The Art of Naming Violence: A Parish Perspective

Catherine Amy Kropp, MDiv ‘17

St Peter’s Episcopal Church, Cheshire, CT

Concerned with the response of their communities to acts of violence, church musicians and parish leaders gathered in June 2017 at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music for the ecumenical conference  “When Dancing Turns to Mourning: Worshiping God in the Face of Violence.”  Joining in prayer and song, they expressed their compassion and advocacy for the victims of violence. They considered local and global phenomena of human brutality and trauma. And they learned from leaders who knew firsthand the experience of responding to major acts of violence. In stories of recovery, they glimpsed how beauty contributes to healing, and how hymn singing and artistic performances, as well as youth ministry and inter-faith worship, can provide moments of transformation. Yet, the conference went beyond the role of the arts and worship in the face of violence. It guided participants into a place of profound introspection, resonating in personal and deep-seated ways even among those who had not witnessed a major incident of human brutality in their communities.

In his presentation on the psalms, theologian Don Saliers described “the complicity of praying against violence when it lurks within you.” He invited participants to consider the language of violence within the psalms of lament. The psalms, Saliers said, provide a voice for human anger and despair. They speak when anguish runs deeper than words. They articulate what humans don’t comprehend about themselves. Because these sacred hymns name the things people know but refuse to say out loud—such as their desire for vengeance or retribution—they offer a form of truth-telling that is often missing from Christian liturgy, as well as from everyday speech. Saliers referred to “lament denial” to describe the tendency of human beings to suppress their dread and fear. “Who are these enemies in the psalms?” he asked.  “What is this aspect of the other projected out of our fears?”

The emphasis on naming painful things honestly was also evident in the presentations that followed. Leaders of St. Monica’s Catholic Community, Santa Monica, CA, and Trinity Episcopal Church, Boston, shared their experiences of responding to a mass shooting (St. Monica’s College, 2013) or a terrorist bombing (Boston Marathon, 2013) in their communities. Naming human fears, according to Christine Gerety from St Monica’s, is essential if people are to discover the courage they have within themselves to overcome them. 

During the visit of conference participants to Grace Farms in New Canaan, CT, the power of the arts to name human fears in the midst of violence was palpable. In a workshop rehearsal of a new ballet and performance piece, “Practicing Silence,” directed by Kenyon Adams, there was a particular moment in which time seemed to stop. On the stage within the glass-enclosed amphitheater a ballet dancer knelt over her loved one, a victim of gun violence. She then turned to the audience and revealed her face. She was screaming, in silence. There was no music. Just her face.  The dancing had turned to mourning. 

Attending the conference with a group from my parish, including our rector, the Rev. Sandy Stayner, and our summer musical director, Marion Belson, I realized that violence takes many forms. It includes, indeed, things that are often hidden within the silences of parish life. In our experience of the dance performance, the soundless scream transcended the power of language. We were feeling more than we could say or respond to. Marion Belsen said, “It was good to explore the ideas people brought to the conference, but I find myself feeling like the ballerina with the silent scream when some of the violence in the news comes to my ears and eyes. Instances of racial gun violence are ever increasing, not decreasing.  Would that we could use a chanting lament, such as a psalm, that would ring out with the anguish these instances provoke! Like the psalms that proclaim ‘We shall overcome.’ But will we?”  

For those of us who attended the conference together with other leaders from their own parish, as I did, the conference led us to look more deeply within ourselves and our own particular community. We acknowledged the systems and cultures that promote violence, and we recognized our participation within them. And we explored the limits and biases of our faith tradition. The power of the arts in this process of self-examination was clear. Rev. Stayner said, “I came away from the conference with a renewed vision for the inclusion of the arts in worship.”

Prof. Donyelle McCray’s presentation on memory and witness on the final day of the conference evoked another powerful experience. Before she began speaking, Prof. McCray played only the sounds and images of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a testimony to The Middle Passage in the Atlantic slave trade. The natural world served as a witness to the victims of human brutality. Prof. McCray then reminded us that human silence in the face of violence casts shadows over the past as well as the present. Humans are shaped by memories of past trauma, but they tend to suppress them. Thus they do not hear the testimony agitating the energy and movement of the natural world. Some of the most prophetic sermons involve acts of remembrance, argued McCray, who teaches homiletics at Yale Divinity School, describing a form of preaching that assumes as listeners not only those present in the pews but also the dead and unborn. Later Rev. Sandy Stayner and I discussed the notion that the land and sea remember the acts of violence when humans forget them. I found it comforting and deeply unsettling to think that there is a kind of earthly archive speaking to us when we fail to remember—and holding us accountable when we do. I wondered if the Earth would speak back to us if we would just listen. And what would it mean if in our liturgy if we responded to the cries of humanity in all dimensions of time, all at once? Perhaps we would discover our hearts beating in rhythm with a timeless chorus of voices. And we might hear the voices of the past and future crying out to us along with those in the present.

For at least one brief moment during the conference I found myself listening to the voices of the past, present and future in this way. It was after the dance performance at Grace Farms. We were walking under the projected roof of the River Building alongside the Sanctuary, on Grace Farm’s strikingly beautiful campus. All at once Rev. Sandy Stayner stopped and said, “Wait! Listen.” I stopped walking and stood next to her. After a pause she said, “Can you hear it?” I listened. A soft and distant chiming reached my ears. It was ethereal, almost imperceptible. It came from outside and seemed to arrive on the wind. Sandy’s musical ear had picked it up. The architecture of the meandering, river-shaped building was designed not only to embrace the land, but also, it seemed, to reveal its music. It was for me a reminder of the power of the arts to reveal what we do not hear: the voices of the Earth and the voices of humanity. Voices calling us into action and contemplation, into lament and confession, into introspection and silent screams, and into remembrance and witness.