Embracing Spiritual Usurpation

Christmas wreath 2011We all do it.  If we Christians have a decorated tree in the house or a wreath on the door, we do it.  I have Muslim friends who hang stockings.  I have Protestant friends who pray with rosaries.  I’m a big fan of the call of the minaret.

I’ve even usurped the word “usurpation” because it literally means “to encroach, infringe or seize wrongfully or illegally.”  I’m defining it in a friendlier way: Sometimes religions or cultures or generations or traditions enjoy a practice that people in different religions or cultures or generations or traditions find meaningful and they/we attribute our own meaning to it.

I love prayer beads because I am an easily distracted pray-er.  My prayer beads don’t have a crucifix and I have only a vague idea how the traditional Roman Catholic rosary prayer goes.  But I pray for a different person with each bead.  (A friend in Malawi was happy to hear that she was one of my beads.  “I’ve never been anyone’s bead!” she wrote.)

When I’ve traveled in predominantly Muslim cities and the call to prayer sounds five times a day, I also pray to God.  It’s a lovely reminder every few hours to thank God or remember someone in need.  I completely agree that God is great and so saying “Allahu Akbar” is a quiet comfort to me.

Christians have been usurping everything from Passover Seders to Winter Solstice for generations.  We just impart our own meanings onto them and make them Christian-ish.   God knows that we Christians have usurped the religion of consumerism to make it our own.

Spiritual Usurpation could be an offensive practice (“Muslims don’t even believe that Jesus is God.  How dare they put up a Christmas tree!“)  This is pretty ridiculous when we Christians have already usurped the practice of decorating with greens from the pagans.

My hope is that we embrace Spiritual Usurpation but act respectfully.  Let’s not kid ourselves that – just because we Christians might spin a dreidel this season –  it doesn’t mean we understand the Hebrew meaning of Hanukkah.  For the record, the origin of the dreidel, according to Wikipedia, “dates from the Medieval period at earliest, since it is a Judaized version of a Germanic teetotum.”  All of us are historically shameless usurpers.

It’s supremely postmodern that we would claim certain practices and assign our own meaning to them.  My own Presbytery debated the term “Community Organizer” at a recent meeting.  Historically it means one thing to some people and something very different to other people.

The point of spiritual practices is to create meaning that brings us closer to The Holy.  It’s a way of worshiping what is Greater and Higher than we are. If lighting a menorah or a kinara is meaningful, even if you do no identify as Jewish or African, it’s a good thing.  Right?

2 responses to “Embracing Spiritual Usurpation

  1. I think not only does this need to be ok but we need to seek to do this intentionally. That’s the essence of contextualization and in my opinion the missions community is coming to the contextualization party way too late.


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