Liturgies of Empire, Liturgies of Resistance (abridged)

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Liturgies of Empire, Liturgies of Resistance: a keynote talk by C. Wess Daniels to Intermountain Yearly Meeting, June 19, 2020

[The following text was drawn from a complete transcript of C. Wess Daniels’s keynote talk, which is published at: https://westernfriend.org/media/liturgies-empire-and-resistance]

Today I want to talk about how our worship and our practices shape us and prepare us for the truth and for resistance. How they can help us to be aware of and stand against the lies of empire.

I’ll start by pointing out that “religions” include more the typical examples – Catholics or Baptists or Quakers. Empires throughout time have operated essentially as religions, and they are rooted in a divine agency. That divine agency is Caesar; it is the dictator, the powerful leader; it is whoever is standing in as God.

The Bible talks about the religion of empire throughout all of scripture. But there’s another type of religion that the Bible talks about, the religion of creation or the religion of the lamb that was slain. This religion is grounded in an ongoing relationship with the Creator God, a covenant between God and God’s people. This is not some hierarchy, but a co-working, participatory relationship. You see a direct encounter in the early creation stories that set up a blessing and abundance for all people and all creation. Notice that it’s not for “all things except those few folks over there that we don’t like.”

On the other hand, the religion of empire often uses God’s name to justify attitudes and behaviors that provide blessings for some at the expense of everyone else. This is one of the reasons that Jesus was executed, because he was calling out the religious leaders of the time; he was calling out their bogus religion.

One of the things I was surprised to learn as I was studying the Book of Revelation, is that Revelation says not only does empire work like a religion, but that just like a religion, it also has liturgies. Empire has its own ways of worshipping, of forming its people, so that they are formed in its distorted moral imagination.[/pullqutoe]

I read the Book of Revelation not as a predictive text about how are we going to evacuate Earth during the end times. I look at Revelation as a toolbox or a handbook for the early followers of Jesus, instructing them how to resist the Roman Empire. This is a text from Revelation 5:

I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll . . .  Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

So, if you’re a first-century Jewish person reading this text, when you read “Lion of Judah” and “Root of David” and “conquered,” you’re picturing an empire warrior guy with an army and lots of weapons. But the story takes a very different turn.

Then I saw . . . a lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered . . . He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was sitting on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

One thing I want to pull out of this passage is this image of the lamb that has been slaughtered, but who is alive. It’s an essential image in Revelation. It represents the War of the Lamb, nonviolent resistance to empire, which the early Quakers picked up. How do we resist empire through nonviolence? It starts by knowing that the empire does not control death. That Christ, the lamb, overcame death itself – this is a powerful image.

Revelation understands the conflict between these two religions. It is trying to unmask the religion of empire, which it calls by all kinds of names. “The beast” is the main image. And Babylon.

The war that breaks out metaphorically in Revelation – between Michael and the angels and the woman and the beast and the empire – also takes form concretely, historically, in ritual crucifixions. Arena contests in Rome. Wrestling matches with lions and other public spectacles of execution. Can we think of public spectacles of execution throughout human history?

Revelation’s insight is that these are not merely political acts, but they are liturgical acts of empire. They are religious acts. Today, we might say, “manufacturing consent,” to describe the liturgies of empire – making people want to go along, conditioning them. This happens a lot in dictatorships. The empire has a liturgy to tell its origin story, to justify its existence, to convince the people on the inside of its story that they are somehow better or more special than the “them,” whoever the empire is standing over and against.

The liturgy of empire feeds and thrives on the human desire for a mob mentality. We are very susceptible to being caught up in a mob, and empire loves that.

The queer theologian James Alison describes the Nuremberg rallies as prime examples of liturgies of empire. The Nuremberg rallies were Nazi propaganda events that took place between 1923 and 1938. The Nazi regime saw itself in the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, as connected to an empire that spanned two thousand years prior. This is how Alison describes the Nuremberg rally:

The liturgical organizers of the Nuremberg rallies knew exactly what they were doing and did it remarkably well. You bring people together and you . . . provide regular rhythmic music and marching. . .  There are temples, symbols, statues, policies, decrees, collective responses, special robes, outfits, gatherings of people, all part of this liturgical demeanor. You give them songs to sing. You build them up with a reason for their togetherness, a reason based on their common racial heritage. You inflame them with tales of past woes . . .

All this gradually serves to take people out of themselves. The normally restrained become passionate; unfriendly neighbors find themselves looking at each other anew in the light of the growing bruderschaft. . .

. . . And on their way home that evening, though they may not have noticed it, part of the magic will have rubbed off on them. They will look at the Jew across the road from them in a different light. He will have lost personality in their eyes and become a representative of the sort of thing the Fuhrer had suggested to them. They will be that much closer to turning a blind eye to the disappearance, to agreeing that Mr. Silverstein, the cobbler, is indeed a threat to society.

The liturgies of empire seek to extract us from the present moment and remove us from the suffering of our neighbor. It includes a drive toward sacrificing or scapegoating others.

The liturgy of resistance roots itself in a very different understanding of God – as a God of abundance for all of creation. A healing and reconciling life force that suffers with those who suffer. This God of the lamb that was slain, this God of resistance, is a God of nonviolence. This God stands with “the multitude.”

Revelation describes the multitude as an uncountable number of people, made up of every tribe, every nation, every language. It is open-ended and inclusive of all people and all creation. It surrounds the lamb that is slain, which is the victim of empire, which is nonviolence, which overcomes death. The other victims of empire are also placed at the center, those who have been lynched throughout history.

In contrast to a Nuremburg rally, the liturgy of resistance functions as an orchestrated detox. It needs to be discomforting and jarring. It is meant to wake us up from empire. Imagine being one of the individuals at a Nuremberg rally and then someone comes and taps on your shoulder and says, “Friend, come with me. You need to get out of here.” It’s that process of being jolted awake and taken out of that crowd. We need an orchestrated detox.

I gave a message recently in which I made a connection between the lynching of Jesus and the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who was killed while he was jogging in Georgia. Afterwards, someone faithfully said to me, “I found that message to be jarring and discomforting, but I needed it.” And I thought, exactly! We need more of that. We need more liturgies of resistance, to help us detox from empire.  ~~~

C. Wess Daniels is a Quaker author, educator, intellectual, and theologian. He is Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

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