Can These Dry Bones Live? Laughing, Singing and Dancing In The Revolution

October 7, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Can these dry bones LIVE?

That is the question each generation must answer for itself.  And it seems a dry time indeed.

Yesterday afternoon I went up to Somerville for the annual HONK festival, a three-day gathering of activist street bands. I didn't know there was such a thing, did you? The festival's motto is "Reclaim the streets for horns, bikes and feet!" It was a grand, loud time.  I danced in the streets and stopped traffic with the Original Big Seven Social Aid and Pleasure Club from New Orleans, and my friends and I tapped our toes and swayed to the sounds of groups like the Rude Mechanicals Orchestra from Brooklyn, the Leftist Marching Band from Portsmouth, NH, and the Pink Puffers Drum & Brass Phunk Band from Rome, Italy.  This morning, in fact, all of these ensembles and more are marching in a parade for civic engagement and social change.  They'll be up there at Davis Square until 6 pm tonight if you want to go up and see this phenomenon for yourselves.

What a fantastic racket it all was! This was not well-behaved music, this was what the Bible calls "a joyful noise" – it was the sound of protest, the jazz of human suffering and aspiration, a riotous din expressing the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be. 

It was awesome and very inspiring.  I thought of the difference between these raucous honkers and the sedate ways organizations like the church often try to achieve the same ends.  They march and beat drums, churches write postcards to representatives. They shake tambourines, beat pots and pans and shout hilarious, irreverent slogans, the church stands in silent witness holding up signs outside court houses and prisons.  Both are worthy, in that they require us to move from spectatorship to involvement, but as Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us in her wonderful book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, "elites cringe from the spectacle of disorderly public joy.  Hierarchy, by its nature, establishes boundaries between people – who can go where, who can approach whom, who is welcome, and who is not.  Festivity breaks the boundaries down. … While hierarchy is about exclusion, festivity generates inclusiveness." (252-3)

Shake, rattle and roll the way to a better world!

When I went to see the movie "Hairspray" this summer, I expected a silly little piece of fluff, not an emotionally-affecting musical about desegregation.  Can you imagine? A movie musical about desegregation? For those of us who live mostly in our heads, it is a reminder that social change comes not just when people sit and talk or write letters, but when they take to the streets and to the dance clubs, the car dealerships and the lunch counters, to demand justice.

"Hairspray" tells the story of a very chubby, bubbly girl named Tracey Turnblad who loves to dance and wants more than anything to get on the Corny Collins Show – a popular teen dance show filmed in her city.  And Tracy doesn't just want to get on herself, she wants her black friends to be able to dance with all the white kids – not just once a month on Negro Day.

Tracy is a kid who's experienced enough to know what the rules are, but courageous and rebellious enough to dance all over those rules with humor, with great optimism and with joy, bless her heart.  Watching Tracy and her friends boogie for social change, you remember why so many conservative religious movements have banned dancing.  Dancing is dangerous.  When the body gets to be free, the mind often follows. 

John Waters, who wrote "Hairspray" is America's reigning king of irreverence. He wrote this line, spoken by Motor Mouth Mabel to two of the kids – one black and one white – who have fallen in love.  She says,

"Well, love is a gift, a lot of people don't remember that. So, you two better brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin' at you from a never ending parade of stupid."  

Part of the role of the religious community is to speak truth to power.   There are many ways to do that, and laughter is one of them.  I'm talking about irreverent, even mocking laughter at systems of oppression and people who would support them.  I know that's a controversial thing to say, but I have come to believe it over the years: one of the fastest ways to deflate oppressive pomposity is to laugh in its face.  Stephen Sondheim has a wonderful song called "Everybody Says Don't" which goes, in part,

"laugh at the king or he'll make you cry."

I would say so.  I would say so.  If someone doesn't go out and meet that visiting dignitary in their birthday suits and laugh him out of town, they may preserve their modesty-- but lose their liberty.  Laughter is an expression of radical freedom, which is why it has been frowned upon by so many oppressors throughout the centuries.  If you can keep a people from dancing, singing with full voice and laughing with full belly, you can control them much more easily.

This church, I think, understands the value of laughter and uses it well. I will occasionally leave a Parish Committee meeting to get something out of my office, and sometimes I sit and just listen for a few minutes to the sounds of laughter floating over from the Fogg Parlor.  Here are people doing real work and making serious decisions on behalf of the parish. And here are people who, thank God, refuse to take themselves too seriously. 

I have learned from this congregation's easy, free laughter. There is a lot of love and understanding in laughter.  Church life is intense and full of emotional risk.  Laughter breaks tension, reminds us that if we can't do the work of ethical and spiritual growth in the spirit of joy, why bother? Life is hard and too often humorless. When the church insists on keeping laughter alive, it is a protest against the obscenities committed in this world.

But laughter is easy to misunderstand and to misinterpret.  Those simple people, laughing because they not intelligent enough to see how serious this all is.  Oh, think again.  Laughter is powerful and subversive.  I love to think of those roly-poly Zambian women, stripping off their clothes and showing up on the runway to greet the British official with arms waving and hips undulating, singing their songs of welcome.  Dumb like a fox, they are.  Laughter punctures the powerful; you cannot own and dominate a people until you strip away their ability to laugh, to dance, to sing, to engage in what Barbara Ehrenreich calls "collective ecstasy."

What we think of as religious practices are, of course, culturally prescribed by our European ancestors (we do not all have European ancestors, but this congregation's worship culture is most certainly derived from European tradition).  As we enter an era of global fellowship, I hope we can begin to understand and respect the embodied forms of spirituality – involving singing, dancing, and drumming – that are practiced by non-European societies. We owe each other that, as we begin to acknowledge the destructive legacies of imperialism and colonialism. 

There was a time when missionaries from the Christian West thought it best to repress and suppress ethnic, indigenous practices to bring "the benefits of civilization" to peoples they regarded  as primitive. Yes, that still goes on today, but I am happy to share with you that nowadays missionary work is defined much more frequently by religious groups as bringing care, help and support from the developed world to the developing world.  What Westerners once arrogantly saw as "bringing the benefits of civilization" to a people, we now understand more as "inflicting" those so-called benefits: insisting on the superiority of one people's definition of civilization over another's. Can these dry bones live?  They can, they can.  But the spirit we need to make them live comes not just to the mind, but through the body.  What was once considered primitive we may now begin to respect as ancient, wise, holistic.

Perhaps you did not know that Massachusetts was the first slave-holding colony in New England. It was, and although history has denied this fact, slavery in New England was just as brutal – if not as widespread -- as it was down South.  African slaves worshiped in this very congregation, sitting up there in the choir loft with hands neatly folded, being conformed to white man's religion that regarded their dancing and drumming as Satanic and strictly forbidden.  Friends, when we are encouraged to freely sing and clap in this church today, it isn't just for fun.

It isn't just for fun and feeling good.

It is joyous, loud protest and, I hope, a kind of spiritual reconciliation with all those who have been told that their embodied ways of worship are devilish and dangerous.  What could be more devilish, I ask you, than trying to sever body, mind and spirit in a people's lives and consciousness, celebrating one aspect while demonizing the others?

Can these dry bones live? Yes they can, they can live IF and WHEN human beings are willing to learn and change, to stop naming "this" over here as sacred and "that" over there as savage.  Only this kind of control and fear can close the singing throat, can choke the laughter out of a community, can tie up the hands and feet of God's creation and keep it from dancing.

Perhaps you remember the character Baby Suggs Holy, the freed African slave who becomes a preacher, from Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.  In one especially beautiful scene, Baby Suggs preaches to her community of former slaves in a clearing in the woods -- a full-body worship service! – a place for a traumatized men, women and children to try to restore the humanity stolen from them.  Here is Toni Morrison's description of the worship in the clearing:

It started [in this] way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. …

"Here," she said, "in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. … This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you. … hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize." Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh.

There it is, you know.  There it is.  What Baby Suggs understands, and what is very easy for us to forget, is that anything we do for the sake of love is work we do with our bodies. What is so easy for us to forget is that we are not minds on sticks, we are not computers, and our bodies are not a problem that needs to be solved but a receptacle of memory and hope, an instrument of spiritual revolution and solidarity.

Can these dry bones live? We are tranquilized, mesmerized, desensitized by too much information, too much entertainment, too much technology. We spend our days plugged in, signed on, motorized, mechanized, and chemicalized.  Break free, brothers and sisters.  Make a joyful noise in whatever way you can.   Laugh at the king or he'll make you cry, and as you bring all your bodies into the work of social change, remember the immortal words of Emma Goldman who said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

Now that's enough talking for now.  For heaven's sake, let's sing!

Preacher's Notes:

The references to naked women dancing at the airport comes from "Stories From the Cha Cha Cha" by Vern Huffman in Paul Rogat Loeb's fine book of essays, The Impossible Will Take a Little While

For accuracy's sake, I should tell you that Emma Goldman never actually said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution," but she did express very similar sentiments during her lifetime, and I think it's fair to credit her with that great line.

Our current church building was built in 1830 and still possesses the original pews which were part of the slave's gallery up in the choir loft.