Jewish Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel recently called for Mitt Romney to tell the Mormon Church to stop proxy baptisms of Jews. Members of his own family were listed in the Church’s genealogical database. Family members of journalist Daniel Pearl have also issued a statement on the baptism of Pearl after his death in Pakistan asserting that the baptism was unwanted.
Proxy baptisms are baptisms done on behalf of people who have died. Unlike some Christian churches who teach that those not baptized in this life cannot be saved, Mormons carry out proxy baptisms so that everyone has the chance to be saved. Proxy baptisms are conducted in a temple, a place set apart for such special ceremonies, and in the ceremony a person is baptized “on behalf of” the deceased. This does not make the person baptized Mormon. They still have the ability to choose whether to accept the baptism or not.
Church members are only supposed to submit family names for baptism so Jewish proxy baptisms are due to a few members abusing the practice of name submission. The LDS church in a recent statement read to all church congregations has called for a stop to such abuses. The Church has also started to take actions against members who violate practices and submit Jewish names. Recently, violators have lost the rights to access records or submit names indefinitely.
It is natural to see proxy baptisms as ill-advised and offensive, especially for the Jewish who have endured forced conversions throughout their history. I have been troubled by the reports myself, realizing how wrong they were and glad when I read the Church’s message calling for a stop to baptisms of non-familiar contemporaries. Yet I felt at a loss as to how to explain something that sounds odd but to me is something very precious and beautiful.
Let me see if you will understand it another way. Baptism for the dead is our way of asserting the importance of every individual in the face of a great difference in belief and earthly circumstance. It makes everyone equal before God, able to change and to be saved. It’s our way of saying that all people are children of God, equally valued, no matter the circumstances that life dealt them. It shows that we believe in a merciful God who can still allow people to change after death. This Mormon love letter to humanity helps us care about people of the past, to remember them and no matter their obscurity to testify of their value. We feel close to them when we are baptized in their name. We attest that God can fix and make sense of a confusion of belief and a multitude of ill treatment, that humanity in all its messiness now and then will have a chance.