Everyone but Rizzo: Using the Arts to Transform Communities

By Smith, W. Alan | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Everyone but Rizzo: Using the Arts to Transform Communities


Smith, W. Alan, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Everyone But Rizzo: Using The Arts To Transform Communities

The topic of our meeting has intrigued me personally for many years, going back to my undergraduate days in the Viet Nam War era. My double major of religion and political science should be an indication of this long-term involvement in the matter. I usually tell persons that I had that double major so no one would talk to me at cocktail parties. While I have not completely abandoned the systemic solutions to international conflict we sought in the late 60s and early 70s, I have resolved for myself that it is far more important for theologians, religious educators, and other persons of faith to become engaged in hands-on, interpersonal practices of peacemaking than to focus on creating a constructive "theory" of peace. It no longer makes sense to me to talk about justice, redemption, forgiveness, or duty as universal concepts alone; I believe I am only acting faithfully when I act justly in community, when I engage in practices that empower reconciliation and redemption of relationships, when I model forgiveness, and when I live loyally and in solidarity with others. The task of religion in this process must be working in partnership with persons and institutions to, in Parker Palmer's wonderfully evocative phrase, "create a space where the community of truth is practiced." (Palmer 1998, 90)

I have always been engaged in the arts. I began my college education as a music education major at Florida State University and still play my saxophone regularly. Our son and daughter-in-law are musicians. I began writing poetry when I was quite young. While my attempts at drawing more closely resemble something produced by a committee than "art", I have become quite interested in art, sculpture, and (partially because of our campus' connection with Frank Lloyd Wright) architecture. Through our daughter, I have become a student of dance and theatre as well. So, it would come as little surprise to those who know me that I have been drawn to ways in which the arts can help one live faithfully in community. My experience with the arts has convinced me that the arts have a power to transform persons and communities in ways our more typical scientific and assessment-centered approaches to problem-solving cannot. As Jo Salas, one of the founders of "Playback Theatre," has said, "The arts weave our lives with others, not only our contemporaries but our forebears. Through the arts we find and communicate meaning, reassurance, healing, vision: we move toward fulfilling ourselves, individually and as a society." (Salas 2007, 10)

My approach to the topic of our Round Table will be to examine three specific communities in which the arts have contributed to healing, reconciling, and redeeming the brokenness that has affected them. The three approaches to be addressed are the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia, a women's cooperative in Peru that produces fabric sculptures known as arpilleras orcuadros, and a form of non-scripted theatre known as Playback Theatre. I will use a form of postmodern analysis as an organizing as well as a hermeneutical device in addressing the three subjects.

A Postmodern Hermeneutical Theology

The modern era of theology, philosophy, and social interaction which began with the Enlightenment emphasized human reason freed from the hegemony of church and state, the autonomous self as a knowing subject, the emergence of "consciousness" as a scientific understanding of self and all knowledge, and a top-down, hierarchical flow of authority from "centers" of knowledge. Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann claims the modern world's focus on reason, universal principles, method, and logic was undergirded by a male, Western, largely-White cultural hegemony. (Brueggemann 1993, 10-11) "Truth" was regarded as having an objective, absolute status that could be accessed by humans through the application of scientific principles of investigation. …

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