of a restored Virginia Commonwealth cannily divided the indentured servant class whose angry alliance had wreaked such havoc. Making America’s first legal definition of race and racially based slavery of African Americans gave white indentured servants a small level of privilege and rank to defend. Virginia Commonwealth’s divide and conquer strategy pitted poor white against poor black and the laws held for almost three hundred years.

The Inquisition in New Spain had shaped the racial definitions that Virginia wrote into law. The practice of defining ‘pure blood’ unstained by Jewish, Moorish, or heretic ancestry was elaborated in the New World as Spain baptized Indios (Native Peoples) and Negros (Africans). Separate baptismal registries divided by what we now call race ranked baptized Indios over baptized Negros, while distinguishing both from conversos and Moriscos. Of course lust, love, and sex crossed the boundaries and to preserve the separate registries and complex baptismal consequences of these unions, New Spain was the first to define different “blood” for different races, and to gives names to degrees of “mixed blood” and designate where to record the illegal mixed offspring’s’ baptisms.

Through this long, Transatlantic political and theological struggle that privileged social place and race (blood) over leveling community in baptism (water), a few brave clergy, religious, and laity defended baptized Conversos’ and Moriscos,’ as well Indios, Negros, and Mestizos legitimate place in church and society. These more compassionate voices argued that when anyone had a genuine conversion of heart, baptism truly did define who they were.

In fact, even in its blunted form the Gospel narrative and sacraments continued to open hearts. The work of God is stronger than our betrayal of it. Some of us can only guess how faith began to matter to the descendants of our distant ancestors who’d been forcibly baptized. But in recorded American history, in the Black Church, Black preaching, Gospel music, and our homegrown synthesis of Self-Help Religion and Liberation Theology witness to the power of Gospel story and practice.

Spain has its own powerful evidence that even forced baptisms could change and open people’s minds and hearts to simple, faithful following of Christ. St. John of the Cross was probably a Morisco and his mystical poems synthesize Jewish Song of Songs Mysticism and traditional Moorish-Arabic love ballads. John’s friend and mentor Teresa of Avila, the only woman the Roman Church has designated a ‘Doctor of the Church,’ was the daughter of a converso.

Fortunately for the church, Teresa and the Spanish Inquisition were both long gone, with Teresa duly sainted with her books in print and widely read when 20th century historians determined that as a young boy Teresa’s father had been marched through the streets of Toledo on Good Friday, spat on and pelted with garbage with his parents wearing the yellow robe Jews were forced to wear for this annual ceremony of derision and scorn. Immediately after that Good Friday, he had his family ‘convert,’ bought a title and royal papers to certify their “Old Christian descent,” and moved them to Avila where their neighbors would not know their history as conversos.

The grandfather’s ruse had been so successful that no one is certain whether Teresa herself know her heritage. But she lived her trust in the sacramental power of baptism and the Spirit’s presence in people’s hearts, courageously welcoming conversos and Moriscos into her religious order. The Inquisition didn’t use the word “inclusive” but they suspected Teresa didn’t ask hard enough questions of her novices’ background, though they never managed to get the evidence against her that they sought. A generation later in Cervantes’ time even their suspicion would likely have cost Teresa everything.

It matters to us to understand that all this is our history. With killing consistency, the church, our historic leaders and most ordinary Christians have refused to stand by their own baptized sisters and brothers in Christ. The seed of the church’s long failure to accept Christ’s power and purpose of making us one, of Christ drawing “all people” to himself flowered and bore fruit in 19th and 20th century theories of master races and inferior peoples. Evolutionary scientists followed the lead of a church-formed society, crafting theories that distinct races weren’t made so by God… but evolved separately on different continents. Progress? Was this scientific self-deception or the big lie? Either way the fruit was genocide, extermination of Native Peoples, the Nazi holocaust, Hutu and Tutsi slaughtering one another, and more.

What theological antidote can we find to the damage we’ve done ourselves with believing that blood is thicker than water? How does the Spirit of Truth break through our oppressive constructs to change ordinary people’s hearts and minds? What if we go back to the wellsprings, to Paul and the Gospels?

How can baptism nudge us toward hope that God is saving and uniting humankind? Tomorrow – All Can Be Saved.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is

President of All Saints Company.

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