Ritual Action↔Global Action
The world is a mess. Of course, this is nothing new, but it is our time, our generation’s watch. The stunning attack on our buildings, our neighborhoods, and our people on 9/11 stirred fear and hatred. Then, it was Hurricane Katrina, a shocking disaster in the Gulf Coast that was described as absolute chaos: no shelter, food, clean water, medicine, safety, no way out, and in their place, fear, lies, violence, and heart-breaking loss. Some of us had thought we were protected from this chaos.
Since then there have been more and more natural disasters. In 2005, only days before I made this presentation, tens of thousands of people were buried alive, and forty-three thousand injured, in Pakistan, in India, and in Guatemala. We had seen the affects of such devastation before in Indonesia. And there is war, a reality that never, ever ends. What can we say about ritual actions in the face of the mess of our world?
When we gather together for worship we practice ways of living and dying. We prepare ourselves for the choices that will confront us personally, as a nation, and as citizens in a global society. Our ways of relating to God and to one another in worship, that is, the patterns and content of our prayers, our singing, our listening, and our actions extend far beyond structures and interpreted meanings. These ways of being become part of us; they get under our skin, so that when something is a stake we know what to do.
Aidan Kavanagh reminded us, in this very place, that when a community of people assembles regularly to remember, imagine, and embody the presence of a living God, something happens. We change palpably into something we are not when the event begins. The change happens gradually and unpredictably, as in a great act of making music. It happens as we are brought to the brink of chaos in the presence of the living God, a force so powerful that it causes one’s hair to stand on end, one’s flesh to creep.1
Kavanagh wrote these words in the early eighties: Ronald Reagan was president of the United States; Sandra Day O’Connor was newly appointed to the Supreme Court; Russia was called the evil empire; AIDS had just been identified; personal computers were introduced, movements for civil rights engaged every level of our common life, and solving the problem of poverty was the responsibility of poor people.
I began my work at Union Seminary in those years, beginning in 1981. Donald Shriver, the president at the time, invited me to join the faculty to coordinate the worship in a newly renovated chapel. Instead of fixed pews, altar, and pulpit we had a totally flexible space, with only the organ permanently located. The student body, too, had changed since the original chapel was conceived. Then, the founders, faculty, and students were primarily white men.
Priorities about worshiping were evolving, too. Shriver envisioned two objectives for the community that would gather in this new space: that our worship life would reflect the differences of background and traditions among us, and that worship would be more at the center of our work and our study. So, we initiated daily instead of weekly worship, using forms and symbols from the wide spread of historical and cultural traditions in our community. The questions we were asking ourselves then were the same as those we confronted in our congregations at the time: How can we model in our worship a way of living in a multicultural world? What do our ritual actions form us to do? We focused on details: different kinds of music, varied movements that suited our bodies, many arrangements of people and furniture in this splendid new space, a mix of borrowed, new, and traditional words and images to name ourselves, our world, our God. We learned what we desired from our worship by doing it.
After twenty-five years of exploring old and new languages, verbal and nonverbal, I am still asking:
· How do our ritual actions matter, how do they make any difference in what we do, day to day, as citizens of an interdependent world?
· What does it mean today to be “brought regularly to the edge of chaos,” to change into something new, together, in the presence of a living God?
I began thinking about answers to these questions by reflecting on how our Christian ritual forms evolved in order to discover what that story may suggest to us today. Though not without controversy, and certainly not all at once, within one hundred and fifty years our early Christian ritual forms changed significantly—from small social groups gathered around a meal as part of a Jesus movement, to one table, one presider, and no meal except bread and wine. By the fourth century Christian worship was imitating ceremonial patterns of the Roman Empire. The spaces were large public buildings. Bishops and priests dressed like civic leaders. The patterns for public prayer became more formal and fixed with little, if any, room for extemporaneous participation. Music was heard, more than made by all. And the experience of God was of a distant judging presence. In Larry Rasmussen’s words,
The church’s God became the empire’s God . . . [The Church,] less and less [a] pre-Constantine pilgrim community, struggling to make community in a world not yet its home, [became] more and more the empire’s standing agent of salvation . . . With Christianity established as both the church’s faith and the empire’s civil religion, the theocentric and communitarian way of Jesus was largely lost.2
These imperial ritual structures encouraged watching rather than talking, adoring instead of doing, and individual devotion rather than collective action. Changes resulting from the Protestant reformation, and the contributions of Vatican II in the twentieth century, have brought about significant adjustments in this imperial ecclesiology, in form and in content, but in most liturgical communities today a few leaders still dominate, and their power determines what everyone else can do. Of course there are exceptions, but I am speaking generally.
Imperial Ritual Forms
We know that an imperial form of ecclesiology is not neutral in its effect. The French social theorist Louis Althusser points out something we can trace from our Christian history, that any ideology endowed with a structure and a functioning becomes an omni-historical reality, making the structure and functioning immutable. We are schooled to know our place in it. In fact, we practice knowing our place every time we come together.3
The ideology at work in an imperial church is defined by an unambiguous division between clergy and people with a role-defined access to power. What is the problem? Just this: imperial ritual contradicts the very heart of the witness of Jesus, a life marked by radical equality, by actions that dissolved socially-inscribed inequalities and challenged the status quo.4 Imperial rituals, with clear spatial separation between clergy and laity, with clergy elaborately dressed and elevated above the congregation, compromise defiant stances against the powers of the empire.
So too today. Imperial ritual forms diminish the effectiveness of public worship as a vehicle for prophetic action. I suggest three reasons among many why this is so:
1. Imperial rituals strengthen imperial attitudes, that is, only a few have power and access. Isolation of power reinforces dominance, dominance promotes deference, deference undergirds passivity, and passivity contributes to apathy and indifference. In a ritual that expresses religious beliefs these imperial attitudes appear to be divinely sanctioned. Haves and have nots, some in and some out, some worthy and some less worthy—these assumptions are reinforced as integral aspects of our faith. Because in our ritualizing we are practicing a way of living, these attitudes spill over into our day-to-day existence, too. We live out capitulation instead of defiance. The implications are widespread and death-dealing.
We can be the generation that no longer accepts that an accident of latitude determines whether a child lives or dies, but will we be that generation? Will we in the West realize our potential, or will we sleep in the comfort of our affluence with apathy and indifference murmuring softly in our ears.5
2. Imperial attitudes affirm nationalism, exceptionalism, and colonialism, where a nation or a group of people know better than others, are more important than others, even seemingly have a right to conquer others.6 Such imperial attitudes have contributed to a world where resources are disproportionately distributed and where our social fabric is marked by addictions to greed and militarism. These characteristics are not new, but something else is: developments in technology have flattened our world, making competition on a level playing field possible for more and more countries, as Thomas Friedman has pointed out. In fact, Friedman adds this warning regularly: we can collaborate, share knowledge, and work together, or we can wall ourselves in and risk the perils of an excess of protectionism, of excessive fears (of terrorism) in search of economic security.7 Flatness and crisis are inextricably related to nationalism. As the historian Fritz Stern warns us, nationalism goes hand in hand with a “mass manipulation of public opinion, often mixed with mendacity and forms of intimidation.”8
3. Exceptionalism and nationalism affirm a one-sided view of goodness. Only some know it, only some practice it. “We have given in to haughty pretensions that our country has all goodness as well as all might and all right, and that we have somehow been ordained by God to rid the world of anything we perceive as evil,” says the liturgical scholar Gabe Huck.9
Of course I am not assuming that ritual actions alone can change the mess of our world. But I am suggesting that ritual actions matter, and that imperial ritual forms support a world order that undermines the prophetic character of our faith. And I am recommending that this is the time for a new layer in the evolution of liturgical forms, ritual actions characterized by reversal, access, resistance, and, at times, defiance.
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