First, let me just apologize now for the tone I am about to take in this post. It will not be dignified, and will probably be quite polemic. The recent media frenzy over baptism for the dead – something I personally hold as sacred – has really gotten under my skin. So, here I go venting some of my frustration.
The hoopla has now expanded from being over Jewish holocaust victims to other prominent figures of the past. A recent NPR article talks about the outrage over the proxy baptism of Jan Karski, a Catholic who witnessed the holocaust and provided information to allied forces. E. Thomas Wood, who wrote a biography on Karski, has expressed his disdain on the matter expressly (even if he is generally ignorant on the practice): “I know what his faith meant to him, and I know he would be outraged at this effort to appropriate his mortal soul for another religion,” adding “Attempting to convert him to another religion after death strikes me as precisely the type of intolerant act he stood up to oppose throughout his life.”
Really? It pains me that during this “Mormon moment,” people are more interested in peddling this smut rather than taking this opportunity to try and better understand this largely marginalized minority. But enough of my personal lamentations. Let’s dissect Wood’s comments:
Karski would be Outraged?
For clarification, it should be pointed out that baptism for the dead has absolutely nothing to do with anyones mortal soul. The person is dead; that is, they are beyond the realm of “mortality” in the view of Mormons (and, I imagine, most other religious persons). So no one is trying to “appropriate his mortal soul for another religion.” Wood’s ignorance is already piercing through his indignation.
With that point made, it now seems worth asking: assuming there is life after death, you really think Karski would care? Let’s play out a few scenario’s:
1. If the Catholic Church is true: Presuming that the Catholic faith is correct, and are therefore right about what happens in the afterlife, then Karski is currently enjoying himself in heaven, has a glorious union with God and is experiencing unspeakable joy. I highly doubt he has any concern whatsoever that some misguided mortals did some non-efficacious ordinances on his behalf. If anything, he (being unified with God) probably was touched by the love and concern these people demonstrated for his eternal soul (more on that below). Or, perhaps if God is the “unmoved mover” who is without “body, parts, or passions,” as some Catholic theologians have taught, then I don’t imagine that Karski (again, being unified with God) would be feeling anything at all. Regardless, it is doubtful that the act means much of anything at all to him, and certainly not “outrage.” I just don’t imagine that kind of reaction from a person in a heavenly state.
2. If some Evangelical form of Christianity is true: More specifically, if the variant form of Evangelical Christianity that condemns Catholics is true (since others would not result in a substantially different result than number one). If this is the case, Karski is currently suffering endless torment in hell, because despite his noble acts, he chose the “wrong Jesus” (as some say of both Catholics and Mormons alike). I seriously doubt that what some stupid Mormons did in their temple on his behalf is of any concern to him as he burns in hell. If anything, he is perhaps regretting the fact the ordinances were not efficacious and failed to save him from his tormented state.
3. If the Mormon Church is true: In this case, then Karski is probably enjoying his time in spirit paradise, grateful that someone on earth had enough concern for his fate to perform these ordinances. Or, perhaps he rejected the act. Okay, fine. He has that agency, and if that is the case, then the act has no impact or meaning, and he may thus be suffering in a state of spirit prison. However, I prefer to think that some so noble on earth would have the ability to appropriately discern in the next life and make the choice to accept the act (remember, we are speaking hypothetically as if the Mormon faith is true).
We could multiply the number of scenario’s based on any other belief about the afterlife (or lack thereof), but I think this is sufficient. I can’t think of a single situation wherein Karski would be “outraged” that this happened. In fact, the only scenario in which I imagine he even gives a crap at all is if the LDS position is true, in which case he is more than likely grateful rather than “outraged.” Just because it outrages you doesn’t mean it outrages the deceased (for whom you presume authority to speak on behalf of; I guess now we are both acting vicariously for the dead. Ironic, isn’t it?). And this is what strikes me as bizarre about the whole baptism-for-the-dead tantrum being thrown by the general populace right now: if you don’t believe the Mormon faith has any power over the afterlife, why the heck to you care who they have baptized for the dead? Seriously folks, there are people who are committing some seriously heinous crimes out there, and you all want to get your panties in a bunch over who the Mormons have baptized by proxy? Come on!
I find it entirely hypocritical that ignorant religious bigots have the audacity to crusade under the banner of “tolerance.” Where is the tolerance for the Mormon belief and practice regarding the deceased in all of this? Furthermore, I haven’t got that slightest idea how proxy baptism could – if accurately understood – be thought to be “intolerant.” Allow me to explain the beliefs and practices involved.
You see, we Mormons believe that God prescribes certain ordinances which must be performed by certain authority. When this happens, we believe the “gate” for salvation has been opened. You can think what you want of this belief, but that is what we believe. Now, we fully realize that the vast majority of people who have lived and died will have never had access to these ordinances and authority. This is where baptism for the dead comes in. We believe that because God wants everyone to have a chance at receiving these ordinances, he reserves final judgment, and instead sends everyone to a spirit world, where they are given the opportunity to learn about the gospel and choose to accept it. But, they still need the ordinances by proper authority, which we believe must be preformed while living in the physical world. Therefore, we believe it is necessary for us to be baptized on their behalf.
Now is that really so malicious? More to the point, is that really “intolerant”? Forgive me if I am just naïve, but the notion, held by some of other religious faiths, that all who disagree with them are consigned to eternal hell strikes as far more “intolerant” (though I’m not sure that is really an appropriate word to use about what people think of the afterlife). To the contrary, I find this concept quite tolerant. I find in it a God who is patient and tolerant with his children’s shortcomings, realizing that they all will come to understand him at a different pace, and that some of them may need more time than this mortal life will afford. I see in it a God who is understanding of people’s individual circumstances. I also see in it a people (those “sinister” Mormons) who are genuinely concerned over the salvation of those who have gone before.
In short, I tend to agree with Krister Stendahl, the former Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden, former dean of Harvard Divinity School, and a well-respected New Testament scholar. Stendahl became well-informed about baptism for the dead – not the just LDS version, but also the role it plaed in early Christianity. Commenting specifically on the LDS version, Stendahl said “it’s a beautiful thing.”
It is a beautiful thing. It is an act of love and compassion on the part of those performing the ordinance in behalf of the honored and revered departed. In my not-so-humble opinion, people who find out that their ancestors or historical figures they respect have been posthumously baptized by the Mormons ought to pleased to know that someone cared enough about that person to do what they believed was in their best interest.
[As an afterthought, I wonder if anybody has done the proxy work for Stendahl? Would it “outrage” some people if this prominent Lutheran theologian had been baptized vicariously? I think it is quite ironic that some people would probably be incensed over something Stendahl himself almost certainly would have seen as a gesture of love.]