Remembering Baptism

Date posted: Thursday 10 January 2019

Last weekend one of my great teachers passed away. During my time at Yale Divinity School I was privileged to take several courses with Lamin Sanneh. A true gentleman and a highly regarded scholar, he was a central figure in the field of World Christianity and the study of Christianity in Africa.


As many of our congregations gather to retell the story of the Baptism of Jesus this coming Sunday, I offer the following description of Sanneh's own experience of baptism for your consideration and reflection.


When at the age of 18 I approached a Methodist church in the Gambia with a request for baptism, thus signaling my conversion to Christianity from Islam, the resident senior minister, an English missionary, responded by inviting me to reconsider my decision. And, while I was at it, he said, I should also consider joining the Catholic Church. My conversion obviously caused him acute embarrassment, and I was mortified on account of it.


However, his imaginative solution of my linking up with the Catholic Church did not work out; after a year of vain attempts I returned to the English missionary. After assuring me that the baptism of the Methodists was recognized by the Catholics, he agreed in principle to receive me into the church.


At that stage of my life I would have joined the church on almost any condition, for I had this absurd idea that the gospel had marked me out for something, whether for reward, rebuke or ridicule I did not know; whatever it was, I felt inexorably driven toward it. On the night of my baptism I was overcome with emotion, finding it hard to believe that my wish was being fulfilled. Not even the thousand tongues of Methodist hymnody could have given utterance to the avalanche of thoughts and feelings that erupted in me.


I make this extended autobiographical introduction to indicate how in the liberal Methodist tradition I first encountered the guilt complex about missions which I have since come to know so well after living more than two decades in the West. I have found Western Christians to be very embarrassed about meeting converts from Asia or Africa, but when I have repeated for them my personal obstacles in joining the church, making it clear that I was in no way pressured into doing so, they have seemed gratefully unburdened of a sense of guilt.


This brief story is part of a larger article on 'Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex' that first appeared in The Christian Century in April 1987 that is also worthy of your attention. As a precursor to Translating The Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, in it you'll find an initial articulation of Sanneh's understanding that, properly pursued, "Christian missions are better seen as a translation movement, with consequences for vernacular revitalization, religious change and social transformation than as a vehicle for Western cultural domination."


With gratitude for the gift of Baptism and all with whom we share those waters,



The Rev. Peter Harrits

Director of Bega Kwa Bega and Assistant to the Bishop