What is A Subversive Liturgy?
Part 3 of 7
A couple of weeks before Advent began, All Saints Rector Mike Kinman and I were anointing the ground at the police station as people began to gather.
We spoke about checking in on Facebook as a way of spreading the word; after all, a protest is largely about raising awareness. "So what are we calling this?" Mike asked.
"Well," I hesitated, "I've been calling it a subversive liturgy."
"I like that. All liturgies should be subversive, I think," he replied with a smile.
Full disclosure: "a subversive liturgy" was supposed to be a subtitle. You know, as in "sexy-and-intriguing-event-title: a subversive liturgy." But that sexy and intriguing event title never came, and we couldn't wait around for it.
So, I wasn't surprised that many people who came to our gatherings had two questions: (1) What does "subversive" mean? and (2) What is a liturgy?
[The Work of the People]
Liturgy comes from a Greek word meaning "the work of the people"; and we usually use it to refer to a worship service. I know that is a really simplistic definition, but we know it best as a type of religious ritual: a Catholic mass, an Orthodox divine, a Sunday morning worship service. It makes total sense that "the work of the people" and worship are conceptually bonded--that they go together--but I'm betting that most congregants have never heard the connection.
What do work and worship have to do with one another? Everything. We read in Genesis that Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden to "work and take care of it" (2:15). The word rendered "work" in that passage is the same word used to describe the work of priests. So then, the work of being human, of caring for the world around us, is also our worship to God. And caring for the world around us is not just being good to the environment and nice to animals, but also loving our neighbor. And there can be no love of neighbor where justice is absent, because justice is how we love our neighbors: we do what is right by them.
So then, when we take part in a liturgy, we are re-orienting ourselves to the work that is our worship. The church service isn't the primary place where we worship. It's a moment where we remember the work and rehearse it. It is helping us to truly do the work of the people when we leave that space. That is all in an ideal sense. What actually tends to happen is not so beautiful.
[The Liturgy of Indifference]
For many people, church is a place to escape from the world. We are overwhelmed by the chaos in our newsfeeds and neighborhoods. We feel that the problems are too large and complex to be solved. We don't want to be held responsible for the state of the world. God will fix it, we think to ourselves; or, we won't have to worry about any of this when we get to heaven. We don't realize that managing the world is actually the work of the people:
These are things we assume God intends to do unilaterally, but the very first page in the Bible is inviting people to participate in this essential work of God.
But we don't need the Bible to tell us about the extent of human agency to shape the world. History alone could tell us that. The story of humankind can tell us why the climate is changing, why certain animals are nearly extinct, and why certain people groups continue to suffer under various forms of societal oppression.
They should have taught to us in Sunday school to sing "He Put the Whole World in Our Hands," because that is what the psalmist sings:
The tragedy of practicing rituals that lure us away from the world, and numb us to the pain thereof, is that it has the same result as actively participating in the chaos. We may not be personally enslaving anyone, killing anyone, or mistreating anyone, but we're checking out in the name of Jesus: leaving a clear path between predator and prey.
The indictment in Jesus' parable about the Samaritan is that the priest and the Levite are too busy with religion to give a shit, and that God isn't looking for that kind of religion.
History has shown us over and over again that a liturgy of indifference shapes indifferent people; and the world doesn't need a surplus of evil people for chaos to thrive.
For far too long, American Christians have participated in rituals that confirm us in our indifference and excuse us from our vocation to participate in the work of God. Pastors and worship leaders sing us lullaby sermons and songs make us comfortably unconscious to the pain of our neighbors, and to God's desire for justice. We have liturgies that distract us with cultural myths and serve oppressive systems. This should not be.
[A Subversive Liturgy]
Something subversive is meant to undermine or disrupt. We obviously wanted to disrupt the silence surrounding JR Thomas' death by the Pasadena Police. But it also became apparent that many of our churches were not going to broach the specific chaos that many of us were experiencing: systemic racism, Trump's campaign of opportunism, the threat of deportation, etc. Our liturgy was meant to undermine the liturgy of indifference. We were going to bring those specific needs, fears, and frustrations, from our current location in history, into the presence of God. We were going to name them without any type of censorship. This liturgy was going to (hopefully) bring us deeper into our world and to help us find the presence of God there.
This post could easily be a book, and so it seems right to stop here. A Subversive Liturgy is (in part) a ritual of resistance to fictional lullabies of culture and apathetic religion...at least I hope that's what it is. We don't gather there to escape, but to bear witness to the pain of our world in within earshot of the powerful. In that way, the liturgy is a protest against the current exercise of power; because, if the powers that be would rule with equity, then there would be no need for such a liturgy. In other ways, it's a protest against the silence and complicity of many of our churches; because (again), if we were being rehearsed in a liturgy that brought us deeper into the world, our meeting wouldn't be necessary.
So what are we doing exactly?
We hope, the work of the people.