Baptized by Selma

By: Geoffrey Holsclaw

Having watched Selma almost two weeks ago I am still processing it. But I want to share my first impression, my very first thoughts during the movie.

I guess I missed the memo, but I didn’t know Selma began with the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. It totally shocked me. I was unprepared and undone.

Undone not just in a moving-going kind of way, but in a very personal and experiential way.

You see, last summer I helped with our youth’s mission trip to Birmingham and we spent some time in the Civil Rights Institute there. A huge room was dedicated to the facts and artifacts of this bombing—the lives of those four girls, the medical reports, actual debris from the church—all scattered under display glass. And now, in the opening of Selma, all those facts and details before which I had crumbled last summer were crashing over me again. This cinematic depiction was colliding with historical reality in an unrelenting manner.

But did you notice what the girls were talking about while descending the stairs?

Some, when discussing the scene, say they were talking about girlish things like getting their hair wet while swimming. But I (as one who regularly baptizes our youth, children the age of those girls!) I heard what they were talking about. They were talking about baptism. They were talking about going under the waters to die to the world, the waters of identification and solidarity with Christ.

I heard them talking about baptism and then they were blown away. It undid me.

Why? Because of the three-fold nature of baptism.

Three-fold Baptism

Baptism can be thought of as a three-fold reality: a baptism of water, of fire, and of blood.

Water = Confession

One the one hand, the baptism of water is our confessing of Christ expression our hope of salvation in him. For Protestants and Catholics, and in agreement with Romans 6, this is all that baptism is.

Fire = Filling

On the other hand, the baptism by fire is the filling of the Holy Spirit for the fullness of sanctification and for empowerment for ministry.  This is seen on the day of Pentecost when the disciples are “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). This baptism is emphasized by Charismatics and Pentecostals.

Blood = Witnessing

But Anabaptists have reminded us of the baptism of martyrdom, the baptism of witnessing to Christ, even to the point of death. When James and John ask to sit at the right and left of Jesus in his kingdom, Jesus asking if they will drink from the cup that he will drink from and be baptized with the baptism that he endures (Mark 10:36-40).  This cup and this baptism refer to the suffering of death that Jesus will endure as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This is the baptism of suffering for following Christ.

Ready for all three?

Now I have no idea if Ava DuVernay was thinking of this when she put the baptismal conversation on the lips of these girls, but the baptism of water and the baptism of blood instantly collided for me in this opening scene of Selma. Although this particular reflection does not represent a primary theme throughout the movie, I spent much of the rest of the movie asking myself, “Am I prepared for the baptism of blood in witnessing to Christ?” Are you?

February 12, 2015

Geoffrey Holsclaw

Affiliate Professor of Theology, and Director of the Master of Arts in Theology and Mission Program

ABOUT Geoffrey



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