Baptists in Italy Analysis and Current Development
Pastor Mottola Baptist Church, Italy
Thanks to God in Italy there are still Baptists and that means there are believers who by faith respond to Gods grace and so they praise God e become disciples of Christ. This is common to many other Baptists who, once have heard and accepted the word of Christ, after becoming aware of a new situation, after a soft wind touches, also share a common practice. All of these come to expression in the act of baptism where each believer professes his/her faith publicly.
In the context of this conference these affirmations may sound trivial since being all Baptists, we all may take it for granted. But I have learned not to take anything for granted and therefore I invite you to come along for a few minutes and walk together through many roads and crossroads.
Perhaps the idea of the crossroad is pushed by or connected with the year, which we are living in, the year 2000. Coming from Italy, I can only say that, at the moment, we are emerged into an atmosphere of celebrations which is dominates the catholic Jubilee together with groups which are pushing forward millennia and apocalyptic ideas. Nowhere I believe such atmosphere is so strong as in Italy, a pilgrimage centre for catholic believers, who as in the old times visit the shrines for the purpose of acquiring indulgences. Yes, maybe is not like in the old times when you had to pay for them, yet the basic aim is preserved, that is the assertion of the catholic church to be the corporate monopoly of the means of grace. Together with this, there is a growing concern toward the future. Insecurity and fear for the future are the grounds for
expanding of many apocalyptic groups who take advantage from the suggestive number 2000. Not to speak of the attraction which astrology gets, plus the individual serenity offered by new age movements and oriental religions. All of this, looks like a package wrapped up and ready to cross the line of the year 2000. Personally, I consider this reading of the situation superficial, since neither the year 2000 with its own millennia ideas nor the Jubilee give answers to the people needs, although we should not underestimate their effects. If one wants really to see clearly the way he/she is taking and the crossing is making than I think that those matters mentioned are really secondary and the issues which we need to see are others.
Its long time since we have been looking at the phenomenon based on global system, i.e. globalization, and I do not want to explain it, if not to mention its devastating effects: power concentrated in the hands of small number of people and multinational, increasing gap between rich and poor, centre and periphery, migrations waves of peoples who move in order to survive. I live in a region of Italy where every day people come from poor countries trying to enter illegally the country because of starvation. Many of them die during the crossing of the Adriatic Sea. When it happens, the Old Testament picture of crossing the Red Sea comes to my mind. In these last two years the Adriatic Sea has become a Red Sea filled with blood where for many the miracle of the dry ground just does not happen. People are thrown into the Sea because they do not have money to pay their trip on little boats. Sometimes the violent sea eats them up. In front of these tragedies we tend to be passive because things seem complex and the complexity paralyses us. We are not completely aware of the dynamics taking place in our society, where everything seems to be built on some logics imposed by financial systems and economic powers, which incline to promote models of uniformity. Politics are shaken and become functional to the interest of economic oligarchies ignoring the interest of the poor and the weak. Sometimes
talking about these matters we get an impression that everything is far away, too big for us and we get lost in this large space, which is called global. This is one of the first challenges, which I think we need to face. It might be true that we are pushed in this new horizon, which might be so big. However we cannot ignore what is happening around us, neither we can withdraw in an island. We need to realize that we are on this globe and we take part of what happens on it. Our passivity contributes to set other crosses on this earth and pour other blood in the sea. Individual choices made in one part of the world determine certain situations in another part. Being aware of these dynamics takes an effort, and, coming to grips with the paralysis takes
strength and courage because we have to define again our needs and our place. We need to dispel all what is imposed to us and be liberated from the chains, which impede our actions.
As Baptists I believe we have an advantage in facing this situation. That is the act of baptism as a sign of a new orientation to the coming rule of God. Baptism can be seen as the really first sign at our crossroad where the choice is made between the way dispelled in the Gospel and the roads which seem so inviting at first, so large, but painful to walk on. In our global context the emphasis on baptism can be an important mark for believers who want to contrast personal
decision and commitment to faith against the uniform models suggested by economic powers whose only interest is profit, richness at the high price and at the expense of poor people.
If there is anything in common within Baptist tradition that is the passion for freedom. >From the very beginning Baptists have always been voluntary community of individuals who touched by the Spirit of God have been emphasizing liberty from any oppressive authority, liberty from any political influence and now its time to be liberated from economical structures. To be disciple of Christ today means to have courage not to let others decide for us, not to let the world work by proxy, but to witness solidarity with those who are exploited by multinational companies and sometimes, why not, to boycott their products. To be liberated from consumers culture, to liberate those who are addicted to pills and drugs is also to be liberated from the power of sin, from those structures that create victims, and so baptism is the visible sign that expresses that liberation. Baptism signals a will to put our life in the hand of Christ and not in the hand of new idols. Our churches have great potentials in this sense because they are formed of a group of believers who by themselves decide to follow a certain path, which decide by themselves not to be involved in cheating and mafias.
In this adventure we realize we have some friends, who like us, feel a duty to preach the liberating gospel of Christ. The question is how do we relate to them? If we believe we are the only one who has the truth, we are wrong because the truth is only given to us from outside. The true light, says John the gospel, enlightens every man and we would add enlightens also women Up to now we put women to silence without considering that in the gospel there are women disciples. We need to make another little effort to recognise that also other denominations receive Him and have power to become children of God. This may inspire us to enlarge our vision of salvation and its plan, which is to reach all human beings. We have to be realistic to understand that we cannot do all by ourselves. Our water baptism does not save. The NT tells us
that it is not the water which saves but prominence should be given only to the grace of God and the faith of the believer (John 1:29, 6:47,11:25, Rom. 5:1-2, Eph. 2:8) Baptism only recognises the work of the Spirit, signals, that with confessing faith in Christ and the communion with his death, new life has come into being and there are no distinctions and divisions anymore and proclaims that the eschaton is at hand. The implication of this approach is that we do not stop being Baptists or to practice conversion-baptism but on the contrary we work to abolish the existing division and prejudices in order to come to full reciprocal recognition among the churches in such a way that it is both safeguard of each churchs specificity and a step towards the day when the God will be all in all . In this reciprocal recognition we promote a specific
contribution with new vocabulary in which to make clear the radical message of conversion-baptism
In relation to this theme our specific contribution as Italian Baptists is the ecumenical engagement with other Evangelical churches, in particular with Waldensians and Methodist churches. In the last decade our relationship has been well established through constructive collaboration on various levels. Documents have been signed in which we recognize each other ministry communion and membership. We have one common newspaper Riforma and editorial house book Claudiana. We share the same theological school and we share many other things together. We consider this experience a unicum in the international context and we are grateful to God for such given opportunity, which may lead us to build a reformed unit in a cohesive way. This opening represents another important crossroad, which we cannot miss, and a valid perspective for the future.
Another qualifying point in the analysis of the present situation relates the presence in our Union of believers who come from other geographical and cultural context. This is not something new in other countries but in Italy this phenomenon is relatively new. Our society is becoming more and more multicultural and so also the churches. A recent survey records a
high percentage of foreigners who are believers from different denominations. If for catholic churches that percentage may have a negligible effect comparing with their population, for us Baptists 150.000 of evangelicals more is a number to be considered significant since we become a church with the highest percentage of foreigner presence. Many of the evangelical foreigners have found in the Union a denomination that is open and respectful of diversity and promoting the
autonomy of the local church (Baptist mark).
Their presence is developing along three lines: 1. separate development 2. accommodation 3. multi-cultural development. By separate development we identify those community of foreigners who meat each other organizing themselves in autonomous way having relations only with other who speak the same language. In the majority of the case we offer them our building for worship. 2. With accommodation or assimilation we identify individuals or families who take part in the activities of Italian churches finding themselves well accepted. In this case they are integrated without interaction, for example, with their way of worship. 3. Multi-cultural development is a model which takes place when a group of foreigners feel included in one of our community which accepts to enter in dialogue being open to contribution coming from other culture, being enriched with new liturgical forms. At the moment 14 churches of foreigners have become member of the Union, among them there are some example of multi-cultural models. We believe that the challenge, which is before us, consists to avoid the separate development and to look more and more at the multi-cultural model inside the churches. To promote this model is not easy since we are not yet prepared at the idea of cultural exchange since our common faith does not delete differences. For this purpose it has been introduced a new figure, which we call a cultural mediator, whose task is to assist at the process of communication between different culture, to ease the integration process. We believe that our crucial role is that of being witness of a community where people dialogue and accept each other.
This leads me to mention about the last crossroad, which relates to our international relationship. Most of you know that is very difficult to speak about an International Baptist identity due mostly to our congregational character. Being a Baptist believer means to make a confession of faith in the time and in the place we are living. There are so many kinds of
Baptists because we do not have a set of doctrines or an official creed or a hierarchical structure. But there is something in common among us Baptists that is the passion for freedom and autonomy for the local church. The first Baptists appealed to their free conscience when they felt the imposition of the Church of England imposing them what they should believe. The Baptists of the 20th century continue to appeal to their free conscience when they interpret the scriptures, when they have to decide on ethical issues. We are sad sometimes to be informed about rigid positions on ethical issues coming from countries of the old blocks: from the far west emerges the tendency to replace some important Baptist landmarks such as freedom of conscience and freedom to interpret the bible, from the east there is a tendency to impose
some position on ethics on other Unions who have different position. I think this issues should be discussed in this meeting since I believe that uniformity does not help rather we need to seek the universal character of the gospel, so we can make global really that which has been given to us as a task the gospel of Christ.
On this subject I can only add my experience about living and studying in an international context. At the International language school I met some Baptist from different countries. At the beginning we were hypercritical, but than we learned to live together. At the Baptist seminary as well the expression of our faith sometime crushed with our own culture-context, but I cannot regret the time of my studies because we learned to accept each other and so, make the experience of communion. God be praise for that time where I learned that faith can be mixed with many other things super imposed from which we can be liberated only if at the centre we allow the place for Christ.