Baptism is an important part of the spiritual journey, but it’s easy to misunderstand the rite’s importance in the life of a Christian. Many are tempted to view baptism as the act of salvation, as if submersion under water can, in and of itself, save a person from sin.
The 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, written and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker-brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, illustrates this tendency. For Christians with “eyes to see and ears to hear,” O Brother, Where Art Thou? offers a potent reminder of the true source of our salvation.
Down to the river
The film’s three main characters—Everett, Pete, and Delmar—are criminals sentenced to life on the chain gang. After escaping from their toil, they set out on a quest to unearth the spoils of an armored car robbery, buried in a nearby valley. Because the valley is about to be flooded to make way for a new hydroelectric project, the criminals are racing against time.
With time running out and no means of transportation, they are on the brink of an argument when they notice a community of churchgoers, clothed in white and singing hymns of praise, on their way to a nearby river. The three men observe several people being baptized, and Delmar is visibly struck by what is happening. He runs (as well as one can run in water) to the preacher, where he is accepted and immersed. Making his way back to Everett and Pete, he claims that the preacher “washed all my sins away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now! Come on in, boys, the water’s fine.” This call prompts Pete to jump in and get baptized, too.
Both Delmar and Pete use the act of baptism as a free pass from their past sins, rather than as an actual act of contrition. Everett scoffs at them both for being superstitious, and mocks them (“You two are just dummer’n a bag o’ hammers”) for much of their later journey. Everett is pompous, condescending, and self-righteous, and spends the entire film using everyone as a means to his own end.
A truly contrite heart?
Once Everett, Pete, and Delmar reach Everett’s homestead (where the money is supposedly buried), they are met by the policemen that have been tailing them the whole film. Three noosed ropes thrown over a tree branch make it clear that the policemen have no intention of taking them back to the chain gang.
When asked if they have any last thoughts, Everett panics and falls to his knees in prayer. His shameless manipulation has finally caught up with him, and now he’s going to die and is taking his friends with him. Everett apologizes to Pete and Delmar for all that he’s done up to this point and for causing their deaths. He also prays to God, asking for forgiveness for his actions.
As he’s speaking, water starts to trickle around his knees. Suddenly everyone is swept away in a huge rush of water as the valley is flooded. As the policemen and their instruments of death are buried under the waves, the three criminals rise to the surface and grab onto a floating coffin for support.
While figurative in that there was no church or preacher, this is Everett’s baptism. The scene includes the traditional confession of sin (in this case, to his friends), declaration of faith in God, and submersion. Everett’s filth was literally washed away.
But we soon learn that only Everett’s external filth—the dirt and grime covering his clothes—has been cleansed. Everett, no longer faced with being hanged, quickly reverts back to his ornery self and scoffs at his compatriots for thinking God had anything to do with their survival.
Despite his outward confession and cleansing, Everett’s heart remains unrepentant. Like his fellow criminals at their riverside submersions, Everett was seeking a salvation of expedience, not of eternity. The mere fact that the criminals depend upon a vessel of death to keep them afloat suggests that none of them have yet understood or embraced true salvation, even though they’ve all experienced baptisms of one sort or the other.
Ultimate authority, true freedom
Though they have escaped their would-be executioners, the three criminals are still guilty in the eyes of the law. It is only when the Governor (the ultimate authority figure in this case) pardons them that they are truly free of their past actions and released into a new life of freedom. Without this mercy, Everett, Pete, and Delmar would have lived the remainder of their lives looking over their shoulders for another policeman, another sheriff, another noosed rope.
Here, again, the film offers us a lesson. We can confess our sins and be baptized by a pastor in a church, but only Jesus—our Ultimate Authority—can release us into a life of true freedom.
God cannot be faked out. A quick dip in the nearest river means absolutely nothing unless your heart is repentant, even if it is a preacher dipping you. The act of baptism itself holds no power; it is only an outward ritual that reflects an inward spiritual state. True power lies only in Jesus’ acceptance of us as beings worthy of His grace, despite our fallen state.