Liturgical Practice as the Model for Justice

A liturgy of Christians is nothing less than the way a redeemed world is, so to speak, done.1

[1] At the January 2001 annual meeting of the North American Academy of Worship, Vice-President Gabe Huck’s address laid out the importance of worship for learning the ways of a just society. He told of a seven year-old girl who had gone to Hebrew School for years and knew the holidays and scriptures. She had a classmate who was not part of any one worshipping community. Instead, the boy’s family experienced diverse practices — Jewish, Catholic, and others, as Huck put it. The little girl asked a poignant question about this boy who didn’t live in any particular tradition: “How would he know what to do?”

[2] On one level, her question refers to knowing the specific rituals and expectations of a worshipping body. But on another level, Huck explained, the girl asked not simply how would the boy know what to believe or which belief to choose but also how would the boy know “what to do with time, with work, with money, with life, with self” because “such things are not known….” without years of training in a tradition. A person’s very identity, in other words, comes from a way of living that adheres to a tradition’s teachings and practices, whether they are overt (and therefore obvious) or submerged in a morass of cultural, social, and economic masks. Notions of what is just come from what is taught and experienced about fairness, equality, and well-being. The church teaches very specific lessons through its liturgical practices, and it is in being steeped in these practices that the body of Christ schools the assembly in the ways of justice.

Understanding Ourselves
[3] Liturgy is the school for justice, but neither this fact nor the presence of justice in the liturgy is obvious.2 In order to see how liturgical practice shapes a just people, we need to think about the human being. H. Richard Niebuhr proposed in an essay in 1963 that the church has operated on the basis of understanding the human as either maker or citizen. The maker acts on the basis of the ends believed good for human community. The citizen determines just action based on law. According to Niebuhr, neither of these anthropologies is adequate to knowing and living according to what is good and true. Instead of thinking of justice resulting from working toward an ideal (the province of makers) or from working to shape good laws (the province of citizens), we need to think of justice as a result of the human as a responsible being.3 To function justly is to ask not simply the desired end of an action in response to injustice nor to ask what the law requires, but to ask, “‘What is happening?’ and then ‘What is the fitting response to what is happening?'”4 The answers to these questions require relationship within human community and with creation, lest our way of framing the reality in front of us (i.e., “what is happening”) becomes an abstraction and the response, a tyrannical or oppressive answer. Paying attention to relationship borne from our responsibility to others and creation offers a check on useless, even wrong-headed, ideological frameworks. How do we gain this third way of functioning as beings who yearn for justice? Along with the little girl Huck described, we might ask: How can we know what is happening — let alone what is a “fitting response” — if we do not have the schooling, the tools, that show us what to do? What are the tools? The liturgical answers to those questions are the concern of this essay.

Understanding Ourselves in Relationship
[4] For Christians, the tools most relevant to knowing our identity or character and relationship with the world are the gifts of God offered to us in the liturgy: God’s word and the means of grace in baptism and holy communion. “The starting point of Christian ethics is the body of Christ, the form of Christ in the form of the church, the formation of the church according to the form of Christ.”5 The living word, Christ present in the midst of the people is the school for assessing the world, our relationship to others and to the whole creation. What happens in liturgical practice to form the assembly in God’s desire for creation?

[5] A helpful book by the late William Spohn connects the spiritual and ethical life as it is depicted in Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan (10:29–37).6 The very title of Spohn’s book comes from Jesus’ concluding injunction, “go and do likewise.” While “go and do” are commands one might locate in an ethics of law (Niebuhr’s citizen), they are intelligible — as Spohn describes it — only in an interpretive context in which one perceives oneself as identified inside a relationship. Because the Samaritan’s action creates relationship in the face of brokenness, this parable teaches a new perception of the neighbor and the self, holding up as admirable a person usually despised. In this parable, in fact, Jesus tells about himself: one who is finally, fully despised and rejected and who yet binds up wounds and promises endless care.

[6] The gift of God’s Word present in the worshipping assembly is this: the hearer comes to know the beaten man’s gratitude toward the outsider, a relationship is begun, and a new ethic is born. Living in relationship tutors character so that it can “go and do likewise” because, in relationship, the command does not fall upon the hearer as a cold and distant law but as an experience of the graceful action offered by the Samaritan. “The life of Jesus as related in the Gospels … is the fundamental norm for Christian identity.”7 The parable does not so much set forth a rule for behavior as it explores the possibility of relatedness between enemies and between the strong and the weak. We may note that Jesus’ command, “go and do,” defines no specific end (as in “go and do, so that…”). Instead, it says that great value is to be embraced where persons engage with each other. Character is formed in the practice of the lived encounter.

Liturgy Grounded in What Is Eternal
[7] One profoundly influential liturgical scholar of the 20th century, Aidan Kavanagh, made the bold assertion that liturgy is the “normality” — what God desires for all God’s creation — in the midst of an “abnormal” world.8 The liturgy is the place where the goodness and truth (and beauty!) of God’s will for the world are always manifest and available in a number of ways. Liturgical practice is:

Communal and Inclusive — Liturgical practice creates relationships that are both vertical (between the human and divine) and horizontal (between people). God invites all people into the community in which everyone is, then, fed the same visible and invisible food. All are equal. This is not the case in the “abnormal” world Jesus came to redeem.9

Reconciling — Liturgical practice calls the assembly to confession and forgiveness and to extending the peace of Christ throughout the community, and in doing so, offers the truth about human life by acknowledging the pain of sin and struggle and the pervasive joy that is given in Jesus’ love.

Ordered — Liturgical practice is grounded in word and sacraments. Through the centuries the church has gathered to hear God’s word read and preached, to collect alms for the poor, to eat a meal, to pray, and to sing. Established patterns of scripture readings, ecclesiological structures that clarify vocations, and a calendar of celebration to remember the life of Jesus and the life of faith all school the church in a common way of seeing and living.
Liturgy Centered in Necessary Tensions
[8] What is eternal is not simply what expresses order. Tensions exist without which we could not faithfully function, and they are also endemic to liturgical practice. The following liturgical characteristics are the categories set forth in the Lutheran World Federation Nairobi document exploring the tensions between worship and culture that shape what worship becomes.10 Acknowledging how easily congregations become parochial, the Nairobi categories serve as a check for maintaining a liturgical practice that remembers its place in the larger world while maintaining its particularity of place. Keeping these four categories in balance allows a worshipping community to assess its worship. Liturgical practice seeks, then, to relate to culture in all these ways. Liturgical practice is:

Transcultural — The liturgy is based in truth beyond any one culture, self, and even the created world, focused on the One who is, was, and ever will be transcendent of all human constructs.

Contextual — That worshipping assemblies are always local and particular is reflected in materials used (architecture, furniture, fabrics, food), in language, music, in prayer concerns, and in the very mode of gathering.

Cross-cultural — Acknowledging the limitations of any one culture’s expression (always especially one’s own), the liturgy invites elements that originate from the practices of peoples other than one’s own.

Counter-cultural — The word of God and the power of the sacraments of baptism and meal proclaim (and command) continued critique of human expressions and structures. What God desires for creation is not commonly what results from human notions of “normality.”
[9] In short, Christian liturgy is replete with tensions that invite meaning-making through encounter with necessary oppositions: comfort and disquiet; peace and challenge; judgment and mercy; the visible and invisible; metaphors that hold forth what is not, in order to say what is; divisions between me and you, us and them, One and Three, good and evil, four Gospels and one Jesus; the known and the unknown; and many more.

[10] In all these ways, and most of all by its centering in the Word of God present, proclaimed, and received, worship invites and commands us to do this while not over-defining the meaning of this. The assembly receives tensions through conflicting authoritative sources. The four Gospels, to be sure, give differing stories, versions, and images. Such disjunctures create even further interpretive tensions: between the Word and experience (God is love vs. I am guilty; God is judge vs. I am the center of my universe); experience and reason (I feel truly forgiven vs. I will fail again; Jesus is with me vs. Jesus is seated at the right hand of God); tradition and experience (heresies exist vs. heresies can seem a better answer); and thanksgiving and lament (praise vs. silence). It is by living in the tensions, in the balance, that the tools for justice are formed.

The Verba at the Heart
[11] I propose that all these tensions come together precisely in the Words of Institution. There, all three ethical bases named by Niebuhr can be located: rules or principles, consequences or ends, and character or identity. Do this in remembrance of me. The maker, citizen, and responsible human are all found here. Human perception, emotion and character are all given reference in a story so big and rich it takes many metaphors to say it. All ethical bases come together in the eucharist, and the assembly is re-oriented.

ethical base mode or reason re: Jesus
rules practice / means of habituation Do this
consequences results / ends in remembrance
character formed reference / the narrative / identity of me

[12] It is preferable not to pit one ethical base against another. Each is essential to the whole. To be brief, as Spohn shows, virtue requires habituation. The ends are found in the means. Practice is defined by the narratives that describe it. And so on, back and forth, woven together.

[13] This is what Jesus’ command Do this … says to us. Do this points to an act that is bounded, clear, simple: eat this bread, drink this cup, be together. Why? What will it do for me? For us? Jesus says we will be put in a certain state (in remembrance), positioned inside a noun which itself collapses time. Memory makes the past real in the present. And this remembrance is turned toward a savior who is one and three. Here is tension, again, in complex metaphor: human and divine, then and now, once and always, and on and on. To “bring to mind” is to make available. And the One here brought to mind (the “me” who is Jesus) is both the originator of the command Do this … and the giver of the ability to respond to the command by promising to be always present.

[14] Faith-orienting tension exists in its most complete symbolic articulation in the liturgy. Tension is the compass for faith’s orientation. Complexity is borne of tension. The relational is defined by complexity. Justice is bound up with relationship. Being in worship — engaging in liturgical practice — is not simply a means to an ethical end; rather, it is to be in relationship with the ground of all ethics: the triune God.

[15] The question of the relationship between liturgy and justice offers an opportunity to examine a connection that is intrinsic rather than effectual. We will look in vain for evidence that worship has any bearing on the transformation of the world if we search with preconceived ideas, closed to what may surprise us. We cannot speak of liturgy being anything other than God’s relevance, God’s notion of what the world is as already redeemed by Jesus Christ. The liturgy’s means are its very purpose, and the means serve to model God’s justice for the world.


1. Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1984) 100.

2. By “the liturgy” I mean the ecumenical pattern — the deep structure — of word and sacrament. Its particular ingredients vary by season, locality, and the community’s or communion’s theological self-understanding.

3. “For Barth and Bultmann alike in our times, not to speak of most interpreters of the Old Testament, the ethics of the Bible, and Christian ethics too, is the ethics of obedience. How to interpret Christian freedom and what to make of eschatology within this framework has taxed the ingenuity of the interpreters severely…. If now we approach the Scriptures with the idea of responsibility we shall find, I think, that the particular character of this ethics can be more fully if not wholly adequately interpreted.” H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) 66–67.

4. Niebuhr, 67.

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005) 97. See also Philip H. Pfatteicher, The School of the Church: Worship and Christian Formation (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995).

6. William C. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York, NY: Continuum Publishing Co., 1999).

7. Spohn, 10.

8. “The Holy One and those who are made one in him set about changing the world’s mind by first seizing the world’s imagination through acts of powerlessness…. [T]hey tapped in to the most awesome source of power there is. It is the life-force itself, and they gained access to it by throwing their own lives away. The sank back not into programs and policies, bureaucracies and priorities, but into cosmic and pacific normality.” Kavanagh, 165.

9. Kavanagh, 136–142.

10. Lutheran World Federation, “Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture: Contemporary Challenges and Opportunities,” in Getting Reading for Worship in the Twenty-first Century (Chicago, IL: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1996).

Melinda Quivik

The Rev. Melinda Quivik, Ph.D. is a liturgical scholar living in Houghton, Michigan.