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Baptism announcements in church newsletters are not usually cause for much excitement outside of the initiate’s family, certainly not a matter for the state supreme court.  Unless you’re a particular Syrian-born man who claimed that the church in Tulsa, OK where he converted to Christianity agreed to keep his name private. They posted it on the church’s website, as they do with all baptisms, making it the first google result for the man’s name.  Which is why, when he returned to Syria, he was kidnapped and tortured, and why he later took the church to court. 

It took the man, only called John Doe in court documents, three days to escape his captors, several months for he and his wife to return to the United States, and multiple surgeries to repair the injuries he’d received.   He cannot return to Syria, leaving behind a son, a house, and two cars, and received frequent death threats. Doe sued First Presbyterian for $75,000, accusing it of breach of contract, negligence, and outrage.

The church successfully petitioned for the case to be dismissed, reasoning that secular courts don’t have jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters like theology and customs.  Doe appealed to the state supreme court, who ruled 5-3 against his case, with Chief Justice Douglas Combs writing, “…the public nature of baptism is an integral part of the Presbyterian Church’s understanding of the sacrament.”


Who would have thought baptisms would have so much starch attached to them?  I’ve attended several in my family (I’m one of six kids, after all), and usually the worst thing that happens is you have to dress up and be quiet.  In the Christian church, baptism is a ritual involving water as a symbol of purification that is also one’s admission to the Christian Church and is typically accompanied by giving the initiate their name, particularly in the case of babies, who are the most likely to be baptised.


In addition to baptists, there are anabaptists,  a Christian movement which traces its origins to the Radical Reformation, that kerfuffle with Martin Luther, a list of complaints and a hammer. Anabaptists believe that baptism is valid only when the candidate *wants to be baptized, so they’re baptized as adults.  Of the 4 million or so Anabaptists throughout the world, the most numerous include the Mennonites, the German Baptists, and the Amish. Bonus fact: Those who know of Mennonites being less strict than the Amish may think Amish was the original group, but in fact the Mennonites came first and the Amish split from them because they felt their people should be more separated from wider society.  While I have you, please stop believing reality TV shows about the Amish, or *any reality TV for that matter.


There are lots of religious out there with multiple sacraments apiece, so we’re going to define baptism on the broad side as an act or experience that makes a person an official part of a community.  AS in Christianity, many infant baptism practices include the act of officially naming the child. When a baby is born into a Buddhist family in parts of Asia, monks are invited to the house to bless the baby and chant from the holy texts.  Based on the exact time and date of the birth, an astrologer will draw a horoscope and inform the parents about the initial that the name should begin with; the parents will then choose a name accordingly. Within one month of birth, the baby is brought to a temple for blessing and placed in front of the statue of the Buddha.  Offerings of flowers, candles and incense are made and the monk blesses the child, announcing his or her name. In some forms of Buddhism, sacred threads are tied around the baby’s wrists to welcome ‘Khwan’, a spirit that looks after babies. Bonus fact: All Chinese children of one generation share the same middle name and there is a cycle of 24 generation names, it can take several hundred years to go through the cycle.   The native people of the Arctic lands in north Canada, Alaska and Greenland, hold a naming ceremony called Atiq, which means both ‘name’ and ‘spirit.’ The baby is given the name of a family member who has died, usually a beloved older relative, like a grandparent. They chose the relative by the baby having a similar birthmark to that person or the mother dreaming about them during pregnancy. The Inuit believe in reincarnation and that the child receives the relative’s spirit, as well as his or her name.  It is also believed that a baby who cries incessantly when born will stop crying once the right atiq is given.


There is a tradition in some Muslim cultures called Aqiqah.  As soon as a Muslim baby is born, the father or grandfather whispers a prayer in its ear so that it is the first thing he or she hears.  Names are usually chosen from the Holy Quran. Within seven days, the Aqiqah is held, in order to thank Allah. Prayers are said and the baby’s head is shaved.  The hair is weighed and the family then gives at least the same weight in gold or silver to charity. The baby is then given a taste of honey as a symbol of the sweetness of prayer.  Though this tradition probably goes back more than 2000 years, I do want to mention that babies less than one year old should not eat honey as it may contain botulism spores that their little bodies can’t fight off.  Aqiqah also includes a feast for friends and relatives with one-third of the meat distributed to the poor.


Soon after the birth of a Sikh baby, a respected elder gives the baby a few drops of honey and water, while reciting a hymn.  As soon as the mother and baby are well enough, a naming ceremony is held at the gurudwara, the Sikh temple. There is a reading from the Sikh holy book, Siri Guru Granth Sahib where the passage is selected by opening the book at random and reading the first words of a passage on the left hand page.  The first letter of the word at the beginning of this passage will be the first letter of the baby’s name, which is then chosen by the parents. All boys are given the same second name, ‘Singh’, meaning lion, and for all girls, the second name is ‘Kaur’, meaning princess. Family and friends are given kara prashad, a sweet treat made with flour, sugar and clarified butter, followed by a communal meal.


Among the Akamba people of Tanzania, a child is named on the third day following their birth. Before the naming ceremony, the newborn is regarded as a spirit and not as a complete human being. A goat is slaughtered in appreciation 0f the ancestral spirits for the gift of a child and the fertility of the parents. The announcement of the newborn baby’s name by his or her grandmother or an elderly woman relative is the climax of the ceremony.


With over 2 billion Christians in the world, I’m going to risk assuming that my gentle listener has a least a passing familiarity with their baptism practices.  The exact ritual varies between denomination, usually in the amount of water that is used. This can be a sprinkling of water or a handful poured over the baby’s head, maybe the initiate is standing in water, or you can go Greek Orthodox style, which can apparently involve dunking a newborn in the baptismal font with bizarre vigor.  I’m not exaggerating or poking fun. Google baptism video backlash; I’ll wait. For those of you who may be driving while you listen to podcasts, the video in question shows a priest, identified in captions as Greek Orthodox but disavowed by the Greek Archdiocese of Australia, dunking a baby repeatedly in the font, with a range of motion that went from mid-thigh to over his head.  The baby was fine, albeit upset, but then it’s a baby. The congregation didn’t react as though anything unusual were happening, though some young girls are seen to try to escape the Sea World levels of splashing. The video went viral, but all the complaints it’s generated seem to come from that wealth of unqualified opinions and unchecked vitriol known as the comments section, not anyone who was involved.  There’s a similarly surprising video from the formerly-Soviet nation of Georgia, where the baby is rapidly dipped head-first, feet-first, and back and forth, all in the span of about five seconds. That baby looks more startled and confused than anything. Different strokes, I guess.


That’s not to say bad things don’t happen at baptisms.  In 2013, a Seattle area baptism turned into a brawl. Adult beverages were on offer and local law enforcement had to be called in.  The incident ended with five police officers assaulted, two more officers injured, and two people arrested and jailed for assault. In 2014, a Florida man was fatally shot at a baptism party when he tried to break up a fight over food between the family and some uninvited guests.  That year, a baptism was held on the beach in California, when 7ft/2m waves swept three people away. Two were able to swim back to shore, but one was never found. A similar tragedy occurred earlier this year in South Africa, where rip currents drowned three three men. You don’t have to be in the ocean for a baptism to turn fatal.  In 2005, Reverend Kyle Lake was conducting a baptism at University Baptist Church and was electrocuted when he reached out to adjust a microphone while standing in the water. Fortunately, the woman who was being baptized had not yet stepped into the water so she was not injured. The reverend’s widow later received a settlement from the electrical contractor on the basis that the company had negligently designed, assembled, and installed the heaters that resulted in the electrocution.


And then things get plain weird.  In 2016, a Florida man claimed that the voice of God woke him in the middle of the night and commanded him to baptize his son.  So, the man woke up his 11-year-old son, took him to a neighbor’s house, and dunked him repeatedly in their pool, which was green and full of leaves and bugs.  The boy actually got an ear and eye infection from the water and the father was charged with child abuse. Bonus fact: that reason that we hear so many wacky and wild “A Florida Man” new stories is that arrest records in Florida are public, making them more likely to wind up in the news.  I don’t know what Ohio’s excuse is. In 2015, a high school Georgia, got in trouble for allowing a mass baptism of 18 football players and a coach on the school’s football field, which violated not only school policies but was a major infringement of the separation of church and state.. No word on how they did that season.  In 2011, a 64-year-old priest arrived at a Sacramento church an hour late, and falling down drunk, to baptize 15 children. Church members carried the wayward priest to the rectory and he was later suspended indefinitely.


A common ritual around the world to indicate that a child is now part of their parents’ religion or  community is circumcision. (We’re not going to debate the merits of circumcision today; don’t at me.)  The mind goes immediately to Jewish baby boys having their foreskins removed eight days after they’re born in a ceremony called a bris, but the chosen people are by no means the only people.  Rates of male circumcision vary, from virtually 0% in Honduras, to 7% in Spain, to 20% in the United Kingdom, to 45% in South Africa, to 80% in the United States, to over 90% in many Muslim-majority countries.  [more bg] Traditional circumcision are in no way limited to one infant and one officiant. Take for instance the practice of Imbalu of the Bambasaba and Bakusu people of Uganga. Held during the rainy season every other year, Imbalu is a ceremony of mass circumcision, wherein hundreds of young mean, from 16 years old into their mid-twenties, will be initiated through circumcision.


During circumcision, the candidates are expected to stand firm as a sign of courage and boldness.  The young men go to their relatives declaring their intentions of being circumcised and are later gathered at Mutoto Village, wearing traditional garments made of plantain fronds and animal hides.  Here, elders lead candidates to be circumcised while dancing and singing cultural songs, accompanied by cheering friends, marching and dancing through the streets. “Crying during the process would mean cowardice, thus, is forbidden,” says John Musira, a traditionalist.  The actual circumcision part lasts about one hour, as the surgeon goes through the initiates, making three cuts to remove the foreskin. A whistle is blown when the last circumcision is done. The young men are then led to the quiet place and wrapped in a cloth before bleeding stops.  They then go their fathers’ homes and are hand-fed for three days before being ritually washed and permitted to eat with his hands marking the end of the ritual. Unlike in other African areas where circumcision is carried out in private with a few people present, the Bagisu declared it a public function, which has actually become a legitimate tourist attraction.


Back to Jewish infant circumcision and a particular rare ancient ritual called , which requires that the blood from the incision be removed by the mohek, the rabbi performing the bris, by mouth. … Normally, nothing much comes of it, which is why it’s not known outside of families who practice …unless your mohel has herpes.  In NYC since 2006, 22 percent of all male neonatal herpes cases were linked to ritual circumcision. Herpes is a nuisance infection to adults, but can be very serious in newborns, quickly spreading throughout the body. Of the 22 cased of mohel-spread herpes since 2000, two suffered permanent brain damage and two died. However, leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that practice metzitzeh b’peh have opposed any restrictions on the centuries-old ritual as an infringement on religious freedom.


In a bid to restrict the risky procedure, the Bloomberg administration required parents to sign a consent form.  But mayor de Blasio and the city Board of Health scrapped that requirement in 2015. As part of a compromise, the Health Department distributes pamphlets to doctors, hospitals and parents warning that “some babies can get herpes, which can even lead to death” following metzitzah b’peh.  Health officials worry that parents aren’t seeing the brochures, due in no small part to the insular nature of some ultra-Orthodox communities. Though the consent forms were done away with, rabbinical leaders are now required by city law to help the health department identify which mohel performed the bris and ask him to be tested for the virus.  If the mohel tests positive, the city will use DNA testing to determine if it was the mohel who passed on the virus, or if the baby got it from someone else. If the mohel is found to be the culprit, the city’s Department of Health is supposed to ban him for life from performing metzitzeh b’peh; a policy charedi leaders said they would help enforce. A city regulation calls for fines ranging from $200 to $2,000 for mohels who defy the ban more than once.  


If you’ve been thinking to yourself, “That nasty rabbi.  How did he even get herpes?” Check out the November 21 episode of the Sawbones podcast.  The vast majority of people carry some form of the herpes simplex virus, with many of them never even knowing.  This story also reminded me of an episode of Dirty Jobs where host Mike Rowe went to a sheep farm. I expected to be blase over the whole thing, since I was raising goats at the time, so what new information could they really impart?  It seemed like I would be right, until they got around the castrating the lambs. This was done in what I can only imagine in a very ancient technique…with one’s teeth.


Some groups baptise babies, some baptise adults, some baptise the dead….their own and other people’s.  The Mormons, or to give them their full name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, have practiced baptism of the dead since 1840.  Posthumous or proxy baptisms are performed at the church’s 159 temples. Members the same gender as the dead person, usually young people, are escorted to a decorative baptismal font resting on statutes of 12 oxen.  An adult or older teen male reads a short prayer, and the member is immersed in water. The baptism is then recorded in a database. Mormons believe that vicarious baptisms give the deceased, who exist in the afterlife as conscious spirits, a final chance to join the Mormon fold, and thus gain access to the Celestial Kingdom.  It is only supposed to be performed for one’s own family. Mormons are encouraged to baptize at least four generations of forebears to seal the family together in the afterlife. So the LDS church has built the world’s most extensive genealogical library in Salt Lake City with 700 employees and more than 2 billion names. The LDS Church is the only major religion that currently baptizes the dead, and that has contributed to some bad PR in the past few decades, particularly when they baptize Jewish Holocaust victims and random celebrities.  


LDS leaders emphasize that the spirits of the dead must accept the baptism, and Mormons are instructed to only baptize family members, particularly after Jewish genealogists discovered in the 1990s that 380,000 Holocaust survivors had been vicariously baptized.  In response, the church imposed safeguards and spent $500,000 removing Jewish names from its baptismal registries. But at the same time, the church insists that it cannot control “pranksters or careless persons” who submit Jewish names or famous people such as President Obama’s late mother, Stanley Anne Dunham.  The church considers proxy baptism too important to do without. “With deepest respect to our Jewish friends, the church cannot abandon fundamental aspects of its religious doctrine and practice,” the church writes on its website, “and it should not be asked to do so.”


Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology who studies Mormonism at the University of Tampa, said Mormons are striving to baptize everyone who has ever lived to help get non-Mormons out of “spirit prison” in the afterlife.  One reason Holocaust victims are such a common target is that their names are easy to find in government records, which creates an efficient way to quickly baptize more people. The baptisms of public figures are likely based on two factors, according to Cragun.  One, people naturally think about celebrities more often because they see them or hear about the constantly. And two, Mormons are similar to other social groups in that they like to claim famous people as their own.


Helen Radkey, who left the LDS church in the 70’s and was later excommunicated for publicly criticizing it, had to get a login from a still-Mormon friend to access the part of the database that shows the baptisms.  She then dedicated countless hours to researching proxy baptisms because she believes people’s religious preferences should be respected even after they’re dead. Printouts and screenshots of Radkey’s latest research show that in the past five years, proxy baptisms were performed on at least 20 Holocaust victims, as well as Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe; crocodile hunter Steve Irwin; Elvis Presley; the mother of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana; Pope John Paul II, Joan of Arc and Ghandi; the grandparents Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, and Joe Biden, and the parents of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.  Radkey also uncovered attempts to baptize people still alive or recently dead such as O.J. Simpson, Charles Manson and mass shooters Stephen Paddock and Devin Patrick Kelley. When Radkey shared her findings with the Associated Press, the LDS acknowledged the ceremonies violated its policy and said they would be invalidated, while also noting its created safeguards in recent years to improve compliance.


“The posthumous baptizing of Holocaust victims reopens Jewish wounds from being forced in the past to convert to Christianity or face death or deportation, Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff said.  “The more she digs, the more she uncovers,” Mokotoff said. “It’s not like a chance circumstance.” After discussions with Mokotoff and other Jewish leaders in 1995, the LDS church barred baptisms of Holocaust victims except in specific cases where direct ancestry  can be proven, as well as barring proxy baptisms of celebrities.


There are the rules and there are what people actually do.  Controversies have erupted in the decade-plus since, when new proxy baptisms were found listed in the church’s genealogical database, including Radkey’s 2012 discovery of one performed on Anne Frank.  Add that to the *nine proxy baptisms she received between ‘89-99. Oh, and the LDS did one for Adolf Hitler. The church apologized in 2012, sent a letter to members reiterating its guidelines, and announced the creation of a firewall aimed at preventing the inappropriate use of proxy baptisms.  In recent years, it has implemented additional safeguards, including adding four full-time staffers who watch the database and block baptisms on restricted names, including a list of Holocaust victims sent each month by a Jewish human rights organization in Los Angeles.


Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the former national director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he’s seen firsthand that the church takes seriously preventing Holocaust baptisms and said leaders are acting in good faith to honor the agreement.  

Greenebaum was brought on by the church to help remedy the issue and receives monthly reports from the database team about potential Holocaust baptism attempts.  He estimates they stop 5 to 12 inappropriate attempts each month.


An attempt was made last year to baptize Wiesenthal himself.  Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of The Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he plans to send a letter to Mormon officials asking that his name be removed again.  “They may mean well, but it’s insulting to Jews, and it would be insulting to Mr. Wiesenthal,” Hier said. “He lived a life of good deeds, and he doesn’t need any assistance in getting to heaven.”  An LDS spokesman countered that such names have to stay in the database so officials can monitor them for unauthorized baptisms.


Bonus fact: The 16 million or so members of the LDS Church aren’t Mormons anymore, at least according to a new style guide issued by the church.  It also wants people to stop using LDS as an abbreviation and to use the church’s full name. When a shortened reference is needed, to just use “the Church” or “Church of Jesus Christ.”


Similar and yet distinctly different from Mormon posthumous baptism is the Pink mass of the Satanic temple.  I can almost promise you it’s not what you think. Satanic Temple is an atheistic organization founded in 2014, that prizes personal automony that uses Satan as a symbol of rebellion rather than a figure to be worshipped, not to be confused with Anton LaVay’s Church of Satan.  Satanic Temple is the organization that made “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities” available to school kids in Florida after a Christian group was granted permission to hand out pamphlets and bibles. Some of their central tenets include “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason”, “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone”, “Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world”.


In July 2013, members of the Satanic Temple performed a “Pink Mass” over the grave of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps Jr.’s mother, Catherine Idalette Johnston. The Pink Mass is a Satanic ritual performed after death that turns the deceased gay.  The Satanic Temple turned the mother of the Westboro Baptist Church founder gay. That’s not how that works exactly, but I like the way they think. There were actually two rituals performed over the headstone, one feature two male Temple members kissing over the headstone and the other with female temple members, both including readings, lighting of candles and a certain amount of ceremony.  The idea came about after the WBC had threatened to protest the funerals of victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. The Satanic Temple’s website compared the the pink mass to “the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead, only much gayer.”


“Upon completion of the pink mass ceremony, Catherine Johnston is now gay in the afterlife,” notes the Satanic Temple website, which has the cheeky URL “Fred Phelps is obligated to believe that his mother is now gay … [and] if beliefs are inviolable rights, nobody has the right to challenge our right to believe that Fred Phelps believes that his mother is now gay.”


Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves, who performed the ceremony said, “We intend to perform the pink mass for both Fred Phelps’s father and great-aunt who raised him after his mother’s death, but *only in reply to their future pickets. The pink mass could be used to protest other anti-gay hysterics, but it is particularly appropriate when applied to Westboro.”


And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today, but I’ll leave you with one more one more aspect to the pink mass story.  The owner of the property told local news that he planned to pursue charges against The Satanic Temple. Lauderdale Cty, MS police issued a statement that they were prepared to charge them with malicious mischief, trespassing and indecent exposure, since at one point during the ceremony, Greaves put his schvantz on the headstone, which even I will admit might have been a bit excessive, perhaps.  Police have warned Grieves that they will arrest him if he returns to the jurisdiction. Thanks for spending part of your day with me. ,–Turning-boys-into-men-among-the-Bamasaba/689856-4708518-bj1vvyz/index.html