Why a Subversive Liturgy?

(Part 6 of 7?)

(To answer the "why?" question of our ongoing prayer protest at the police station, I thought it best to share my initial invitation to our Advent services from a Facebook Live broadcast in late November, with some minor edits.)

As the air grows colder, and leaves begin to change color, and the shadows grow long at a much earlier sunset, we know that the holiday season is coming. We also know that this “most wonderful time of the year” is also a season of sickness and sadness.

In every winter, there is deep grief and suffering, but—considering our particular moment in history—this winter seems likely to be intense.

[A Season of Sadness]

This year, many of us are dragging the pain of disillusionment with our country into these long nights of November and December. It isn’t just the exhausting infighting we’ve done through these presidential campaigns. It is not even only the constant witness of political violence against the most vulnerable people groups in our society. It is the resilience of these oppressive, violent, and dehumanizing social structures that burdens so many of us. It is the fact that in 2016, the institution of slavery lives on in the US. It is the fact that in 2016, America has still yet to repent of the violence against the natives of this land. It is the fact that in 2016, the same rhetoric of fear that was used to criminalize the civil rights movement can be effectively employed to today. That in 2016 we have yet to live up to those words written at Lady Liberty’s feet:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
— From "The New Colussus" by Emma Lazarus

No. It seems that we come to the end of 2016 still unable to cash that check that Dr. King spoke about on that famous day when he told us about his dream. And so we trudge into this holiday season with sore feet from marching, and swollen throats from shouting truths that not even our neighbors (not to mention the powerful) want to hear; with brains fogged with existential fears of prison cells and police sirens, and religious registries, and Ku Klux Klan marches, and random hate crimes, while Bing Crosby sings to us that this is the season to be jolly. I don’t say these things to be a contrarian, but to be honest: there’s a thin line between optimism and delusion, and the difference between the two is that one is looking the ugly truth in the face—and the truth is, that many of us are in pain. We can be comforted in that pain. We can find joy in the midst of that pain. But we also need to face it. We need to name it.

[A Season of Sickness]

And in this season, many of us are fighting off sickness. I’m deeply concerned for the health of many American churches. I’m seeing many disturbing symptoms—some ailment that has rendered so many pastors silent in the face of so much pain. For so many, church has become a miscellaneous activity, where we sing songs with vague references about a God who really loves to cuddle us, but pays no attention to the specific challenges that may threaten our very lives from Monday to Saturday. We hear about a God who would wage an actual war on the gods of Egypt to free actual corporeal Israelite bodies, but—apparently—will do no such thing for the immigrant, or the Muslim, or the woman, or the person of color, or the poor, or the transgendered, or any of the other underprivileged in our society. Church, for so many, is where people run to escape, and hear stories about a god whose only good news is that one day we will die and live in heaven.

And to that I say, if death is the best that God can do, then I’ll pass. Because as I live and breathe, I need to be saved. I need to be saved from the officer who doesn’t know that society has trained him to see young men like me as a criminal; and, whether he is aware of it or not, he is 5x’s more likely for brutalize me than my white neighbor. I need to be saved from the voracious prisons that hold dozens of wrongfully convicted citizens—many of whom should be in a mental health facility, or committed some act shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place. I need to be saved from a system that will label people as irredeemable felons and mark them for strategic exclusion from full participation in American society. I need the God who moved Israelite bodies from under the lash of the overseer, from the reach of charioteers spear, and from the brickyards of Egypt to show up and save me.

And so many others need the space to cry out to that God, and to lament the various forms of oppression and violence that they suffer. Every Sunday, people drag these burdens into churches who are either too afraid to acknowledge them or too comfortable to notice. And so, for many, Sunday is a day where we are encouraged to rehearse a dishonest liturgy of numbness—a ritual that spins the fiction that to worship Jesus is somehow not a political act, and that we are somehow unaffected by who is king. A liturgy that gives us little space for grief and lament—if any. A liturgy that never questions Caesar.

And so...

we need a more subversive liturgy. We need a liturgy that rehearses in the truth about the world—that it is God’s temple, and it matters what happens here. We need a liturgy that reminds us that we are primarily citizens of God’s kingdom, and therefore we cannot remain complicit in oppressive systems of violence. We need a liturgy that wakes us up from the national myths that our society uses as fig leaves to cover our traditions of injustice. We need a liturgy that reminds us that God is on the throne, and therefore all rulers and powers, on their respective thrones who don't participate in creating the world God intended are in rebellion. We need a liturgy that gives us space to lament and to grieve, because God hears the cries of the oppressed and answers. We need a liturgy that calls us deeper into the world as God’s co-regents, commissioned with its care, and reminds us that a part of that vocation of human is justice.

These religious organizations that care more about their branding than about the bodies of those still thirsting for clean water in Flint, or the bodies falling in the streets from police violence, or the bodies starved for food under bridges and alleyways in our cities, are being unfaithful to the tradition we received from the ancients. If the only time we can see the value of bodies is when we’re thinking about them not showing up to your building on Sunday, ultimately effecting the tithe, then we've become nothing more than peddlers of religion. We need to repent and resume our places in God’s kingdom as ministers, because people are sad and sick, and need to find the presence and activity of God in their locale. We’re always talking about how God wants to meet people where they are, but we don’t want to go to their neighborhood! But isn’t that the gospel? That the Word put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood?

And so this Advent, we're going to the police station to lament. That type of speech is both prayer and protest. It is essentially saying "things are not okay!" and that type of awareness and announcement is something the status quo abhors. We're going to sing, and remind ourselves, of a greater kingdom with a greater King who is coming to make the world right. This ongoing vigil will be our act of protest. After all, the church is by definition a community in protest rehearsing a subversive liturgy.