R. Alan Streett
Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance
Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018. Pp. xx + 182. Paper. $25.00. ISBN 9781498228404.
Reviewed by Justin Marc Smith, Azusa Pacific University
R. Alan Streett has produced an incredibly helpful text on baptism as an act of political subversion, first in the Roman Empire, then with potential in a variety of contemporary contexts. Streett accomplishes this task by first reorienting the discussion of baptism as counterimperial through the language of sacrament in the first-century Roman context (sacramentum, a term not used in the New Testament) and then by engaging in a close reading of the relevant New Testament texts on the subject of baptism. The results are insightful and compelling as they lead the reader in the direction of understanding baptism as an act of resistance.
Streett arranges his discussion into eleven chapters. In some ways, chapter 1 is the most helpful as it defines the key terms (taken directly from the title of the book). Even well- known and straight forward terms such as Caesar (which is contrasted with Jesus as “Lord” ) are treated with care in order to support the central thesis of the book: baptism functions as a “symbol of death to the present world-order” and an oath of allegiance to the kingdom of God (7). This connection is deepened by the definition of the term sacrament, which came to be used to denote the oath a Roman soldier would take upon entering the Roman army (2). This term was later reappropriated by Christians and others as part of initiation rites (4). Here resistance is expressed in the ritual of baptism. Streett argues that baptism serves as a boundary marker for those in the kingdom of God and should be an inherent rejection of the empire of Rome. Streett seeks to remind the reader that the radicality of this ritual has been forgotten by the modern church and that the modern church has forgotten its call to “a different kind of life” (11).
Chapter 2 sets baptism within the historical/literary context of Israel. Streett primarily does this through linking baptism to two foundational concepts that shaped Israel’s national identity: the kingdom of God as an oppositional to the kingdoms and empires of the world; and the Mosaic covenant as it presented Israel with an “alternative political system” (14). Streett argues that it was precisely the rejection of this alternative political system by the kings of Judah and Israel that led to the destruction of the north and south and led to the collective captivity and subsequent dispersion.
Streett presents a fairly standard presentation of life under Roman rule in chapter 3. Here he presents the realities as a series of extreme dualities: dominator/dominated; ruler/ruled; rich/poor. These realities work their way down to the local level through the military, economic, social, and political machinations of the empire. These harsh realities set up a series of resistance movements to Roman imperial power by the Jewish population. Streett argues that these resistance movements in turn set the table for the preaching and actions of John the Baptist and Jesus. Both heralded the immanent establishment of the kingdom of God and issued a call to a return to the “alternative political system” of covenant and kingdom. According to Streett, both John and Jesus envisioned baptism as a ritual of repentance from the political orders of the world.
Chapters 4 and 5 pull together the messages of John the Baptist and Jesus into a sharper focus. Streett sees John’s message as one of “political deliverance” from Rome and the “Jewish national retainers” (40). This form of baptism was an act of repentance from the political allegiances the people had made with Rome and their retainers and a call to submit to the rule of God and a return to the covenant of Moses via economic and social justice. It was a call to ethical reform away from the unjust political powers and kingdoms of the world (50). The powered elite’s reaction to John’s message was rejection, arrest, and death. Streett’s treatment of Jesus and baptism centers on Jesus’s own baptism at the hands of John vis-à-vis Roman imperial implications. Here “the relationship between resurrection and kingdom, and their link with baptism” is examined (66). This link is traced through the nature of Jesus’s baptism as a declaration of his allegiance to the kingdom of God and Jesus as a king in opposition to Caesar.
This link is also explored through the connection of resurrection to kingdom establishment/reestablishment as envisioned first in Ezek 37, then in Isa 24–27, and finally in Dan 2, 7, and 12. The overarching point is that, while the empires of this world have the power to destroy, they do not have the power to resurrect. That power belongs to God and is a key facet of God’s empire. Jesus reconstitutes Israel symbolically and enacts the realities of the kingdom of God through his ministry. He is killed as a subversive leader oppositional to Rome (like John the Baptist). However, his resurrection indicates that death is not a lasting function of the kingdom of God, and each call to baptism represents a call to participation in and allegiance to this kingdom over all others (Matt 28:16–20).
Chapters 7 and 8 take up the role of baptism in the book of Acts. Chapter 7 focuses on the role of baptism in the preaching of Peter on Pentecost in Acts 2. Streett reorients the preaching of Peter away from question of baptism as requirement for salvation and shifts the focus to baptism (once again) as a revocation of an allegiance to the kingdoms of the world. To be saved is to be saved into the kingdom of God and not an exercise in personal salvation. According to Streett, Peter’s call to repentance and salvation is a call to place allegiance in the kingdom of God and to repent from such allegiance’s elsewhere. Chapter 8 traces the practice of baptism in Acts as an act of sacramentum: Phillip’s baptisms in Samaria and the Ethiopian eunuch; Paul’s own baptism; and Paul’s baptisms of gentiles. Streett’s overarching concern with baptism is not on assessing when or how the gift of the Holy Spirit is received but on the fact that all believers in Acts respond through baptism and that this serves as sacramentum into the kingdom of God (111).
Chapters 9–11 round out Streett’s treatment of the subject as they explore Paul’s baptizing activities in Acts, Paul’s teachings on baptism in the undisputed epistles, and, finally, the treatment of baptism in the General Epistles and Revelation. According to Streett, Paul’s various baptizing activities (baptisms) in Acts further indicate the role of baptism as sacramentum and an act of allegiance to the kingdom of God and away from Rome (121– 22). In Paul’s undisputed writing, faith and baptism go hand in hand. For Paul, to believe is to be baptized. Entry into the kingdom is through faith, but baptism is the “locus where the faith commitment is made” (139).
The last chapter of the book continues to explore the theme of the connection between “kingdom restoration, Jesus’ resurrection and baptism” in the remaining New Testament texts (157). Streett’s point is that the Jesus movement was/is a resistance movement and baptism was/is an “entry point” into the kingdom of God as a kingdom that was and is diametrically opposed to the kingdoms of this world. The challenge of the kingdom of God was first offered to Rome and serves as a challenge to the current empires.
Streett’s work here is useful. The text lacks deep engagement with critical approaches to reading the New Testament, and Streett demonstrates a charitable reading of the New Testament text that does little in the way assessing the historicity of the texts in question. More could have been done to engage a growing body of work on empire criticism. However, the text serves as an excellent entry point into the counternarrative found in the New Testament as it relates to empire. This would work well for those who are interested in working into the subject but may not be prepared to engage with the more critical approaches. Streett demonstrates that a careful and methodical reading of the texts can produce important insights. While the central insights of the book are not novel (i.e., the Jesus movement and its practices were pro–empire of God and anti–empire of Rome), the path to these conclusions are still beneficial.
What Streett has produced here is admirable in its potential to open up the exploration of the challenge to empire (both past and present) to a wider reading audience. Streett’s call to regain the “consciousness of baptism as a rite of resistance” and the “mandate to embrace and exhibit an alternative ethic in the midst of a culture of domination” (11) remains significant in the current context.
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