Friday, June 13, 2014

A Liturgy of the Oppressed


Whew, what a busy couple weeks! After getting to know folks at the annual assembly Upstate New York Synod of the ELCA where I'll hopefully be called as a pastor in a month or so, I've spent some time hiking in northern New England and also preparing to lead a youth mission trip to a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, which begins next week.

In the meantime, I'm still trying to post my work from my final semester at seminary. What follows is one of my favorite assignments throughout seminary, a paper and liturgy I created based off of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed with inspiration from a faith community called Parables in Brooklyn. This formed the final assignment for an epic "Liturgy and Postcolonialism" course with Professor Cláudio Carvalhaes. The liturgy itself (at the bottom of the post) was written for a short half-hour Service of the Word service at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, but otherwise it would certainly include a collection and Eucharist. It's a bit "provocative" perhaps, but I'd love to hear what you think.

God's peace,

With only two weeks (and unfortunately around forty pages of writing) between me and graduation, I figure it’s about time to admit something that’s deeply troubled me throughout my seminary education: the majority of church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring! Perhaps it’s due to my overwhelming sense of entitlement as a North American millennial, or maybe it’s because I come from an overly individualistic culture, or maybe it’s just because I’m a good old fashioned heretic… I’m not entirely sure. What I do definitively know however, is that the majority of church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring, and they didn’t mean much. Now such a statement may quickly lead one to ask, “Why be a pastor, or even a Christian at all if you don’t find Christian worship meaningful?” From my perspective, the answer to such a question is quite easy—I’ve developed strong, lifelong relationships through the Church, I’ve experienced a profound sense of community and solidarity through the Church, and I’ve been supported in serving folks and advocating against systems of injustice through the Church. When my mother died from lung cancer at a relatively young age, the Church held me close and told me that life would go on, and it did. In short, I want to be a Christian pastor because I’ve experienced the presence of God in the Church like nowhere else.

Yet, and I say this with some notable exceptions in mind, most church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring. Here’s what my experience of a church service is all too often like (I put this purposefully in a pretty provocative way): I start off by sitting down in an uncomfortable seat, not being allowed to have coffee despite it being way too early in the morning, hearing some announcements and then watching the pastor walk to the back of the sanctuary only to walk forward again in various levels of pomp and circumstance. The folks up front pray some prayers for me and then I spend a whole lot of time trying not to space out while a bunch of long Bible passages are read. After hearing what is often a good sermon (to be fair), I get a brief reprieve by standing up and singing a song, only to have the folks up front once again pray for me, usually from some pretty sounding words they found on an internet resource. The first time I really feel like I get to do anything besides trying to stay awake is the collection, through which I genuinely feel connected to my faith community in mission. The Meal, as long as it is done in a way that is fully inclusive of all individuals, is an extremely profound experience. Shortly after that however, one of the folks up front (sometimes after walking to the back of the sanctuary), reads literally one sentence to say goodbye to me. Couldn’t she or he just look me in the eye and truly say goodbye, lovingly sending me out into the world to serve God and the folks in my community?

Interestingly enough, it is usually only after the official liturgy is completed that the true liturgy, the true λειτουργία, which translates as “work of the people” or even “public service” typically begins… coffee hour! Now that is a good time! I actually get to hear how my sisters and brothers in Christ are doing. I am blessed and honored to support them in their sorrows, laugh with them amidst great joy and simply hear how God is at work in their lives! I welcome in new guests along with the few folks who have good social skills, perhaps share a light meal and finally have a damn coffee! And after that, this is when things really get good… I either learn something about God in fellowship with others, go on some sort of fun outing, engage in meaningful service with my community or go back home and get to take a nap! What could possibly be better? What could possibly be more meaningful? Waking up way too early was kind of a pain, but wow, it was entirely worth it!

I cannot speak for everyone, or even my generation, but I do know I am not alone in these convictions. In my own tiny part of the global Christian community, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, membership in congregations is steadily declining, yet we can’t sign up folks (and especially young people) fast enough for many of our long-term service programs. Every summer for nearly a decade, I had the privilege of engaging in ministry as a camp counselor at a Lutheran summer camp. For many of the folks I worked with, summers at camp were the most meaningful experiences of their lives, experiences they often interpret as experiencing God’s work while ministering in community. Yet few, and I mean very few, probably ten percent or less, of these same folks go back home and regularly participate in the life of their local congregations. One could make the excuse that these sort of folks are too individualistic, do not have their priorities in order or apply their love of capitalistic choice to their faith life. One could also say (and this option seems quite popular in the Church as of late) that we simply do not educate these folks enough… if only we could teach them how the liturgy is meaningful, they would find the liturgy meaningful!

There is however, another option, one deeply informed by the related concepts of postcolonialism, liberation theology and even community organizing… take the data, take the voice of the people in your context (which includes people outside the church building) seriously! Saul Alinsky, often considered the father of modern community organizing in North America, states the following:
The actual projection of a completely particularized program by a few persons is a highly dictatorial action. It is not a democratic program but a monumental testament to lack of faith in the ability and intelligence of the masses of people to think their way through the successful solution of their problems. It is not a people’s program, and the people will have little to do with it. There should not be too much concern with specifics or details of a people’s program. The program items are not too significant when one considers the enormous importance of getting people interested and participating in a democratic way. After all, the real democratic program is a democratically minded people—a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow men, and the future.
Alinsky is of course coming from the predominately secular perspective of community organizing, but applied to liturgy one could easily change his last sentence to the following: “The real λειτουργία is the work of a democratically minded people—a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow human beings, and most of all, faith in their God.”

In the name of “unity,” or “equality” as a Church, we often hear that all assemblies should do similar things in their liturgies, and that all people should do similar things in a particular assembly, no matter the context. This idea of “unity in similarity” reaches to all levels of our liturgy, even to the level of what we are to wear on a Sunday:
Washed and bleached clean, this garment became one of the basic symbols of baptism… Leaders of the assembly wear it on behalf of us all, showing another way of festive clothing than either “Sunday best” or casual clothes. Indeed, our leaders can thereby step out of the ways in which our current clothing so inevitably communicates gender, sexual attraction, class and wealth, inviting us to another way of considering the human being.
This appeal to “unity in similarity” almost always has the best of intentions, and needs to be honored as such. Yet at the same time, the people are quite clearly crying out, “I don’t want to be bleached clean! I want to come to God’s table as I am, no matter my shape, size or color!” Such data, the voice of the people, must be taken quite seriously. Furthermore, as postcolonialism teaches us, the modernist appeal to universality almost always ends up looking or acting like the dominant culture:
[Universality is] the assumption that there are irreducible features of human life and experience that exist beyond the constitutive effects of local cultural conditions. Universalism offers a hegemonic view of existence by which the experiences, values and expectations of a dominant culture are held to be true for all humanity. For this reason, it is a crucial feature of imperial hegemony, because its assumption (or assertion) of a common humanity - underlies the promulgation of imperial discourse for the ‘advancement’ or ‘improvement’ of the colonized, goals that thus mask the extensive and multifaceted exploitation of the colony.
Baptism, the wider liturgy, and indeed the gospel itself doesn’t bleach us clean! The good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ lets us to see the beauty of our own unique shade of “differentness” amidst the muck of our humanity, and thereby frees us to lovingly share in the beautifully unique differentness of our sisters and brothers as well. 

Our chief objective as we cultivate new spaces, communities and liturgies is not to achieve a perfectly objective equality. Although we should do our best to move toward this, such a thing is not humanly possible— there will always be inherent power dynamics involved in any social situation, at least until the Kingdom of God is fully with us. We should however do our prayerful best to acknowledge those inherent power dynamics. In doing so we can foster a spirit of hybridity where all can share of themselves, learn from each other and experience the Divine alongside one another as a communion of fellow pilgrims moving towards their unique destinations. Through celebrating the beautiful tapestry of differentness that is humanity, and the rich variety of means through which humanity experiences God, the λειτουργία, the work of the people, is focused exactly where it should be—on Christ, on the God who promises to show up where we would least expect Her and Him to be: “The presence of God and the Lamb—and the presence of the water of life and the tree of life that come from God—should be at the center of the assembly of the church.”

Now, the next question we must ask of course, is what would such a liturgy look like? We can say a liturgy should truly be the democratic work of the people, all God’s people, in all their beautifully unique differentness, but it has to look like something. One possibility stems from the largely secular work of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director who developed a “theatre of the oppressed.” Reflecting on Aristotle’s Poetics, Boal discovered that throughout much of Western history the point of theatre was simply to produce a sense of catharsis, and thereby to subjugate the spectator:
… the poetics of Aristotle is the poetics of oppression: the world is known, perfect or about to be perfected, and all its values are imposed on the spectators, who passively delegate power to the characters to act and think in their place. In so doing the spectators purge themselves of their tragic flaw—that is, of something capable of changing society. A catharsis of the revolutionary impetus is produced! Dramatic action substitutes for real action.
Similar to Boal’s understanding of the theatre, the whole point of the gospel, the whole point of the good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ is to free us from whatever may oppress us, whether it be dominant members of our society, from natural phenomenon like disease or disaster, and especially, from ourselves. We are all oppressed, even in a North American context, although it may look slightly different for us here at the center of the empire. Whether through hate, indifference or most often lack of self agency, many of us, myself included, simply cannot help but oppress our sisters and brother both known and unknown, and in turn, we oppress ourselves.

Amidst so much oppression and the guilt that goes along with it, why would we develop liturgies that are supposed to communicate liberation in Christ yet fail to help us recognize our full sense of self expression and self agency in Christ to change this situation? Augusto Boal, speaking through the secular language of theatre, provides us with another option:
“Spectator” is a bad word! The spectator is less than a man and it is necessary to humanize him, to restore to him his capacity of action in all its fullness. He too must be a subject, an actor on an equal plane with those generally accepted as actors, who must also be spectators. All these experiments of a people’s theater have the same objective—the liberation of the spectator, on whom the theater has imposed finished visions of the world… The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or to act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theater is action!
Theatre is not the same as liturgy, but they both are action, as they both indeed can be the work of the people! The way Augusto Boal blurred the line between spectator and actor was to develop a variety of “movement games” through which anyone could participate, even those with little theatrical training. Furthermore, whether it be a theatre or an assembly engaged in liturgy, communities need a facilitator in some sense. In a theatre of the oppressed, this person is not called the narrator or protagonist but the “joker.” The role of the joker is to float above the action, to allow for the greatest degree of self-expression possible, but also to descend into the action when needed. The role of the pastor in a “liturgy of the oppressed” is quite similar—she or he must prayerfully ensure the gospel is communicated, while allowing for the most democratically minded self expression possible.

A basic “liturgy of the oppressed” is attached as an appendix to this paper, one that hopefully proclaims the gospel while taking seriously the presence of Christ in the beautiful differentness of humanity. As this particularly liturgy was developed for a short weekday “Service of the Word” at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, the Meal is unfortunately excluded, although I would consider it central to any Sunday assembly. The traditional Lutheran ordo is followed for the sake of reflecting the liturgical movements of our ancestors but even more for reasons of hospitality, as creating familiar structure hopefully encourages greater self-expression within each individual movement of the liturgy. A “name and gesture” movement game acts as a sort of Kyrie, but a fully participatory “Remembrance of Baptism” rite could greatly strength the Gathering. As a volunteer moves the assembly forward with the “prayer of the day,” it may prove helpful to reflect the prayers of our ancestors through the day’s appointed collects.

The Word portion of the liturgy would look quite different depending on the text(s) used and the folks present in the assembly. If the text for the day is short, reading each phrase and having the assembly repeat seems to work quite well. For longer passages, Bibles should be provided. Although this is of course not a universal observation, I believe a “liturgy of the oppressed” should generally stay away from hymnals, as they often greatly limit self expression. Moving forward, the “columbian hypnosis” movement game then creates an environment for folks in the assembly to have fun, relate to each other and use their bodies in new ways while also exploring social power exchanges. There are a wide variety of more complicated movement games that could also be used, many of which allow for the exploration (and overcoming) of a societal injustice. Discussion then allows the assembly to process the experience, relate it back to the text and most importantly to God’s presence in their lives. The joker should prayerfully shape this discussion to ensure the gospel is communicated. The assembly then responds to the good news in song and prayer. If the liturgy does not include a Meal, the assembly is sent back out into the world with a message of peaceful liberation and community in Christ.

As it has been so aptly stated, “Lutheran worship at its deepest—and this is true of all Western and Eastern Christian worship, as well—is this: a participating and open assembly, served by its ministers, gathered around the bath, the word, the prayers, the table—the very matters which speak and sign Jesus Christ so that the nations may live.” A liturgy of the oppressed takes these central things of worship quite seriously, as they are the gifts Christ gave us to proclaim the gospel. At the same time however, a liturgy of the oppressed also takes seriously the data, the voice of the people, in its context. To say it in a less fancy way, in a liturgy of the oppressed, people matter! The people truly matter! Instead of appealing to the colonialist idea of “unity in similarity,” with everyone engaged in the same action or having “the folks up front” perform the action for them, a more democratic liturgy can develop in which difference is celebrated, not bleached away. Indeed, it is through celebrating the beautiful tapestry of differentness that is our humanity, and especially the innumerable amazing ways God continuously breaks into our lives, that the λειτουργία, the work of the people, is focused exactly where it should be—on Christ, on the God who promises to show up where we would least expect!

A Liturgy of the Oppressed

Greeting: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all! And also with you! 
Name and Gesture: The assembly stands in a circle. The joker begins by stating her first name followed by a physical gesture which is indicative of what feelings and/ or experiences she is bringing into the assembly that day. The whole group then repeats the joker’s name and gesture. This process works around the group until everyone has said their name and performed a gesture. The process is then repeated a second time but without names mentioned. Individuals may wish to step forward and briefly explain to the group why they decided upon their gesture as well. 
Prayer of the Day: The joker invites a volunteer to either pray extemporaneously or pray the appointed collects for the day.
Reading: A short Biblical passage, perhaps one appointed for the day by the Revised Common Lectionary, is read phrase by phrase by the joker, who also invites the assembly to repeat each phrase after it is read. 
Columbian Hypnosis and Discussion: The assembly divides into pairs - choosing role A and role B. A will “hypnotize” B with her or his hand - B must keep her face just a few inches from A’s hand at all times - always an equal distance. A should try to manipulate B into all sorts of positions, using forgotten muscles, liberating her to use the body in a different way than she is accustomed. A & B then switch roles.Remaining in pairs the assembly discusses their experience of being in complete power and without power. They may wish to reread the day’s Bible passage. How does power relate to the Biblical passage just read? How is Christ at work in exchanges of power and the everyday life of the assembly? The assembly then gathers back in a circle and those who wish may share their findings. The joker shapes the conversation as needed to ensure the gospel is communicated. One possible addition: The assembly divides into triads. A hypnotizes B & C using two hands, which may do entirely different movements at any time.A second possible addition: One person (A) stands in the center of the assembly. A hypnotizes two people (Bs) using two hands. Everyone else picks one of the B people to be hypnotized by. 
Hymn of the Day: The joker invites the assembly to proclaim liberation in Christ through a commonly known song for which anyone can call out individual verses. Examples include “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Are Marching in the Light of God.” Movement is encouraged as the assembly is able! 
Prayers of the People: The joker invites the assembly into prayer and then individuals go around the circle offering intercessions as they wish. The Lord’s Prayer is then sung or spoken by the assembly in unison.
Blessing: My sisters and brothers, let us go forth, liberated in Christ to love and serve the world! Thanks be to God! 
Peace: A sign of peace may be shared by all.
Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

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