When is A Subversive Liturgy?

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The easy answer to this question is Thursday nights at 8PM.

But one of our group so insightfully reframed the question to me as "Why now?" What is so unique about this particular moment in history, that we've shown up on Thursday nights--rain or shine--to bring the grief of the neighborhood to the doorsteps of the police station?

So, why now? 

[Now is What Time it Is]

My first response to that question is this: "...because now is what time it is." What do I mean by that? Well, I'm glad you asked. Ava Duvernay's documentary 13th ends abruptly with a statement from one of my favorite voices in the fight for racial justice in America:

People say all the time, ‘well, I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery?’ ‘How could they have made peace with that?’ ‘How could people have gone to a lynching and participated in that?’ ‘That’s so crazy, if I was living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that.’

And the truth is we are living in that time, and we are tolerating it.
— Bryan Stevenson

What many fail to realize is that America's systems of race-based oppression (like slavery and Jim Crow) don't simply "end" as many of us were taught in grade school. The truth is that once it becomes clear that the current societal arrangement is no longer compatible with the trajectory of public opinion, the current system is adapted into a more socially acceptable arrangement of inequity. For example: slavery evolved into Jim Crow. It would have been generally unacceptable to own a black person during the Jim Crow era, but people were still willing to take their kids to picnic where a lynching was the main event. That is a simple enough narrative for us to grasp, but the story of American oppression doesn't end when schools become integrated and black people can vote.

We must never forget that there was so much reluctance about freeing slaves that the 13th amendment didn't make the institution illegal: it just changed the provisions.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
— 13th amendment to the United States Constitution

Those words are not an emphatic announcement for the end of an oppressive institution, but an invitation for that same institution to adapt--and it has.

We must also never forget that slavery and Jim Crow were not the only organized methods of marginalization in America. We were never taught the extent of it, but there are several links in the evolutionary chain of American oppression: black codes, pig law, convict leasing, red-lining, miscegenation laws, and so on. And if we trace the history and practice our criminal justice, prison, and policing systems, we will find the roots of their family tree are firmly planted in the soil of racism. This is what these systems do: they evolve.

We must also never forget that on any night that some apparent step toward justice has been made, that there were millions of Americans who went to bed angry about it. There were millions of Americans who woke up the next morning determined to kick against the goads. There were Americans who longed for the days when America was "great" and "white". There is always a backlash and a desperate attempt to preserve the America where "all" means "some".

When we talk about racism, we are not talking about water under the bridge, something that happened a long time ago. We're talking about right now. We're talking about the ignorance that most Americans have about the history of race relations between the death of Dr. King and today. We did not simply "live happily ever after". Black leaders were systematically killed for continuing the work that people like Dr. King had begun. Black youth were labeled things like "super-predator" and targeted for imprisonment. And our leaders knew exactly what they were doing. John Ehrlichman, advisor to President Nixon, explains:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people, you understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
— from his interview with Dan Baum for Harper's Magazine

The drug war continues to this day, and continues to operate with the same racist ethos, but with better weapons. And so, a subversive liturgy is now, because the moment is now: right now, black people are still being lynched, but by the police instead of the civilian. Right now, black and brown people are locked up on plantations to do cheap labor: we call them prisons. Right now, black people--once labeled a "felon"--are relegated to the margins of American society, just as it was during the Jim Crow era. I understand that these things don't just happen to black people, but black and brown people are far more vulnerable to these realities than their white neighbors. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander compares the reality of white suffering under these systems to something like collateral damage in war: just because civilians die in the explosion, doesn't mean we weren't aiming for the terrorists.

A Subversive Liturgy is now because we feel the gravity of the problem and the urgency of the moment. If you ever read about people like Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. King, etc. and wished you could invest your life in so great a cause, then this is the moment. Now is what time it is.

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[Now is What Time it Is]

My second response to this question would be "Now is what time it is..." but this time in response to a common critique of any justice movement: that we need just be patient and things will change. Dr. King faced that criticism in his leadership of direct action toward social justice. His colleagues, fellow white ministers, called his efforts "unwise and untimely". His response is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’
— Letter from a Birmingham Jail

There is no sense, or historical proof, that given time alone, people will see the errors of their ways. There is no case in American history where people have simply woken up one morning and thought, "you know, we really ought to give women the right to vote," or something like that. In nearly very case, issues of equity are fought for, hard won, and barely maintained. There is no sense in waiting for justice to just happen. We are not naturally evolving in such a way. The time for justice is always right now.

So then, A Subversive Liturgy is now because the moment to fight for justice is now.

[Now is What Time it Is]

Finally, to answer that question, I would respond: "because now is what time it is..."

Since July, I've been carrying a rock around Los Angeles to show the burden of racism on the black psyche. In these 6 months, I have only had one negative encounter with anyone on the streets. I've spoken at universities and churches without sugarcoating the issue, and I've seen people deeply moved to see God appear in the midst of this crisis. 

The point of carrying the rock around is to reveal something to people that usually exists under the surface; but, in these months I've become convinced--and I don't talk like this often or lightly--that this unveiling of the racial crisis in America is what God is trying to do in the church right now. The churches are free to see what God reveals, or to turn away. But to those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see: now is the time.

And so A Subversive Liturgy is now because now is the time to speak candidly about the world that is. It's not time--if it ever were--to worry about offending those who have yet to see. It's time to prioritize people's lives over other people's feelings. It's time to call systems of oppression and violence what they are: demonic, satanic, and doomed. Now is the time to stop partaking in Babylon, to come out and be separate. I'm convinced that those who don't discern the time will be in a world of grief when it all comes tumbling down, because it will: the Spirit of the Lord, through the people of God, will accomplish this.