Election Day and All Saints Day: Liturgies of the Laos, the Demos, the People of God
After reading Just Mercy several years back, my daughter Else decided that restorative justice is her jam, her thing, her calling, and so she’s pretty much thrown herself into All Things Related.
So on Twitter a few days back (no idea what I’m going to do with my post-Elon Twitter account these days, as an aside) when I saw an event with this title, “Transformative Justice Seeks the Healing of All Parties,” and all the moreso when it was plugged by David Dark, it was maternal catnip and vocational clickbait all rolled up into one.
Dark publishes his blog “Dark Matter” (catchy) here; he’s a dabbler in many things, but a good dabbler, and a righteous one too. He cares deeply about justice, and always from the vantage point of faith, service, vulnerability, and hope for reconciliation and transformation.
It’s that latter word “Transformation” that caught my eye in the title of this conversation he was hailing and having with Rev. Stacy Rector. She’s a Presbyterian pastor who directs Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, sadly, an organization that our society has made necessary to be.
In his blurb for the event, Dark wrote this:
“If policy is liturgy writ large, what do the liturgies of retaliation, incarceration, and killing tell us about ourselves?”
“If policy is liturgy writ large…”
I have not been able to shake that phrase off, and immediately sent the passage off to my daughter and to my husband, whom I love and who loves me in part because we both like provocative thoughts and rabbit holes.
It wasn’t just that phrase, though, but the following one: “…what do the liturgies of retaliation, incarceration, and killing tell us about ourselves” that sucker-punched me.
In a righteous way.
Transposed, it seems like one could also read that sentence like this: “if our politics and consequent policies are the way that we reflect our selves, our valuation of one another, and our worship of God to the broader world, what do our politics and consequent policies say about our view of ourselves, of each other, and of God?”
I mean, ooof, people.
“If policy is liturgy writ large…”
If this phrase doesn’t keep you awake at night, especially just days before the midterms, what meds are you taking and can I have some?
A couple of years ago, I was invited by the ELCA Youth Ministry Network to reflect on ministry in a time of a pandemic. You can find the whole article here, but this blurb of Mr. Dark’s called certain parts of the gist of it to mind.
In writing that piece, I learned what should have already dawned on me, namely that that both pan-demic and epi-demic spring from the Greek word ‘demos.’
Demos means people, as in ‘demographic,’ and, well, ‘democracy.’
I mean, I knew that, but I hadn’t really thought about it, but the more I got to thinking about that, the more I cocked my head like my dog Gimli does when he’s confused, which is most of the time.
Because if demos means a people, what about laos, another Greek word, from which we get liturgy, a word that literally means ‘work [ergos] of the people?’
What’s the difference then between the laos of liturgy and the demos of pandemic?
Turns out that there are a couple of answers, and also I can hop through rabbit tunnels like no hare ever did.
The ancient Greeks used the term laos to refer to ordinary people, the regular joes and jolenes, the folks you run into at the corner olive and baklava shop.
But more than that, the laos lived together as a demos, a collective and geographically connected community with one another: the laos shared a common language, government, culture, and mores, which defined them as a demos.
Relatedly, here’s a bit of trivia for you: the word ‘liturgy’ as we associate it, namely as a form of ritual worship, didn’t show up until the 1590s.
This is most certainly true.
Sure, you can find the word in the New Testament: leitourgia. But the sense of it means a service, or a ministry, rather than an order of worship.
In fact, [and get this] the word originally referred to the work, namely the business, service, and donations that privileged people in Athens and beyond offered to and for the well-being of the people of the community.
Moreover, it was considered a mark of pride and privilege (in the best sense) to offer from one’s plenty to those who had little to none.
There was no resentment about it: there was thanksgiving for it.
In its original sense, then, and the key take-away and upshot here is this: liturgy is work done by the laos on behalf of the well-being of all the demos.
Officially, All Saints’ Day is celebrated on November 1, but in the liturgical calendar of the Church, we remember the saints on the first Sunday following.
That would be tomorrow.
I find it terribly moving that two days following that, namely on Tuesday November 8, we have Election Day.
See, with this calendar coincidence in mind, behold words from the late Jewish writer, theologian, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who in this interview spoke (as he often did) about memory, and about the sacred duty to remember the generations who have come before us:
In memory you are not alone.
You are surrounded by people.
Those who are not here anymore, naturally, but they are there in your memory.
And you hear them and you speak to them.
And when you need a presence it’s their presence.
Of course, it’s a dead presence, but still it’s a presence.
The presence of the dead is also a presence.
And without memory, then what is worse than to live without a future?
It’s to live without a past.
And I think memory is that past.
We are, that is, not primarily individuals, Wiesel wants us to know.
We are instead part of peoples, laos who are connected to those who have come before, those found in our memories (and, perhaps he would agree, those whom we have forgotten?), and we are likewise connected to those present to us now, and to those in our futures.
We are saints shaped by saints, and we will bequeath what we have received and who we are to the laos and to the demos yet to come.
To use the concept of Mr. Dark, our liturgies—religious and political—shape and will shape laos and demos long after we’ve gone.
As we stare down Election Day, this is the kicker, right?
We dare not forget that our collective liturgy—the ergos (work) of the laos (common people)—will decide the fates of the demos.
Our vote in a demo-cracy is the kratos (strength and power) of the demos (people who live in the same geographical space).
In other words, our leitourgia on November 8 is a form of service and ministry to all the saints.
In still other words, if you want to see who someone is, see what they do.
It’s basic Beatitudes stuff, conveniently one of the texts assigned for All Saints Day, which is celebrated the day before election day, which should preach.
The best liturgies shape what happens when we aren’t in active worship.
So do the worst, by the way.
With that in mind, spurred to think about it in this way thanks to Mr. David Dark and Rev. Stacy Rector, let us not pretend that there isn’t a liturgical ritual of election day.
You show up to the polls, you enter the stall, you make your mark, and you leave, one in a long line of people coming to the altar of democracy, of sorts, to give what they can offer, and make your mark on what happens next in the lives of All The Saints.
Christians are the laos of God, of course.
But we’re also the demos of the US.
And in that voting booth, the liturgies of both collectives coincide: we cast our vote informed by the faithful collective who have come before us (laos), and we cast our vote to inform our collective political present and future (demos).
Make no mistake, then: your vote is a liturgy, an act of worship, and a reflection of who you are, and whose you are.
Remember who you were, and are, and are promised to be.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
(1 Peter 2:10; Hosea 1:10, 2:23)
Remember those who have come before.
Remember who you are thereby.
Share the mercy.
Be God’s laos.
Do the leitourgia of God in the demos.