Politics and the Cross:
Worship, an Act of Opposition

By Richard Toews

This essay is about worship and politics. For many who grew up within some Protestant evangelical communities, we learned that worship and politics were antithetical. It is important to note at the beginning of this essay that worship has, in certain contexts, been wrapped up within religious dogma. Worship has been equated as a specific religious expression. It is my intention to disavow worship from religious dogma. Let me begin by raising two questions: what is meant by the term worship and secondly, what is meant by the concept, political?

There seems to be some confusion about how one is to understand worship. There is always the danger of confusing worship with the sound of church bells. That is to say, we confuse the meaning of worship with something that happens within specific and confined contexts. Worship is what we do on Sunday in our Sunday best dress, and even then from mid morning to the lunch hour. In this sense, worship is unidirectional, from human to God - it is an internal, and sometimes emotional, expression of our sense of fealty to God but without the understanding that our devotion to God must manifest an external, social expression of human to human. As Michael Ramsey notes in his book The Anglican Spirit (1992) "there is no genuine worship of God that is not reflected in the urgent, practical, outgoing service of humanity. But this urgent, practical, outgoing service of humanity, because it has God as its author, brings us back again to praise and glory of God from whom all good things come."

For Ramsey, worship is best understood as a sacramental reverence for the Incarnated Christ. In this sense, Ramsey's understanding of worship reflects the thrust of this essay, namely, that worship is God's "lifting the world through Christ into the heavenly places, and of our worship as sharing in the actual liturgy of heaven;" but just as important, translating that liturgy into the praxis of daily life among God's children. This, then, brings us to our second question, how we are to understand politics in the light of worship.

Looking to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1987) we learn that politics is not an axiomatic endeavour which is predicated upon saturating social structures with ideological meaning, with pragmatic language insistent upon "carving out a homogeneous system" in order to lay the foundation for a uniform state. Instead, politics is more about a groping in the dark, about injection, withdrawal, advance and retreat, it is about a social interaction that resists the absurdity of supergovernance that makes final decisions. (All too often these final decisions are fundamentally economic. It might be prudent to note that in 1964, Herbert Marcuse noted in One Dimensional Man that Western society has managed to inculcate upon its citizens the idea that security comes by way of industrialization, which in turn creates societes that are richer, bigger, and better as industiralization perpetuates a mastery over nature, but as well points to lethal potentialities. Here the logic of the political needs of society become individual needs and aspirations. Their satisfaction is diverted away from communal needs, but comes from the promotion of business. Society fluants Reason but the reality is society is irrational as a whole. ) Politics, as understood here, is about the interaction with people in communities of affinity trying to make sense of a world defined by economic interests, trying to find ways to inject economic structures with a measure of uncertainty, where the values of the human person is placed above the value of economic and political ideologies. With this in mind, I would like to explore the proposition that, indeed, politics and worship are not diametrically opposed but indeed, worship is intricately political.

Two individuals guide our thinking on this question. At first glance, these individuals may appear to have little connection and the mix is an odd one. The first individual is Ken Leech, author of such classics as Soul Friend (1992), True Prayer (1995), the discomforting (for some) The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice (1992) and the inflammatory, Subversive Orthodoxy (1992). The second individual I have in mind is Antonio Gramsci, who, in 1924 founded the Italian Communist Party.

Spirituality: The Soul of Worship

It is not uncommon among certain worship communities to see worship as an integral part of spirituality. But spirituality has proven to be a problematic term. In the early 1960s, says Leech, spirituality was identified with escapist pietism. Simply, it was a retreat from the needs and demands of the world. Today there is a resurgence of interest in prayer, devotion, techniques of mediation, ascetical practices, and of course a quest for the renewal of an inner life tied to a commitment to a strict biblicism as demonstrated by such popular programs as the Alpha Course (founded by Charles Marnham, a clergyman at Holy Trinity Brompton, London and adopted by several Mennonite churches) and Anglican Essentials. The problem, it seems, is that when such Christians speak of spirituality they are really speaking of an inward quest. But let me suggest that those who are tempted to shout "Hooray, Spirituality is in again" need to realize that this type of spirituality can be a dangerous diversion from the engagement with reality such as the demands of justice a living God requires of his people.

The spirituality of the romantic is nothing short of a commodity in competition with other products in the bookstalls. It belongs to the area of "private life." This private approach to religion presents some ominous consequences. The action of God is seen within very narrow limits. Such spirituality serves to reinforce, rather than disturb, the status quo.

Much of the modern literature on spirituality suggests ways to cope with our modern world, with our existing reality, rather than find ways to change it. The privatization of spirituality, the relationship between prayer and social and political activity is not even addressed. The net result is to reinforce the status quo; religious energy is poured into personal holiness rather than social justice.

But if individuals are lax here, the institutional church is much more so. After all, the church is to be our guide in these matters. The church exists as a community of believers that must exist to provide a model of communal behaviour. That, sadly, hasn't always happened.

All over the western world, the church has fallen behind in a very changing world. Churches have become "cultic shrines, bastions of an esoteric religious culture. In one sense, churches have become nothing but urban villages in which parishioners and congregations huddle and cling together for warmth and fellowship while outside, in the world beyond, cruel winds usher in a climate churchgoers cannot understand, and skies whose formations they cannot discern."

To be fair, there are those who reject this view of the church, there are those who identify with a subversive orthodoxy. Subversive, because these Christians are willing to be part of a non-conformist movement. And in the present state of the world these people are vitally important. These are people at odds with and in conflict with the prevailing practice of injustice. These are people who are passionate in their advocacy for the poor and the dispossessed. But they are orthodox because it is their sense of contradiction between the faith they hold to and profess and the prevailing conditions they encounter which is the driving force of their faith and witness.

At the core, subversive orthodoxy is prophetic in nature and it is worked out in a context of action within community. In this sense the church does not exist for its own ends but is a reflection of the Kingdom of God in our midst in time present. Here, the church's social and political witness begins with the raising of the consciousness of the local Christian community and theology is a vital component with the everyday life of the street and the back alleys. The underlying question here is, "does the parish/congregation as a primary fabric of Christian consciousness, exist as a structure for its own membership, or does it witness to truths and values which must be addressed and proclaimed within, and over and against the surrounding culture?" Simply, is the church part of the public arena and if so, what is to be its impact?

The overriding question regarding impact is what will a church in the public arena look like, how will it behave, what will be its guiding principle? To answer this question, we might do well to consider the thoughts and words of Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci: Worship as Opposition

The German radical feminist theologian, Dorothy Solle, points out that religion must be understood in its double function, that is, as apology and legitimation of the status quo and its culture of injustice on the one hand, and as a means of protest, change, and liberation on the other. (Of the second I make the distinction between religion and worship.) Eugene Genovese believes that if the living history of the Christian Church has been primarily a history of submission to class stratification and the powers that be there also remains, despite all attempts at extirpation, a legacy of resistance emblematic of prophetic movements. So while religion can function as a relatively autonomous sphere of social life Solle's and Genovese's argument suggests that in certain contexts, worship can act as a mediating principle between the oppressor and the oppressed. Surprisingly, Antonio Gramsci, makes a valuable contribution to this argument; there is a function of worship that is about opposition. Gramsci's primary concern is to show how religion can provide means and ways for subordinate groups to resist domination from socially dominant groups that exist to influence the interests and preferences of subordinate groups. But where Gramsci talks of religion, I would substitute the notion of worship.

Gramsci (1891-1937) was born in Sardinia and studied at the University of Turin where he became active in the Italian Socialist Party. By 1924 he became a founder and leader of the Italian Communist Party. His literary, journalistic, and political activities eventually led to his arrest in 1926. He spent most of the balance of his life in prison where he wrote his famous Prison Notebooks. He greatly broadened Marxist thinking on the role of intellectuals in the political process and the social hegemony, both of which would influence later social and cultural theory. Today he is, perhaps, remembered best for his use of the term hegemony. While he did not coin the term, his understanding of its impact has greatly influenced contemporary social theory.

Exactly how did this Marxist influence our understanding of worship in terms of protest? Gramsci stressed the importance of discursive practices that contribute to domination. Gramsci believed the Marxian thesis that the liberation of the individual from oppressive institutions could come about only with the emancipation of the poor and with it the whole of humanity. The net result of his theory is that the overthrow of capitalism brings about the creation of a society in which the dignity of the individual has preeminent status. Gramsci believed that change to the existing order defined by the status quo could only come about by a revolutionary movement of the collective will of mass movements. But how, exactly, does this relate to worship and politics? To answer this, one must understand religion in the context of the problem of hegemony.

The Problem of Hegemony

Gramsci well understood that the battles of western society would culminate not in mechanistic "laws" of social change in which class struggle had to await its "objective moment" when the crisis of capitalism would naturally produce systematic collapse, but in political and cultural struggle. To theorize this struggle, Gramsci developed a complex political sociology at the center of which was his concept of cultural hegemony. Gramsci understood the supremacy of dominant social classes in capitalist industrial societies always to be predicated on a balance of two factors, "force" (coercion) and "hegemony" (the consent "spontaneously" given to elite rule by subaltern classes).

To exercise moral and intellectual leadership over society, a group must win support of dependent groups by connecting the perceived interests of these groups with their own. The ability to shape these perceptions is a powerful source of the group's agency and can be viewed as a resource. The dominant powerful class not only exercises economic control but also provides moral and intellectual leadership in society by creating alliances with the weaker classes. Indirectly, the subaltern classes absorb the ideas of intellectuals uncritically and accept the intellectual's worldview as their own; class domination is thus an intellectual and moral victory as much as it is an economic fact.

To combat this cultural and social miasma Gramsci suggests revolutionary struggle in which the subaltern generate their own "organic intellectuals" capable of creating new forms of counter-hegemony by shattering the claims of older worldviews. With this in mind, the subaltern intellectuals take on an educative role and create "free spaces." These are defined as communally grounded voluntary associations that permit people to discover the capacity to overcome deferential patterns of behavior. Here they outgrow parochialisms of class, race, and gender, and form a broader conception of the common good. Rank and file workers and their leaders together create an autonomous culture and organization from which they challenge capitalist political and ideological rule.

But religion has in the past been an integral part of the ideological rule. It comes as no surprise, then, that subordinate classes whose worldview may be heavily influenced by religion will have difficulty taking any initiatives or participate in a process of transformation of society. The religious worldview itself must undergo appropriate transformations. Theology must be predicated first and foremost on a sense of social and economic justice. Thus, for people living in a culture of religiosity, it is less a matter of their using religion to achieve secular ends than of their becoming able to see through their religious culture toward political goals, towards an act of worship. The consequence is that discourse and practices of worship become oppositional.

Worship and the Politics of Protest

One who carried Gramsci's argument to a more logical and philosophical end was Eugene Bianchi. In his The Religious Experience of Revolutionaries (1972) he argues that amongst revolutionary characters, there is a necessary and distinct relationship between the political and the religious. Certainly, there is nothing new in this. The radical theologian and founder of the Sojourners movement, Jim Wallis, argues this very point about establishment religions. In the west this would inevitably be Christianity, or at least a variant of it. Wallis identifies establishment religion with the established order; it is not in conflict with the pretensions of the state, with the designs of economic and political power, or with the values and style of life enshrined in the national culture. Establishment religion is a religion of accommodation and conformity with values, realism, and success more than faithfulness and obedience. "It is heavily invested," says Wallis, "in the political order, the social consensus, and the ideology of the economic system. Its proclamation has been rendered harmless and inoffensive to the wealthy and powerful; its church life has become a mere ecclesiastical reproduction of the values and assumptions of the surrounding environment." Such is not the worship of opposition Wallis and Bianchi allude to. For Wallis and Bianchi worship as opposition is not simply a matter of reconfiguring the political and cultural discourse in order to articulate a counter-hegemony as it is with Gramsci, but a constitutive function of worship itself. Their argument is that the heart and soul of an authentic worship is opposition to the established order.

The relationship between the political and worship is one in which a worship experience underlies the political experience. Bianchi makes the argument that [worship] takes on meaning only in the context of the social and the political interaction by asking what does it mean to be human. It is in communion with other human beings that we discover the nature of God. In this sense, Bianchi seems to suggest, much like Durkheim, that God is the reflection of communal, or collective values.

For Bianchi, [worship] has to do with concern for ultimate values in and through past, present and future realities. When, however, we adhere to conditioned and relative values that shut us off from openness to fuller enhancement of values in self, neighbour, and community, we engage in an idolatry of anti-worship. When we become agents of any activity that undermines community, we perform activities that are, in essence, anti-worship. Through defining humans in relation to God, religions have traditionally ascribed worth to humankind. From a positive point of view, the ultimate confers value by its immanent presence in all human events. The task of the revolutionary, then, is the creation of a sense of new worth and meaning in the struggle of responding to people's need for liberation from relative values and conditioned responses. This quest of creating a new worth or meaning has true and worthwhile meaning when the new is not just a copy of the old sort of covetousness of what the haves have. It is not enough to free people from present tyrannies in order to enjoy the advantages of the oppressor or ruling class. The goal of the revolutionary is to transform the ruling class into something new in which exists a self consciousness beyond the mere distribution of goods. The purpose of the revolutionary or prophetic figure is to bring about a new morality in individuals and to establish more trusting/sharing relationships in society. Thus, the liberation of the people as an ultimate focal point of value implies the dialectic of a yes to the immediate goals of the revolution coupled with a no to resting satisfied with these goals.

The true revolutionary worshiper recognizes the mutability of political ideology. It is only fleeting, always changing, never static. When ideology becomes fixed and absolute, the revolutionary worshipper becomes counter-revolutionary. The dogmatic intransigence fixes the future of the people in the narrow confines of faulty vision. When worship is the undergirding of the revolutionary vision, it is best to remember that all worship contains only partial and fragmentary glimpses into the mysterious domain of the sacred or the transcendent.

In conclusion, the world of humankind displays an interpenetration of secular and sacred, of culture and religion, of politics and worship, of immanence and transcendence. There are no special spheres for these different aspects of human existence, as if we could neatly divide the secular experience from the worship experience. The latter is a dynamic process transcribed in the very stuff of ordinary life; the worship experience is the secular experience of self-transcendence toward freedom in community. Thus the worship experience consists in the total orientation of a person; that is, their inner life and stance towards others and the world. In this sense, the impact of the church as part of the public arena must be a consideration of justice. But the struggle for justice cannot simply take place at the level of the mind, the conquest of ignorance, or at the level of the street, the conquest of territorial space. It must also, and most importantly, take place at the level of creation of communities of dissent, communities of justice, communities of the creatively maladjusted.

[Richard Toews is a Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology with the First Nations Education Institute of Simon Fraser University, Kamloops, British Columbia]

Home Traditional Values The Heritage Friends and Companions Liturgical Ramblings Something of William Morris Some Good Reading Some Links The Jubilee Group