Volume 13, Issue 6: Liturgia
Teaching through 1 Kings during family worship recently, I noted that both Absalom and Adonijah launched their coups by buying a chariot and hiring fifty men to run alongside as they cruised Jerusalem (2 Sam. 15:1; 1 Kgs. 1:5). One of my children frowned and said, "That's not how you become king."
Oh, but it is.
Absalom and Adonijah knew that if they started looking like kings by surrounding themselves with symbols of kingship, people would eventually begin thinking they were kings. They were right.
And they were not alone. Modern European revolutionaries have known the power of images and symbols, and none have been so self-conscious as the Jacobins of the French Revolution. They attempted to coopt Christian symbols and rituals for their cause, or, when that failed, to eliminate them.
Mona Ozouf has pointed out that during its early phases the French Revolution attempted to pull
Catholicism onto the republican bandwagon: Holidays "had embodied an alliance of religious fervor with revolutionary fervor. They had combined the Te Deum with the civic oath. They had seen newborns brought to the altar of the fatherland beneath an archway of swords raised up by national guardsmen, whereupon tricolor cockades were fastened to the infants' diapers and a double baptism celebrated, at once Catholic and revolutionary."1
When not pursuing a policy of cooption, the Jacobins de-Christianized France, launching a wave of iconoclasm and encouraging anti-Christian demonstrations. As they dismantled Catholic ceremonies and symbols, they introduced a variety of enlightened cults as substitutes, such as the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being.
Jacobin liturgists hoped to achieve several related purposes. First, their iconoclasm sought to destroy the remaining rival to their movement. The revolutionaries understood the subversive power of Christian liturgy better than many Christians; they knew that, as William Cavanagh has put it, Christian worship teaches the participants to "resist the State's ability to define what is real."2 Christian liturgy had the potential to create counter-revolutionaries, and if the revolution was to succeed, this enemy had to be destroyed.
Second, the revolutionary cults had a pedagogical intent. By engaging the whole person in a form of ritual, as the Catholic liturgy did, they hoped that revolutionary religion would shape a new kind of human being. Festivals of the French Revolution were characterized by endless speeches catechizing the faithful in revolutionary creeds, ponderous readings, and unsubtle theatrical allegories. As one revolutionary explained, "What the study of history teaches to a few men in the silence of the study, the public commemoration of major events . . . engraves in the memory of good citizens."3
Finally, revolutionary religion had a political purpose. For centuries, the Catholic Church had provided legitimacy for the French monarchy and the order of the ancien regime. Were someone to ask, "What right do these men have to rule?" the Church answered by pointing to rituals of coronation and feudal rights. When the Revolution destroyed the Catholic foundations of French society, the leaders were faced with the same questions, and, like Absalom and Adonijah, they
knew they could establish and maintain power only if they looked like they were in power. Since the Catholic liturgy was prohibited, a new liturgy had to be invented.
Though some regimes today still seek to replace Christian with secular liturgies, the more serious threat in the Western churches is a more subtle one: Fabian Jacobinism. Instead of a frontal assault on Christian liturgy, today's Jacobins attempt to reshape Christian liturgy step by step to accord with their political and cultural agendas.
Some hope to remake the liturgy itself, by incorporating gender-inclusive language, environmentally sensitive prayers, and elements of non-Christian spirituality. Others simply redefine Christian practices. In the course of saying many worthwhile and challenging things about the Eucharist, for example, Monika Hellwig of Georgetown University urges Christians to "join or even initiate groups and movements . . . to change things," and it is clear from elsewhere in her book which direction she intends the change.4 For Hellwig, the Lord's Supper commits Christians to support Tom Daschle and oppose George W.
Along similar lines, William K. McElaney of the Perkins School of Theology argues that the "welcome table" of the Church should not be closed to "anyone on the basis of race, nationality, gender, class, or sexual orientation." For McElaney, it is "way past time for the Church to become not only a welcoming community for lesbians and gays, but also an advocate for full human, legal, and civil rights."5
Despite their pretense of radicalism, writers like Hellwig and McElvaney are as culturally conservative as they come. Their proposals, after all, do nothing more than lend religious support to the political, legal, and cultural status quo. Throne-and-altar types have nothing on them.
The true subversives are the traditionalists. A church that understands that baptism seals the baptized for Christ's service will refuse to lend itself to Caesar. A church that pleads with the heavenly Father in worship is being trained to resist the nation's claims to fatherhood. A church that gathers at the Lord's Table will not be tempted to look to Robespierre for bread.