January 25, 2013

Political Theology Musings: Amos Yong's Cosmopolitical Liturgics of Resistance

That's what he calls it anyway.

Looking closely at passages like Acts 12:3-5 and 16:25, where early Christians respond to imprisonment and persecution with prayer and praise, Professor Amos Yong, in his book In the Days of Caesar, draws some interesting conclusions for the Church's liturgical practices today, and he does so with his pentecostal sensibilities fully engaged. He writes, "For starters, the prayers, songs, scriptural recitations, and sacramental modalities of the liturgy are formative of human habits, character, and agency", which means liturgy shapes both ethical and political agents (this makes me wonder whether Christians who are disengaged, for whatever reason, from the political consequences of Christian faith are being shaped by liturgy. Perhaps, using Yong's language, some liturgical practices are not "dense" enough?) (155). Also, liturgies are memorial and anticipatory. Anticipatory in the sense of "enacting the promises of Scripture with regard to how the world should be" (156). Basically, singing songs of praise and praying in corporate worship shape the body, and individuals, for political engagement and are in and of themselves proper political responses.

Yong's perspective is that worship, prayer and exorcism--did I fail to mention he is working towards a distinctly pentecostal political theology?--are not apolitical, but actually robust alternative political practices. This may ruin any "clean" Christian's understanding, who's goal is to remain unscathed by the whirlwinds of our world's political affairs. But if Yong is right, "worshipping God" and singing those Sunday morning hymns is, and has always been, thoroughly political in nature.

"Praise is the distinctive liturgical moment where believers adore God, extol God's majesty, and glorify God's name" and, quoting William Stringfellow, "'exposes the scandal of emperors deemed divine, or principalities treated idolatrously, of national vanity displacing God, of death extolled.' In this light, all of Christian praise enthrones God above every other power. Simultaneously, praise de-absolutizes the historical, the national, and the mundane; praise dethrones the powers, or at least identifies their creational status and place under the lordship of God; and praise exposes the idols of our lives" (157). Adoring God above all can sometimes seem empty of the denouncing-of-false-gods aspect, but it is always there. When I open my mouth and my lips announce the Lordship of Jesus, all "Caesars" of the day take a knee alongside me.

So, if worship is not, then, "a private act accomplished by isolated religious persons, but a public celebration that is lived out as a communal form of life" as an alternative political practice, how would prayer be situated within its political dimensions? I mean sure, sometimes church leaders--the Christian Right is famous for this--will pray explicitly political prayers for the purification of the state or the obedience of our leaders to God's will and so forth. But Yong wants to look pass these moments into the more subversive political nature of prayer.

"On the one hand, prayer reflects our casting aside our own schemes, plans, efforts, power, etc., and our reliance upon the power of God; in other words, prayer acknowledges our weakness and dependence on God. But on the other hand, prayer recognizes that our opponents are, scandalously, not only other human beings and institutions, but the principalities and powers, and that therefore the most effective weapons, even in the domains of the social, economics, and political, are spiritual" (157). Prayer, it would seem, as suggested by Yong, has a life outside church walls. Implications? Indeed...

But there is one last element to Yong's (tri) politico-liturgical exposition: exorcism. Though the word may inspire cringing, Yong wants to redeem it (word and practice), carefully coming against Western churches' "disregard of the important ritual function of banishing the powers of darkness" (159). While keeping in mind that for the first 1,000 years of Christian faith a "renunciation of the devil, and in some cases an elaborate rite of exorcism, was part of the liturgy of holy week", Yong offers a dose of imagination stretching. He might ask: "Where have the angels gone?" Following Eric Peterson's lead, Yong wants to attune the church's liturgical imagination to the songs of angels, and help us realize that our worship is never alone, or a merely human affair (Rev. 4 and 5, and Isa. 6). Our worship is participation with angelic songs. "[B]ecause the angels are related to the politico-religious world in heaven, they imbue the liturgy of the Church with a relation to the political realm" (159). And if the angels are watching, then perhaps, also, the principalities and powers.

In addition to opening time and space for rituals of exorcism and saturating our imaginations in the heavenlies, Yong suggests that exorcism can serve the wider public square, having in mind the burning of pagan books in Ephesus (Acts 19:19), Jesus' cleansing of the temple, and "the Catholic Worker Movement in inner-city Philadelphia in response to church and school closings, and by the New York and Northern New Jersey conferences of the United Methodist Church confronting the spirit(s) of Apartheid at the South African consulate in New York City" (160). Obviously, Yong is working with a much broader view of exorcism than some will be used to.

Being a pentecostal, I am finding immense energy in Amos Yong's work toward a constructive pentecostal political theology. I'm only halfway--and I'm reading slowly--so I'll do my best to continue to summarize his unique contributions in each chapter until the end.