Occupy Liturgy

Dr. Jennifer W. Davidson,

Assistant Professor of Worship & Theology

“I am Andrea.”

“I am Andrea.”

“I am Andrea.”

The voices moved through the crowd in waves, beginning with a single voice of a young woman on the steps of Sproul Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley. But her voice was carried on the voices of others, as the General Assembly on November 15, 2011, (reported to be the largest GA so far of the occupy movements) employed the “people’s mic” system of communicating. When using the people’s mic, the assembly repeats each phrase of the speaker, so that everyone can hear what has been said. When the crowd is especially large, each phrase gets repeated multiple times in waves until everyone has heard and spoken the same message no matter how far the assembly extends.

Those of you who know American Baptist Seminary of the West, know that it is blocks away from Sproul Hall and directly across the street from People’s Park in Berkeley. A park with a deep and still-resounding history, though in recent years it is a site where the woundedness of our society is most clearly seen in the faces of those who live outside in the Park year-round—some in the grips of drug or alcohol addiction, some in the grips of mental illness, all hungry and, in the rainy season, cold and wet. The strength of the history of People’s Park as well as the literal cries of the people who live there now, are woven into our classroom space and into my teaching at the seminary.

So it was, as a professor of worship and theology at ABSW, that I was drawn immediately to the GA’s use of the people’s mic as a powerful, liturgical method of communication. Its similarity to responsive readings, so common in worship, in which the leader speaks and the assembly responds, was evident at first. But, in fact, it is much more than that.

In this case, the assembly doesn’t have a pre-printed or pre-set response as it would in worship. Instead, the people repeat exactly what the speaker says. One person’s voice is carried by the voices of hundreds, of thousands of voices, speaking the same words.

Think about the power of that for a moment. In a culture that has seemingly forgotten how to listen, in a culture that has been shouting at one another, talking over one another, the people’s mic is transformative communication.

It relies on everyone listening—as the words get repeated in three or four word phrases, in waves from the front of the crowd to an invisible back of the crowd. One can almost imagine that the crowd and the words themselves stretch out infinitely behind us. The message ripples endlessly on and on around the globe.

It relies on everyone listening, but it also relies on patience. The speaker must patiently wait until the rippling message stops before she speaks another phrase. The assembly must patiently wait before they hear what the rest of the sentence will be, the completion of the thought.

It relies on listening, it relies on patience, but it also relies on the assembly also speaking. The people’s mic doesn’t work if the people stop moving the message along. Communication breaks down. The message dies out. The assembly must speak or no one can listen.

Two things resonate for me here. The first is that this method of speaking, listening, waiting, and speaking again so that all can hear, all can understand, shimmers for me with the movement of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Here we were, a large crowd gathered, used to speaking our own languages (whether the language of youth, of the street, of the academy, of Fox News, of the Daily Show, or Colbert Nation) now speaking the same language, the same words. Now listening, as we’ve not had to listen in a very, very long time. And speaking the same words as if they were our own.

The second thing that resonates is that all of this matters because words matter. And saying words matter. The philosopher of language J. R. Searle writes about the performative quality of language in which the words we say have the power to shape the world we live in. This may sound fantastical at first, especially because of the cheapening of words in advertising and mass media. But it is a truth that we actually take for granted: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit;” “I now declare you husband and wife.” Words do not only have performative qualities in ritual to reshape personal realities, but they also can reshape reality on a global scale, such as in declarations of war. These phrases, when spoken in the right moment and with a sense of authority granted to them, change lived reality. Words matter. Saying words matter.

Hear that again: The words—in connection to the moment and spoken with authority—change lived reality. At the General Assembly on Tuesday night, the moment was the coming together of a group of people who were unknown to one another. It was also the coming together of the Occupy Oakland and the Occupy Cal movements. The ones who spoke were granted authority by the assembly itself. And reality changed. Now this crowd was no longer simply a group of people; rather, they had been formed into an assembly, into a new social body.

I couldn’t help but think of this when I heard a single, woman’s voice coming dimly through a distant bullhorn from the steps of Sproul Hall, “I am Andrea,” then listened as the assembly repeated her phrase in the now familiar waves: “I am Andrea;” “I am Andrea;” “I am Andrea.”

Notice that the crowd didn’t say, “You are Andrea.” Instead, they kept her words in tact, and repeated in astounding solidarity, “I am Andrea.”

Hear this language with the echo of another liturgy that forms us into yet another social body—the church, the body of Christ: “This is my body;” “This is my body;” “This is my body.” “Broken for you;” “Broken for you;” “Broken for you.”

Now, suddenly, the Greek word leitourgia, the ancestor to our word liturgy, takes on a deeper meaning in contemporary context. While the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia as “work of the people” has been contested in recent years as a too simplistic rendering, there is a sense in which the work of the people at the General Assemblies of the occupy movements gives us a better feel for the original meaning behind the Greek leitourgia.

In its original sense, leitourgia is the work of the people on behalf of the people and for the benefit of the people. When we overlay the GA’s words of solidarity, “I am Andrea,” with our own familiar, “This is my body,” we understand that worship is leitourgia because it is what forms us into a people. We participate in the liturgy because it shapes our reality, because it forms us into a new social body—the body of Christ in the world and for the world.

It is too easy to lose the counter-cultural potential in our worship. Sometimes it takes the Spirit moving in unexpected places and in unexpected ways to remind us of the ways the Spirit is always moving faithfully in our midst—indeed, moving so that we might also be moved to faithful life.

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