From Hospitality, Vol. 31, No. 7
On a Sunday in August 1994, I opened the front door to 910 Ponce de Leon Avenue for the first time. I crossed the threshold and was greeted by an effigy of a homeless man. I fixated on the figure, then glanced at myself in the large mirror on the wall behind him.
I walked up the steps and my eyes focused on a door covered with bumper stickers: “Poverty Is Violence,” “Feminism Spoken Here,” “No Justice, No Peace.” I turned the corner, walked into the worship space and was taken by the palpable, subversive energy of the room.
My first worship at the Open Door Community was a liminal moment in my life, a moment that has brought me to consider David Woodyard’s new book, “The Church in the Time of Empire,” in the light of my experience. Dr. Woodyard was my theology professor at Denison University in Ohio, and he continues to be a pastoral, prophetic and sacred presence in my life.
In his latest book, Dr. Woodyard proclaims that both empire and church define reality. The empire, he explains, has one way of defining reality and the church another. Public and hidden transcripts tell contesting stories about reality.
Empire is the public transcript. It aspires to remake the world after its image of social, political and economic reality; it seeks, as Woodyard writes, to “control the dominant order.” Reality is based on the privileges and powers of the dominant order.
Church is the hidden transcript, or the subversive one, the reality to embrace various forms of resistance. Hidden transcripts, Woodyard maintains, “aspire to live God’s reality,” and the hidden transcript reveals that “the authentic church exists in an environment saturated by the interests of the poor.”
These public and hidden transcripts give voice to my own story and ministry of loyalty, extraction and resistance to empire.
My growing up in the church mirrored the privileges of my community in Upper Arlington, Ohio: white, bourgeois and suburban. Its ecclesiastical, homogenous nature sustained a Christian theology that endorsed the prevailing powers and all that was easy to present in polite and polished company. There was no talk of the poor or homeless. It was, in short, a reflection of the reality that Woodyard refers to as empire.
Woodyard and his colleagues in the Denison Department of Religion had a different take. They preached and taught liberation theology and its various contextual expressions through Black, feminist, Asian and earth-honoring experiences. There, in my first Christian Ethics class, I discovered feminist methodology deconstructing oppression and constructing the Commonwealth of God.
In essence, I was learning that, as Woodyard puts it in the book, “theology is contextual language, defined by the human situation that gave birth to it,” and that liberation ethics and theology are relentlessly situational. As I situated God in the reality of oppression, I began to unlock my own story of privilege and preservation and began to envision myself in a new way, as a moral agent living with what Woodyard calls “newness and endless possibilities.”
As I look back, that Christian Ethics class was my first moment of extraction from empire. It was teaching me how to question what I had always known to be true.
‘Ruined for Life’
I found this new way of thinking and moral agency life-giving and invigorating. But extraction from empire was not without consequences for me. At Denison I began a very painful process of disengaging from a life I had always known. I began re-evaluating family relationships and loyalty to my home and church community.
I realized that my early sense of belonging was essentially based on my loyalty to the dominant order. The public transcript of empire, Woodyard explains, acts as a means of dominant control. I’ve also come to trust in the feminist mantra that the personal is political and that the impact of dominant, empire control impacts the personal.
My consciousness raised, I began to see how my self had been molded to empire. My interests, concerns, vision for the future, relationships, clothes, hair and body type had been shaped around the expectations and sustainability of empire. The extraction from empire was painful not only in the changing of my world view, but in how the change in the lens of life impacted how I saw myself.
As I began to pull away from my community, I lacked a sense of belonging and identity. My parents thought I was being brainwashed by Woodyard. I didn’t know how to explain myself to my hometown friends who were becoming accountants, lawyers and doctors. For me, allegiance to empire had become a mind-numbing way to live. But liberation God-talk was creating a very scared, anxious young woman.
After Denison, through the suggestion of a good childhood friend, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. This was my way of seeing if I could live out liberation theology, if I could do the praxis. The corps placed me in Atlanta, where I lived with six others in the southwestern part of the city, working with the Task Force for the Homeless and worshipping at the Open Door.
The corps’ motto is “ruined for life,” and that’s exactly what happened to me that year. I continued to unravel myself from empire-living by immersing myself in the reality of the poor, homeless and economically broken of Atlanta.
After Atlanta, I took my ruined self to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There I continued the process of immersing myself in the hidden transcript of the church. I fell in love with the subversive, creative liturgy practiced in James Chapel.
I visited women at Rikers Island, in the borough holding cells and at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. I found companions who were extracting, questioning and resisting empire for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the planet that God so loves. And after seminary, I found the Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, D.C.
A Church That Resists Empire
In his book, Woodyard calls the church “the continuation of the incarnation,” and he says it is called to immerse itself in “the world’s pain and resistance to those who inflict it.” It has choices to make in how it lives out the questions he poses as: “How does the church become a hidden transcript? How does the church point to the cracks in empire’s grasp? How does the church name the new ordering of life?”
At Church of the Pilgrims, we use language intentionally as we contest the public and hidden transcripts. We use the word “empire” when critiquing the oppressive forces in the world that defile and disfigure God’s creation. We repeatedly proclaim the postures and positions of empire and its focus on the elite, on privilege and dominating power over against the Body of Christ with a biblical agenda of justice, dignity and solidarity.
Those are the words we use. Important words. In order to be part of the movement of God to create a world where, as Woodyard writes, “social sin has been unmasked and the space for freedom has been enlarged,” we need to resist empire in practical ways.
We do so also in worship, where, as Woodyard exhorts us, we “contest the reality of empire, where the gospel heritage discerns the penetration of imperialism in our national life, and in the very fabric of the church itself.” Worship at Pilgrims “intervenes” in the reality of empire and reveals what is at stake in our worship life together.
We focus on keeping actions in worship that are meaningful to us right now, breaking through unquestioned habits done in the name of nostalgia rather than relevancy. We resist the temptation for worship to confirm implicitly or explicitly the prevailing order. Do the Advent candles have to be purple? Can we build a wailing wall for the sanctuary? Can we worship without the lights? Can we have Communion with no words spoken? Can we have fire in worship? Our worship is an embodied, sensory, powerful, relational, sacramental experience that responds to the question, “Whom do I belong to?”
Taking Liturgy to the Streets
How we worship impacts our view of worship and how we live in the world. It takes a great deal of work for this type of worship to happen, and just as much energy to take our liturgical experiences to the streets. Our God is not a “captured God,” one confined to our premises. Pilgrims started an urban garden and compost bin, we protest with other Presbyterian churches at the Sudanese Embassy, and we march with the best of D.C. drag queens in the Washington LGBTQ Pride parade. We serve lunch to hungry neighbors every Sunday after church. We participate in the Washington Interfaith Network, where we engage the “world as it is” with the prophetic drive to build the “world as it should be.”
On Monday evenings, we have a Bible study at the restaurant and bar across the street. Together, we witness how stories of ancient Israel and the early church were, as Woodyard calls them, “agents of intrusion in the world that empire created and sustained.”
We are intentional about being a “hidden transcript,” living out the counter-memory that puts us in loyal opposition to empire. We do this as a multi-generational community, expecting that from the moment of birth to the end of life, we all have received the grace to subvert empire.
Woodyard has dedicated “The Church in the Time of Empire” to Ed Loring and Murphy Davis, declaring that they “live the lives empire fears.” This is my hope at Church of the Pilgrims — that we create space and freedom for our God of the exodus and resurrection to agitate, heal and liberate us so that we, too, can live lives that empire fears.
May it be so.