Monday, July 12, 2010

Taking or Giving?

Last week DairyStateMom's denomination, The Presbyterian Church (USA), held its biennial General Assembly in the Twin Cities. We did not attend, but DSM especially avidly followed news of the event.

At the beginning of the week a worship service was held that included American Indian elements -- with worship leaders who dressed traditionally and called on the four directions. It was mostly well received, although The Presbyterian Lay Committee (a conservative group that also opposes the denomination's move to open ordination in the church to non-celibate gays and lesbians) seemed scornful and condescending in its online news report on the event.

Yet it is clear to us, based on the accounts of those who experienced it firsthand, that the worship service remained a distinctly Christian one, albeit not looking like the tradition with which most white, Western worshipers would be familiar.

Discussing this with DSM got me to thinking about the issue of Appropriation, a topic about which I've had some things to say in the past. What, I wondered, is the difference between this event and the various uses of rituals and materials from other traditions that occur in Unitarian Universalist worship?

A key distinction is that, for the most part, when UUs take other traditional elements and put our own spin on them, it is just that -- a mostly white, Western act of taking and interpreting for ourselves those other traditions. (I acknowledge that there may be exceptions to this generalization.)

In this particular Presbyterian event, however, it was the reverse: The ceremony was led by American Indian Presbyterians. In essence, they were taking something from their own culture and reinterpreting it in a new context in which they also were participants, namely Christianity. Indeed, I see it as a gift they were giving to their fellow Christians in that time and space (which makes the criticism and scorn of it all the more ungracious, in my opinion).

I've been inclined to mostly defend our UU practice to borrow from other traditions in our worship, and I still largely feel that way. But the distinction of making a gift of one's own cultural traditions to a larger context--such as a worship service--versus "taking" from the cultural traditions of others, is an intriguing one, and one that should lead us to some careful thought as we make choices about how we create and re-create rituals in the context of UU worship.

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