01 May 2014

Worship and protest

Evelyn Underhill gave us a powerful description of worship: "the response of the creature to the Eternal." To those hungry for truth, she advised: "It is by worship alone that we have access to the Holy and the Real." Specifically describing Quakers' silent worship, she wrote, "The essence of worship is 'the quiet gathering of souls together to share fellowship with God' [quoting London Yearly Meeting's epistle for 1925] in a corporate silence which ensures the perfect freedom of each individual soul, yet is a powerful bond of union between all submitted to its influence."

Sam Walton (Facebook); source.
I thought about Underhill's words when I read about the group of British Friends who held a meeting for worship at the British Museum to protest BP's financial involvement with the museum. Among the texts they brought to the museum were Desmond Tutu's words, "People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change." You can read about this protest here and here.

Ever since Pussy Riot performed their punk-music prayer inside Moscow's Church of Christ the Savior, asking the Mother of God to do something about the Russian president, I've been thinking a lot about the nature and boundaries of protest-as-worship (or, if you prefer, worship-as-protest). There's something about the very idea that makes me uneasy, but I hope it is a creative uneasiness rather than something negative and condemning.

I've participated more than once in worship services that were intended as protest. When I lived at Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston, Massachusetts, I participated in the annual Good Friday Peace Vigil on Boston Common, and in the vigils marking the period between the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic attacks, August 6 and 9. Another moving memory from those years is an ecumenical vigil at Electric Boat's shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, in September 1979, protesting the U.S. Navy's plans to name a submarine "Corpus Christi" (body of Christ). In a tiny victory, the Navy subsequently added "City of" to clarify that they were referring to a city in Texas. Ironically, the submarine's motto, according to Wikipedia, is "For God and Country."

During those Beacon Hill years, I was part of a weekly Bible study group. We named ourselves Ailanthus after the hardy ailanthus tree, the "tree of heaven." On Sunday we would meet for worship and Bible study, and on Mondays some of us would reconvene at the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge to protest its work in developing ballistic missile guidance systems. We believed that Monday's actions were a direct and spiritual continuation of Sunday's Bible study. Some of us were led to trespass on Draper's territory; when those who were arrested came to trial, we continued our prayers in the courtroom.

(One of Ailanthus's members, Bob Hillegass of Wellesley Friends Meeting, wrote a Pendle Hill Pamphlet about his experiences, Non-Violence on Trial.)

Independence Day, July 4, 2003. 
In Oregon, I participated in several so-called social exorcisms, which were brief ecumenical worship services in public places (including, once, the State Capitol building in Salem) to confront and cast out the sins of violence, racism, and greed in the name of Jesus. The service that made me most nervous was one in which we prayerfully washed an American flag on which the words arrogance, inequality, greed, injustice, fear and violence had been daubed. Right there in front of the federal office building in downtown Portland, I wondered whether we might be arrested or physically attacked for desecrating the Stars and Stripes. As we prayed our casting-out prayers, two of us gently washed the words out of the flag, then raised it up again, clean.

Can I honestly say that in all those instances of worship, I was in the sort of spiritual place that Evelyn Underhill describes?
  • Was there truly a "powerful bond of union," as Underhill says, and was God part of it? 
  • Was there any of the elitism and spiritual exhibitionism that Jesus warns us against
  • Was there an element of emotional coercion in our attitude toward our involuntary audiences?--"Take us ever so much more seriously, and don't lay a finger on us, because we are worshipping!
  • Was there a way for bystanders to gain access to our community and learn more about why the name of Jesus has power?
  • Maybe the first question should have been, whose idea was this thing? Ours or God's? (This question isn't as simple or as binary as I'm implying!)
In addition, there might be some specifically Quaker cautions. Since protest-as-worship is a form of programmed meeting, usually involving pre-arranged content and form, it is subject to the disciplines of any Friends programmed meeting: are the elements and texts chosen with the same sensitivity to the leadings of the Holy Spirit as unprogrammed Friends claim for their form of worship? And consequently, are we completely ready to abandon any plan that no longer seems to conform to the Spirit's guidance? (If the Holy Spirit were to tell us, "I want you to stand up and pray publicly for Electric Boat, or for BP," would we obey?)

No, my own experience did not always measure up to these queries. But in most cases, I think that, imperfect as we were, we were right to take the risk. And this review of my own experiences is now making me humble enough not to judge hastily when others, such as the British Friends confronting BP, also attempt similar protests and claim that they are truly acts of worship.

In the USA, today is the National Day of Prayer. Anne Graham Lotz's prayer for today includes these powerful words:
You are merciful and forgiving. You are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame because we have sinned against You, and done wrong. We have turned away from Your commands and principles. We have turned away from You.

Yet You have promised in 2 Chronicles 7, that if we--a people identified with You--would humble ourselves, pray, seek Your face, and turn from our wicked ways, then You would hear our prayer, forgive our sin and heal our land.

So we choose to stop pointing our finger at the sins of others, and examine our own hearts and lives. We choose to acknowledge our own sin--our neglect and defiance and ignorance and even rejection of You. This day we choose to repent.
"I didn't really want to be Archbishop." (In this interview, Rowan Williams weighs in on, among other things, the "Is Britain Christian?" conversation.)

"The War on Truth in Ukraine. ("The fragmentation of consensus about critical events and the degradation of legitimate political authority are like two apocalyptic horsemen riding together.") Also see "Pundits say presidents who won't lead the country into war have trouble leading it anywhere."

Post-Protestant and post-Catholic? "Peter Leithart's 'Church of the Future'."

"There is nothing funny about last night's botched execution in Oklahoma."

"The Kremlin's Rock 'n Roll Revisionism."

The tightening controls on the Runet (Russian Internet space) and activists' responses.

Norwegians invade Sweden ... J.T. Lauritsen and the Buckshot Hunters at Åmål Bluesfestival.


Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks for this, Johan. They are helpful queries, especially as Earth Quaker Action Team experiments with using worship in our actions. In the three cases that I've been part of, it has felt powerfully connective and Spirit-led, though I can see that it could easily become a habit or ploy for us if we are not mindful. I especially appreciate the question, "Who's idea was it?" Here's an account of my recent experience: http://www.eileenflanagan.com/blog/2014/5/3/not-standing-alone.html

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Eileen! "It would really only feel powerful if we were actually praying..."--exactly! Thanks for the link to your candid narrative! It was clearly not easy to keep spiritual focus while trying to honor the shifting imperatives of timing, security, and so on. It's like Thomas Kelly urging us to live in the eternal now.

Jay T. said...

I must have missed this post seven years ago. Your questions are more pertinent now for me, as I've been coordinating an annual bicycle Ride of Silence in Corvallis for a few years and helped lead a series of demonstrations for crosswalk safety in my neighborhood winter before last.

Your comment, "in most cases, I think that, imperfect as we were, we were right to take the risk," reflects my experience with the acts and words of ministry I've been led to offer.