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Two liturgies match swords with plowshares

This was great liturgy. A congregation of over 2,000 people gathered from the four winds, wonderful music to pace and focus the long ceremony toward its central act of worship, the gospel proclaimed simply, powerful preaching to apply it, over 600 concelebrants giving physical witness to the divine presence in meal and sacrifice, a community set in motion to enact what it had just celebrated.

Cathedral worship? An outdoor papal mass? A eucharistic congress? No, this solemn liturgy took place Nov. 16, in Columbus, Ga., as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience at the entrance to Fort Benning, home of the notorious School of the Americas, where thousands of Latin American soldiers later linked to atrocities have been trained by the U.S. Army.

Fr. Roy Bourgeois, leader of an eight-year effort to close the SOA, walking alongside Carol Richardson, director of the SOA Watch office in Washington, led a half-mile-long funeral procession onto the fort to commemorate the 1989 murders of six Jesuits and their two coworkers in El Salvador. The procession culminated in the arrest of 601 protesters. Twenty-eight, including Bourgeois and Richardson, will go to prison for defying a court order to stay away from Fort Benning.

To call this dramatic protest a liturgy may seem to some an abuse of the term or too loose an application of a word we ought to reserve for sacred worship.

Liturgy is literally the “work of the people.” In Christian terms, liturgy is how we share in the church’s central work of making present and powerful the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the world. By proclaiming Christ in her worship, the church historically points to Jesus as both the goal of human history and the means to that goal. Liturgy is our lifelong participation in the transformation of human nature, the coming of the kingdom of justice and love. Inseparable from every Christian liturgy is the mission of Jesus to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, justice to oppressed peoples, an end to violence. As justice is constitutive to the gospel, so every liturgy is ultimately about justice, celebrating God’s will on earth, then going forth to do it.

When we do it in our churches week after week, we may lose sight of the powerful reality liturgy is meant to be, a reality that became clear to those gathered at Fort Benning. To invoke the suffering and deaths of tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters in Latin America in the cause of justice was to proclaim the death of the Lord as the means by which the kingdom of God is to come. Our communion with them makes their fate inseparable from ours, and their suffering as members of the Mystical Body of Christ becomes a call to solidarity or a judgment on us for lack of it.

Such liturgy, if fully effective in us, will be costly because it will set us on a collision course with an aspect of the dominant American culture that directly or indirectly supports U.S. military and economic policies in many developing countries. The oligarchies and military regimes the United States is now sustaining and training throughout Latin America function to preserve our interests in the region, protecting American investment, multinational control of natural resources and access to cheap labor. North Americans are complicit in this when we accept the benefits of such unjust and extractive policies, without which we could never sustain the standard of living we have come to enjoy and take as much for granted as our morning coffee.

Walter Brueggemann, in The Prophetic Imagination, depicts the contest between Moses and the pharaoh’s magicians as a struggle for divine validation. Whose side is God on? In a clash of two liturgies, pharaoh’s high priests wield their staffs and call on their gods. Moses counters with his own prayers to Yahweh. The exodus, a miraculous escape, is first accomplished by the dismantling of pharaoh’s claim to authority. Pharaoh’s gods turn out to be no gods at all, only illusion and posturing. The Hebrews are free to leave because God -- the only God there is -- is with them. Nothing can stand in the way of the divine will.

Bourgeois acknowledges that the Pentagon is a giant, an entity with unlimited resources, cloaked in secrecy and almost beyond accountability. The counter liturgy the Pentagon mounted to confront Bourgeois’ protest was impressive -- its tall priests in formal dress and fully armed, standing in tight ranks to block the road, with waiting buses to carry those arrested to an efficient processing, courts to convict and prisons to hold those who dare defy the dominant culture.

But the Pentagon is on the wrong side of history and, despite its seemingly unlimited resources, can hardly know what it is up against.

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 1997