Silence: Christian Worship and Resistance to Empire

I watched Martin Scorsese’s Silence last night. As scene after gut-wrenching scene of Japanese Christians refusing – but occasionally, even more gut-wrenchingly, relenting – to trample the image of Christ, something struck me: it wasn’t those Christians’ “personal relationship with Jesus” that threatened the Japanese Empire. It was their public, communal and richly symbolic faith.

The Mass, confession and absolution, Baptism, and public, communal prayer all affirm the inherent value of every particular person, even peasants, as bearers of the Image of God and recipients of His mercy, grace and love. It was this public faith which threatened to destabilize the entire Japanese Empire public rather than any one peasant’s personal, private belief in Jesus.

Beyond Belief

What the Japanese Empire sought to stamp out wasn’t Christian “belief;” whenever they persecuted Christians it wasn’t because they “believed in Jesus,” but because they refused to step on an icon: an external, symbolic gesture of renunciation. When Fr. Rodriges’ translator whispers that insidious phrase, “It’s just a formality,” the viewer hears all the cunning of the Tempter in the wilderness: “Go on. It doesn’t really mean anything anyway. It’s just a symbol. You can believe in Jesus in your heart all you want – just don’t disturb the status quo.”

It wasn’t merely belief in the Resurrection that threatened the Empire, but a bit of water splashed on a baby’s head. It wasn’t merely belief in the Virgin Birth that threatened the Empire, but a tiny, broken piece of bread. It wasn’t merely belief in the Crucifixion that threatened the Empire, but the contours of a cross traced over a repentant man’s tear-stained chest.

A lively, public faith, rich with heavenly symbolism, threatened the Empire; a personal, private faith did not. It’s not the faith of the heart alone that topples oppression: it’s the external, communal, symbolic gestures participated in by a faithful community. These symbols imprint on our hearts, minds and bodies an image of a heavenly Kingdom that threatens to topple the kingdoms of this world.

You Are What You Love

In his newest book, “You Are What You Love,” professor James K.A. Smith shows us that it’s in the liturgy of the Church that our faith takes on its public, symbolic nature. It’s the worship of the Church that shapes us as characters in the Story of the Kingdom of God, instead of the stories of earthly kingdoms. From individual, private, personal faith those kingdoms are safe: it’s the public, communal, symbolic faith of Christianity that turns the world upside down.

My friend recently planted a church in Austin, TX. When his team first gathered to discuss their budget, they did something radical. They poured all their money into a jeweled chalice. What a waste, we think. In our American kingdom we see this and say with Judas, “Why was this not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”

In the worship of the Church, a chalice of silver and stones is wrested from the Empire of supply and demand, and is upheld as the priceless vessel of the Blood of God. And as your average Jane and Javonté amble down the aisle, they take to their lips the most precious stuff they’ll every touch: pure silver and rubies consecrated to convey the very presence of Jesus Christ.

Suddenly they and the chalice have been wrested from the story of consumerism, and caught up in the Story of God’s good world. It’s good because God looked at it all and laughed and danced and shouted, “Tov meod! Very good!” And doing this every week causes The Story to become second nature. It becomes the lens by which we see every glass of wine, every loaf of bread, every building, chair, blade of grass and, yea: every blesséd bearer of the Imago Dei.

Christian Worship and American Empire

Worship wrests us from the stories of earthly kingdoms, and exposes them for the lies they are – whether it’s the story of Trump’s or Hillary’s America. Our public worship stands to destabilize the entire American empire – every empire. There is no more radical act than the worship of the Church.

If you are upset, or hopeless, or defiant as President Trump settles into the White House – or glad or hopeful, for that matter – know this: resistance to the Empire and its oppression, division and fear isn’t found in personal, private belief. It’s found in the public, symbolic, all-encompassing worship of the Church. It is in that worship that the value of each person and every thing is affirmed, and it is in that worship that the Kingdom is revealed on earth as it is in heaven.