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One scene has the three desperados hiding out in the woods, running from the law. There they encounter a procession of white-robed faithful going down to the lake to be baptized. As the ceremony begins, Delmar is overwhelmed by the mystery and majesty of it all. He runs into the water and is baptized by the minister. As he returns to his companions, he declares that he is now saved and "neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now." He explains that the minister has told him that all his sins have been washed away. Even, he says, when he stole the pig for which he had been convicted.
"But you said you were innocent of that," one of his fellow convicts exclaims.
"I lied," he says, "and that's been washed away too!"
Amen! Yes, that is our understanding of baptism. And that is why there is some MIS-understanding of the scene from the gospels that we encounter at the beginning of each year - Jesus' baptism. Jesus had no sin to be washed away, but he was baptized anyway. There is an old Eastern Orthodox belief that any two babies baptized in the same church, on the same day, are as brother or sister. Perhaps that is the way we should understand Jesus' baptism. He does not need it for himself, but he does it to share our humanity, to be our brother. Now let's get on with our work.
There is indeed something about getting washed clean that gives a new start and an impetus to get on with the business at hand. This week, our nation said farewell to a man who may have understood that better than most, our 38th President, Gerald Ford.
It was late summer, 1974. America had been struggling with the quagmire of Vietnam and the political disaster of Watergate. In August, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency rather than face certain impeachment and conviction. Gerald Ford, himself appointed to the office of Vice President less than a year before, became our nation's leader. In his remarks following his swearing in, he declared, "Our long national nightmare is over."
But it was not over. There was still palpable anger in the country over what had occurred, and there seemed to be a thirst for vengeance on those who had brought us to this point, most particularly, Richard Nixon. It was ugly.
September 8, 1974. 11:05 AM Sunday morning. President Ford spoke from the Oval Office and granted Richard Nixon "a full, free, and absolute pardon" for any crimes he may have committed while serving as President. The slate was washed clean.
We were not in a very pardoning mood back then. Most of us were incensed at the idea of Nixon getting off scot free, incensed at the timing of the announcement with the appearance of Mr. Ford trying to "sneak it through" while we were off in church, incensed that this might just be "same ol', same ol'," Washington with some secret back-room deal having been made to let the guilty go free. Jerry Ford immediately went from being the likable Mr. Everyman who made his own breakfast in the White House to being the central figure in what looked for all the world like an evil conspiracy. People still remembered it two years later when they went into the voting booth and elected Jimmy Carter as President instead of Gerald Ford.
More than thirty-two years have passed now. President Ford said he did it to help the nation move forward, beyond the Watergate scandal. He said in his address that day that this "is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must." And he did.
They say, "Time heals all wounds," and, in this case, that is certainly true. Time also brings perspective. I am now convinced that Gerald Ford's instinct to forgive and move on was absolutely correct, just as he was right to offer clemency to Vietnam-era draft evaders and deserters.
Polls show that the majority of Americans now agree. In 2001, President Ford was given the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for making that incredibly difficult, and personally costly, decision. In his acceptance speech, he said he was "profoundly grateful" for the recognition. Finally, we had come to understand.
There is something powerful about being washed clean. I have told you before that my emotions regularly well up as I perform a baptism. Not because of some warm-fuzzy-isn't-this-a-nice-family picture kind of feeling, but because this is powerful stuff. This sets someone on a journey that has the potential to change the world.
In the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie, Delmar was not made perfect by his baptism any more than any of the rest of us are made perfect by our own. But he was conscious that his baptism meant a new beginning. Perhaps that is why when the three of them stole a pie from a kitchen window sill, he went back later and put a dollar down.
Oprah. One name is all you need to hear and you know who it is. Oprah is about as successful as anyone these days. TV, movies, an eponymous magazine, various other huge business enterprises. My daughter wants to send a copy of my book to her for her book club. Oprah is fabulously wealthy now and is a generous philanthropist. Forty miles outside Johannesburg, South Africa this week, Oprah is opening her new $40-million, 22-acre Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls that will accommodate 152 students to start. She is a public persona and, as such, regularly the subject of interviews. In one for Newsweek magazine(2) sometime back, she was asked, "How do you separate yourself from work?"
Oprah's answer: "I take a hot bath...My bath is my sanctuary. It's the place where I can wash off all the stuff of the day." Hmm.
Sounds exactly like what we have been talking about. Washed clean. Baptism. And now we can get on with life.
1. Written & Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, Touchstone Pictures/Universal Pictures, 2000
2. "Oprah on Oprah," 1/8/01