Race, Liturgy, & My Great Awokening

My wife will tell you I have a “both sides” problem. I reflexively think through hard things by trying to see them from all sides and treating them equally. But inevitably, while this makes me think I’m acting “enlightened” and “objective”, that’s largely an illusion–and quite often, it does more harm than good.

At least when I employ it, it gives me a false sense that I am hovering above the conflict and that I am not actual mired by my own bias, defensiveness, and not actually being affected by the conflict itself.

But too often, rather than nobly making space and elevating other perspectives and voices, it leads me to prioritize my own voice and simply invalidate that of others.

And that’s precisely what happened in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin.

After Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, I watched the struggle and lament from black America, and felt an odd disconnect. I felt like I could “see both sides” and “understand” why white America was confused why this particular moment was so galvanizing for blacks.

I wrote a blog post about my frustration that me, as a white man, did not feel like I was culturally “allowed” to speak to these issues. The post is bad. I’m still incredibly embarrassed and ashamed of it–but I’ve kept it online (with a note) to document change and repentance.

I had great friends that really laid into me about that post. They took me to task, were patient with me, fully articulated their thoughts, and demonstrated the implications of and ideas behind the things I was saying. It gave me a lot of pause and made me wonder what I was missing–because while I trusted them, I simply couldn’t see what they were seeing.

* * * *

Around that time I watched a special by the comedian Dane Cook at Madison Square Garden. His final joke of the night was about religion. To set it up, he began with “I was raised Catholic…” but was interrupted by cheers in the crowd.

He stops, takes note, and says, “Peace be with you!” and in return tens of thousands of people responded in unison with the ancient liturgical reply: “And also with you”.

Now, huge numbers of those people had probably abandoned their Catholicism long ago, and yet the repetitive week-in, week-out liturgy of their Catholic upbringings had embedded itself in their psyches so they knew how to reflexively respond in that moment to the words of the liturgy–even if they had left the Church decades prior. 

I don’t know how or why this happened, but it was in that moment that everything my friends had been telling me about race and privilege clicked for me.

I saw the lament in the black community over Trayvon as an almost liturgical response: a spiritual and communal reflex in the movements of the world around them.

I could see how this liturgy was deeply embedded, meaning it had been done over-and-over-and-over again for centuries, based in real events and real history–and not in-the-moment reactivity, imagined oppression, political manipulation, or grand-standing by race-baiting charlatans.

In the liturgical call and response that had sustained American blacks through centuries, the call is the oppression, pain, and violence; the response is the lament, mobilization, and collective grief and anger.

Theologically, liturgy is not just a nice or efficient way to organize a gathering–it actually does something to us. Those repetitive words, gestures, flow, give people a story and shape their identity as a community. It’s incredibly affecting and meaningful.

How much more so, then, when that liturgy is formed in response to prejudice, violence, suffering, and institutionalized marginalization?

Two quick implications of this:

First, liturgies like this are based in reality, not fantasy.

As the work of philosopher James K.A. Smith helps us see, cultural liturgies this broad, this visceral, and this powerful do not come from purely imagined or far distant historical things. They are reinforced over time and sustained in response to actual embodied experiences.

The collective response of huge swaths of the black community to certain events speaks to the reality of the phenomena, even if one could quibble about the specifics of a particular case. The strength of this cultural liturgy testifies to the reality and depth of that community’s experience even prior to a particular event.

To be clear, not every cultural liturgy is good, right, or (sometimes) even true. But the most powerful and enduring ones are based in things that are real. They are responses to actual stimuli. So to “well, actually…” this liturgy, or to assume its participants aren’t reacting to real things, is to rob them of their dignity, voice, and invalidate the conversation before it’s even begun.

Second, this liturgical story isn’t mine to critique.

It isn’t my place to offer “opinions” or “perspective” about the lived-in story that much of black America inhabits. I haven’t lived the movements, language, history, or principles underneath that liturgy.

I have been to religious gatherings where the liturgy was very foreign to me and I did not understand at all what was going on. It would be fairly nonsensical for me to look at it and say, therefore, that it is “wrong” or “unfactual” or “untrue”.

A cultural liturgy is not really the kind of thing that can be evaluated or related to on those terms. It’s not an argument made; it’s a communal identity and self-understanding forged through history and passed on, reinforced when echoes of that history are experienced in the lives of subsequent generations.

And so I, as a white person, can no more critique–or much less understand–this liturgical life of black America anymore than an atheist with no exposure to Christianity can explain why my church’s liturgy is “wrong”.

Instead of scrutinizing this liturgy, my main role is to listen to it, respect it, honor it, and to whatever extent I can, help protect the life-giving, survival functions of their participation in those movements. 

This also helps us understand systemic racism.

As I said before: there are wicked liturgies as well. There are patterns and rhythms of existence, economics, politics, and culture that shape people in toxic ways and de-humanize other groups. And I’d argue that much of white America has these sorts of racial liturgies.

Liturgies actually shape and form people as a people–not just as individuals. Each person participates as an individual, but they do so as a whole, so the result becomes something bigger than the sum of its parts. It becomes something systemic and institutional, regardless of the actually thoughts going on in each individual as they go through the movements of that liturgy.

I’d argue this is part of what’s meant by “systemic racism”. It is not that each member is consciously, intentionally thinking and doing racist things. Many of them are actively trying not to do that!

And yet America has a very old liturgy that was created from our beginning without the voice or input or shaping by black Americans. In fact, much of it was shaped in ways actively hostile to blacks. We’ve changed some key, explicit parts of our liturgy in this regard, but somf its basic, more subtle identity-forming shape still remains.

So we ought to listen when black Americans tell us they feel like this national liturgy is not their own, that they feel they don’t have a voice in it, that it continues to make them feel like they’re on the outside looking in, and that it leads to disproportionate violence, disdain, disadvantage, and prejudice against them (regardless of people’s conscious intent).

We ought to take those cries seriously, granting the legitimacy of their communal experience, seeking not to try and force or argue for a change in their liturgy of lament and rage, but to understand and respond to the circumstances which this liturgy is responding to in the first place.

So may we white people not default into our own defensive liturgies that blind us to the experiences of others and bring defensiveness, hypersensitivity, and nit-picking. May we grant the reality of experience within much of black America and see how we might respond to it and work with it rather than trying to critique it from above.

May we strive to form a national liturgy of repentance, restoration, humility, and seeking to serve and love our hurting and dying neighbors.

Peace be with us. (And also with you.)

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