The opening lines of Michael Eric Dyson’s latest work tell us that America is in trouble. He goes on to say that everywhere we turn we see discord and division, death and destruction. I think he is absolutely correct (Dyson 2017). It is true that U.S. history is fraught with dissonance, and the very DNA of this grand democratic experiment is laden with revolutionary polarities; however, this moment in history exhibits a profound bifurcation that cannot, and should not, be ignored. Amidst the partisan atmosphere where the worst of humanity’s xenophobia seems to have become normalized, the church has the opportunity to be quite radical and countercultural.
We are currently embroiled in some of modernity’s worst problems: mindless relativism, corrosive cynicism, disdain for tradition and human dignity, and indifference to suffering and death. However, we have the opportunity to ensure that our liturgies and worship experiences provide a public space that offers a critique of, and an alternative to, global militarization, the commodification of personhood, multinational corporate greed, racism, patriarchy, and the other failures of love that plague our society.
All positive religions contain three distinct parts: First, a code of morals that is nearly the same in all; second, a geological dream; and, third, a myth or historical novelette, in which the last becomes the most important of all (Buell 2006). I believe that the scripture, at least the Bible as we now have it, is a record of our ancestors in faith seeking to worship God (Spong 1998). Moments occur in the recorded narrative when those who lived before us got it right, and definite moments are recorded when they missed the mark. We learn what is necessary to be successful in navigating our world by interrogating their attempts in their own contexts. If we are to take seriously the ancient attempts at worshipping God, we must consider the admonition to the church at Rome not to be conformed to this world. Rather we are told to be transformed by renewing our minds (Romans 12:2). Here the ancient writer calls the Church to its countercultural work, and asks that we not conform to the ethos of our particular epoch, but rather allow gospel values to lift a prophetic witness against the lower inclinations of our human condition. Because some components of every culture are dehumanizing and contrary to the gospel message, our worship must transform cultural patterns that idolize the self (or a group), at the expense of the wider human community (Wilkey 2014).
Perhaps God is using the turmoil of this moment to invite the church into a new way of being gospel messengers. It might be that in our current sociopolitical climate we reimagine what is good and right in our praxis as church, holding on to only those practices that redeem. Our hymnody, Eucharistic celebration, and preaching moments should call on each individual to abandon every habit that wars with their physical welfare and moral improvement, and to produce—by appeals to the reason and conscience—the love of inward order that leads to the wellbeing of the collective (Buell 2006). We must ask our congregations key questions upon which the success of our grand social experiment hinges: Can we be equitable? Can we listen deeply? Beyond our intellect? With our heart? Can we offer our attention rather than our opinions? We seem bifurcated in our intentions, while we long to be generous and equitable, at the same time, we cling jealously to our share (Palmer 2011). As we attempt to live into the mission of the church, my prayer is that we will become the passionately reasoned voice of compassion and justice in the midst of the insanity that is our present moment.
Peace Is Possible,
Bishop Edward Donalson, III | Director of Liturgy and Worship
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Buell, Lawrence, ed. 2006. The American Transcendetalists. New York: The Modern Library.
Dyson, Michael Eric. 2017. Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America . New York: St. Martins Press.
Palmer, Parker J. 2011. Healing The Heart of Democracy. SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass.
Spong, John Shelby. 1998. Why Christianity Must Change or Die. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Wilkey, Gláucia Vasconcelos, ed. 2014. Worship and Culture: Foreign Country or Homeland. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.