Monday, August 08, 2011

Cake or death?

Interesting item on this morning's Today programme, and on the BBC site, about the baptism of hundreds of Jewish children in Vienna in 1938, so that they could have baptism certificates which would help them get out of the Reich.

Not everyone is for it, which looking back does seem a little odd, but you do have to recall where these people are coming from. It is a sad fact that over the last 2000 years forced baptism has been offered as the only alternative to torture and death, both options very often carried out by the same people.

I would not say that this is the same thing. If I believed in any kind of God (and, oh look, I do) then to be worth believing in, he would be quite capable of looking into the heart of the lucky convert and knowing exactly what is going on. Anything else just reduces the baptism ceremony to the level of magic. "Sorry, mate, you've had the water treatment. You're now a Christian for ever and ever and ever, whether you like it or not, ha ha ha ha ha!"

Not everyone agrees with my enlightened insight, not even clever people like Jewish historian Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway, University of London, who
"... is appalled by what appears to him like a crass recruitment exercise of vulnerable people by a proselytising church.
"Any Christians who took advantage of the pressure on Jews to baptise them were doing just that. They were using leverage of the most terrible sort.[1]

"There were many other ways that members of the Christian clergy could have helped Jews - offering hiding places, false papers and other kinds of assistance.[2]"
[1] Well, yes and no, yes and no. If they were being expected to renounce their religion and their heritage for all time, else be shepherded into a waiting room from which the Gestapo could come and collect them, that would be one thing. If on the other hand the Revds Hugh Grimes and Fred Collard, who performed the ceremonies, knew that they were just doing this for show and had no expectation of the baptismees ever actually becoming Christian - so what? I repeat: this is not magic. God knows what's going on in your heart and that is what counts.

[2] Well, that may be so and it would make a great movie. Alternatively, for five minutes of your time and a bit of water, you get a Get Out of the Holocaust Free card. Why is that such a big deal? Let's see. Trickle of water on the head vs an expenses-paid sojourn to Auschwitz ... hmm, tough one. Let me think about it.

So with the hugest respect to Prof Ceserani, whilst humbling acknowledging and not in the least belittling the centuries of genuine Christian persecution of the Jewish people, I do have to say (as the ancients might have put it if they had Google Translate), transire ipse, te magnum crustum.


  1. Isn't this a choice between a public statement that you renounce your faith and death? I'm with you that there's no magic words and all that, but a public statement of apostasy might be considered to reveal a lack of faith, even if it were done with ones fingers crossed. Or folded into a star of David.

    And what's this motto "he pass, that you had a great PIE"? Am I using Google translate incorrectly? ;)

  2. It was the closest I could come to "Get over yourself, you big tart".

    I don't think renouncing your faith would have done any good for a Jew under the Nazis. The key thing - which I suppose I should have mentioned - was to have a bit of paper which, crucially, would let you get you out of the country. Neighbouring countries weren't letting Jews cross their borders. A baptism certificate got you through. Is all.

  3. I suppose the only dilemma is this. What does the baptismal paper say about you? Is it merely there to say that you have been baptised, in which case it is the truth? Or does it say that you are a Christian, in which case it is a deception?

  4. I see what you're saying -- I just thought that this is pretty analogous to the "renounce Christianity or be shot" scenario one hears of in Iraq and other places. Judging by the story the priest in question simply saw this as an effective way of rescuing people, which I'd say is entirely consistent with the call to love ones neighbour, but some might view it as an unpalatable choice.

  5. My baptism certificate merely records the fact, plus an exhortation to my godparents that they are to bring this child before the Bishop to be confirmed. And indeed, I think it's because of the resonances that people might instinctively find this unpalatable. However I think that when push came to shove you would have to be standing on your principles pretty firmly not to take the dunking option.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.