Part I: Toward Postcolonial Liturgical Preaching: Drawing on the Pre-Columbian Caribbean Religion of the Taínos

Lis Originals 18

It seems that little has changed in Christian congregations in the United States since Martin Luther King, Jr., said that, “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of Christian America.”1 This segregation is part of the aftermath of imperialism and colonization, and their corresponding worldview of opposing and antagonistic binaries that continues to hurt both colonizers and colonized peoples by keeping them divided and engaged in cycles of oppression. Thus, both the colonizers and the colonized need healing and reconciliation from the effects of colonialism. Toward this end, I suggest that postcolonial liturgies and preaching can help us overcome segregation in worship; achieve healing, reconciliation, and complementarity; and find a new way of being in community that truly embodies the unity of the body of Christ and the diversity of its parts.

From a distinctive Caribbean perspective, this paper develops a postcolonial approach to liturgical preaching.2 It recovers the tradition of the Taíno religion3—the pre-Columbian religion in the Antilles prior to colonial times—which I suggest can teach us how to decolonize our religious rituals. Borrowing from the Taíno religion a worldview of “complementary dualities” and a ritual pattern that embraces both conflict and unity, in this paper I propose a liturgical dynamic that moves the community from spaces of tension to experiences of connectedness.4 In this postcolonial liturgical process preaching encourages imagination and guides the community in the journey from tension to connectedness.

Drawing on the Taíno Religion to Develop a Postcolonial Liturgy

In my context of origin, Puerto Rico (a territory and colony of the United States), people attend worship as colonized persons, even if most of them live rather unconscious of this fact. Puerto Ricans enter the church building as marginal people because we are colonized, and exist still at the margins—an experience common to most immigrants and racial minorities in the United States. Yet in predominantly Euro-American congregations, most people enjoy white privilege and a concomitant sense of being at the center of society, byproducts of white supremacy and imperialism. The colonial system and its corresponding worldview of opposing and antagonistic binaries together have produced this situation in which colonizers and colonized people worship separately.

Yet in the Taíno culture, a different worldview does not entertain antagonistic dualisms but instead portrays the world in complementary dualities. In this worldview dualities do exist (male/female, night/day, visible/invisible), but instead of excluding one another the worldview considers them to be simultaneously opposing and complementary forces. If we open ourselves to recover the wisdom of this culture that was suppressed by colonization, and if we let it influence our worship rituals, we may find a way to overcome the effects of colonialism that maintains the colonized and the colonizers as opposites of an irreconcilable binary. We may find a way to overcome segregation in worship by reconsidering how our differences or dualities might instead be complementary forces. Let me introduce this Taíno worldview to you through the examples of their religious and political organization, beginning with the Taíno divine pantheon.

Complementary Dualities

The Taíno worldview is one of complementary dualities, as we learn from archaeologist Antonio Stevens-Arroyo. He used the concept of coincidentia oppositorum5 (coincidence of the opposites) to explain the structure of the cemí pantheon.6 A cemí is a portable religious artifact, made of stone, bone, or wood, “that the Taínos and other natives of the Greater Antilles… regarded as numinous beings and believed to have supernatural, magic powers.”7 They are not the mythical beings of primordial times, but the sacred beings pertaining to the here and now who the Taínos believed had the power to affect their real and everyday world.8 Stevens-Arroyo identified a pantheon of cemíes, which are organized in two dualities of opposites that form four parts of a whole. There is a female and a male principle for the fruitful order, which corresponds to the day; and there is a female and male principle for the reversal order, which corresponds to the night. This is a total of four principles and each one has a main cemí with two helpers, making a total of 12 cemíes.9 For the Taínos, the number four—two pairs of elements—indicated totality and completeness.10

In this worldview the opposites coincide to form complementary dualities. As archaeologist José R. Oliver explains, “The Taíno vision is one of a dynamic cosmos, alternating between opposing forces that are simultaneously complementary…, alternation which ultimately was ruled by the numinous powers of cemíes.”11 For example, the pair of divine beings known as Atabey-Yúcahu served to show the complementary female-male duality.12 Another example is Atabey, who has both an angry and a benevolent manifestation that together constitute a balance between destructive and harmonizing forces.13 Furthermore, in the religious-political organization, the cemí as a category of power from the extraordinary world formed a pair with the Cacique,14 who was the political and religious leader of the community and the power in the ordinary world. We also see this structure in how the ceremonial space of Caguana in Puerto Rico is divided up. It has ritual spaces at the periphery in which Taínos embodied conflicts through a batey and it has a main square at the center to embody unity through an areyto.15 In short, opposites need, constitute, and complement each other.

Attending to this understanding of the world in which the opposites are not supposed to be kept separate but rather brought together to form a whole, it is necessary to bring together colonizers and colonized peoples. This is not only an implication of the Taíno worldview, it is also an imperative from the Gospel in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, … slave or free,

… male and female; for all… are one in Christ Jesus.”16 This is not an easy task given the long history of opposition, oppression, violence, and segregation that afflicts the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized.

The Taíno worldview filtered through the lens of postcolonial theory allows us to draw on the two main Taíno rituals of areyto and batey and to reclaim their functions in order to propose a way toward postcolonial liturgical preaching. These rituals, to which we now turn our

attention, along with the work of theologians and scholars who have used postcolonial theory to enhance the fields of liturgical studies, homiletics, and theology together lead me to propose a postcolonial liturgy in three movements: (1) spaces of tension, (2) journeying imaginatively, and (3) experiences of connectedness.

Spaces of Tension

The first movement of the liturgy, spaces of tension, I illustrate with the Taíno ritual batey, a ball game. The Taínos used the same word to refer to the ball, to the game, and to the space or court where they played it. The ceremonial space for the batey was located in the periphery of the village, in zones of ecological and topographic transition.17 According to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, at the outskirts of some villages there were parks with seats for people to watch the game. It is possible that each clan or lineage had its own batey park.18 Thus the squares at the periphery served as scattered spaces for confrontation and competition that people embodied and ritualized in the batey.

The main functions of the batey were to mark moments of transition or disjunction and to provide a mechanism for interaction and coordination between social groups within the community—groups that were unequal or even competitive.19 Taínos understood the batey to be a religious ceremony insofar as they believed the cemíes controlled the outcome of the game.20

To develop a liturgical form for today that manifests the function of spaces of tension, I will draw on the work of Caribbean Christian theologian Michael N. Jagessar and liturgical theologian Stephen Burns. In the field of liturgical studies, these theologians approach Christian worship from the perspective of postcolonial theory in order to decolonize rituals. They identify the following postcolonial perspectives: “(i) affirmation of the equal dignity of human beings, (ii) exposure of imperial dynamics at play in culture and politics, unreflective everyday practices as well as carefully and intentionally constructed policies, and (iii) celebration of subaltern wisdom, creativity, and resistance to dominant supposed ‘norms.’ ”21

Jagessar and Burns argue that the liturgical genres that serve as counterparts to each one of these postcolonial perspectives are (i) proclamation, (ii) lament, and (iii) praise, respectively. In addition, they propose that the convergence of postcolonial and liturgical critical perspectives also beckons an invitation to repentance.22

Jagessar and Burns also identify interruption as a liturgical strategy that builds on the concept of lament in order to generate worship that disturbs and dislodges an imperial agenda. What is novel in Jagessar’s work on interruption is that it brings “different narratives, moods and sources into creative, immediate ‘collision.’”23 Some concrete ways of doing this in worship include using non-scriptural readings or unexpected music or songs. The authors recommend that anything and everything is a good topic for interruption in the liturgy.

The concepts of interruption and collision seem to describe well what is going on in the batey. The batey from the Taínos and the lament and invitation to repentance described by Jagessar and Burns provide the raw material for the first movement of the postcolonial liturgy proposed here, that of spaces of tension.

Using the function of the batey and liturgical genres identified by Jagessar and Burns, the first movement of the liturgy I am proposing embodies lament and repentance. In this first part of the liturgy the worshipers will bring into the ritual unexpected elements that show the conflicts, violence, collisions, and damaging effects of colonialism in their lives. This is the time to lament racism, segregation, oppression, as well as the privileges that come with an imperial system and that alienate human beings from one another. This is the time to expose imperial dynamics present in culture, society, and politics. This is also the time to repent from any participation in the perpetuation of such systems and its consequences. This liturgical moment recreates scattered places that characterize imperialism. This could be done through prayers of confession, litanies, call and response, and through songs and the telling of stories that show the negative effects of imperialism and colonization in the life of the congregants. However, all these liturgical forms so recognizable to us should be designed in such a way as to achieve interruption as a liturgical strategy. This is the point or place in the liturgy at which worshipers experience confrontation and disjunction or recreate spaces of tension.

In this first half of the article, I have drawn on the Taíno worldview of complementary dualities to propose a postcolonial liturgy in three movements: (1) spaces of tension, (2) journeying imaginatively, and (3) experiences of connectedness. Then, using the Taíno ritual of batey, I explored the function and possible forms of the first movement of the liturgy, that of spaces of tension. In the second half of this article, which will be published in the next issue of the Asian American Theological Forum online, I will explore the second and third movements of my proposal for Postcolonial Liturgical Preaching.


(The second half of this article will be published in the next issue, vol. 3 no. 2)


Lis Valle, PhD Candidate

Vanderbilt University

Note: The article originally appears on Homiletic.

  1. Martin Luther King, “Communism’s Challenge to Christianity,” sermon delivered on August 9, 1953 in Atlanta, GA. 
  2. The approach that guides this proposal is based on these postcolonial critical perspectives: 1) to expose colonial ideologies, 2) to recover the histories and traditions of the colonized, and 3) to give voice to the previously voiceless. See Kwok Pui-lan, Postcolonial Imagination & Feminist Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005); Michael N. Jagessar and Stephen Burns, Christian Worship: Postcolonial Perspectives (London; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub. Ltd., 2010); and Pablo A. Jiménez, “Toward a Postcolonial Homiletic: Justo L. González’s Contribution to Hispanic Preaching,” in Hispanic Christian Thought at the Dawn of the 21st Century (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 159–67. 
  3. While scholars contest the term “Taíno,” it has not been effectively substituted and continues to be used to refer (1) to the natives inhabiting most of the Greater Antilles prior to and during the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Western hemisphere, and (2) to their culture. See. José R. Oliver, Caciques and Cemí Idols: The Web Spun by Taíno Rulers between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009), 6. 
  4. I am grateful to Cristian De La Rosa and Lucy Atkins Rose who inspired the language of tension and connectedness, respectively. 
  5.  Coincidentia oppositorum is a Latin phrase that means literally the coincidence of the opposites, in reference to opposite parts that form a whole. It was proposed in 1464 by Nicholas of Cusa but it is a concept that may have a history that goes all the way back to the notion of unity of opposites in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. 
  6. José R. Oliver, El Centro Ceremonial de Caguana, Puerto Rico: Simbolismo Iconográfico, Cosmovisión Y El Poderío Caciquil Taíno de Boriquén (Oxford [England]: Archaeopress, 1998), 110. 
  7. Oliver, Caciques and Cemí Idols, 3. 
  8. Oliver, El Centro Ceremonial de Caguana, Puerto Rico, 110; my translation. 
  9. Ibid., 110–111. 
  10. Ibid., 112. 
  11. Ibid., 106; my translation. 
  12. Sebastián Robiou Lamarche, Mitología Y Religión de Los Taínos, 1st. ed. (San Juan, P.R.: Editorial Puntoy Coma, 2006), 5–6. 
  13. Ibid., 17. 
  14. Taíno villages could have a male or a female chief. The female term for Cacique is Cacica. For the sake of convenience and space, every time the word Cacique is used, the female Cacica is implied. 
  15. Oliver, El Centro Ceremonial de Caguana, Puerto Rico, 71. 
  16. Galatians 3:28, New Revised Standard Version. 
  17. Oliver, El Centro Ceremonial de Caguana, Puerto Rico, 101. 
  18. Ibid., 102. 
  19. Ibid., 100. 
  20. Ibid. 
  21. Jagessar and Burns, Christian Worship, 11. 
  22. Ibid. 
  23. Ibid., 100. 

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