“Should be required reading in every classroom.”Judith Malina, founder of Living Theater
“Ritual and ceremony in their due times kept the world under the sky and the stars in their courses.”Terry Pratchett
Rituals like weddings, funerals, baptisms, exorcisms and vigils are powerful experiences for participants. By adapting sacred and symbolic elements you can use the power of ritual to give your actions greater depth and power.
Rituals can connect us to the deepest truths of why politics matters. As anyone who has participated in a candlelight vigil will know, sometimes the act of quietly bearing witness to an injustice can carry more moral force than railing against it. A ritual can also give an otherwise mundane political gathering a stronger storyline, such as the 2011 protest of mortgage fraud at Chase Bank in New York City, where hundreds of members of faith communities and several ministers performed an exorcism on a bank “possessed by the demons of selfishness and avarice.”
The ritual you choose need not be elaborate for it to have a powerful impact. You can imbue your political street theater with some of the power of ritual just by borrowing its rhythms. Imagine two characters on the street: a military general and a politician, slowly tossing a huge sack of money back and forth across a wide expanse. In between, a regular Joe, sitting forlornly, watches the sack sail back and forth. Nearby, a spokesperson hands out a fact sheet that tells the rest of the story. Often this kind of nonverbal, ritual-like performance, which repeats a simple but visually arresting motion, can be more powerful and effective than a full-length skit crammed with facts and figures.
Ghost Bike shrines — old bikes whitewashed and decked with flowers stationed as memorials at urban crossroads where cyclists have been killed — are a haunting presence, protest sculpture and fitting memorial all rolled into one.
Because they are such well-worn forms, rituals are ripe for mockery and comic adaptation, whether it’s the Billionaires for Bush doing a vigil for corporate welfare, or Reverend Billy brandishing a stuffed Mickey Mouse on a cross while doing an exorcism inside the Times Square Disney Store. In 1967, antiwar prankster Abbie Hoffman led 20,000 protesters in an attempt to levitate the Pentagon — the National Guard was under strict orders to never allow an unbroken chain of hands around the building.
Our familiarity with ritual makes it a great format for self-organizing. A ritual provides a natural script and symbolism. Even complete strangers naturally fall into a rhythm around it. This is even true for recently invented rituals such as monthly Critical Mass bike rides or the yearly ritual of Buy Nothing Day. In more repressive environments, the sacredness of a ritual offers protection, or at least courage. Think of Catholic Mass in Stalinist Poland or death squad-era El Salvador. In the Iranian Revolution (of 1979, as well as the revolts in 2010), the funerals of martyrs killed at the last protest fueled the next round of protests in an accelerating cycle.
At its best, a ritual is a cathartic, transformative experience. At a bat mitzvah, a child crosses over into adulthood. At a funeral, mourners grieve and find closure. A ritual harnessed to a political purpose should have an equally powerful effect, whether it is recommitting to a cause, finding courage, voicing dissent, or building trust.