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Liturgy and politics don’t mix. For two things to mix, they have to be separable; liturgy and politics are not. Participation in the Christian liturgy is always a political act. Worship, far from being a retreat from politics, embodies a new kind of politics, a genuinely Christian politics. Liturgy and politics are not like the salt and pepper that can be added to your scrambled egg; they are more like the scramble and the egg.

Our misguided assumptions about symbols and rituals explain why the political nature of the liturgy is not self-evident to Christians. At least since the Reformation, and especially among Protestants, it has gone without saying that symbols and rituals are marginal to the bread-and-butter concerns of life. Literal language is basic, but when we want to be poetic or persuasive we dress it up with tropes. A blank wall is the norm, but we might want, if we can afford it, to adorn it with pictures. Most days, we just eat, but when there’s a special occasion we dress up our meal with special ceremony and ritual. So it is with worship: after we spend the week passing ourselves off as black-and-white Marxists and materialists, we spend the weekend embellishing life with a dash of colorful spirituality.

If Rush Limbaugh is to be believed, the same is true of our politics: the substance of politics is the rowdy give-and-take of elections, legislation, organizing, and swaying opinion, and we must beware of politicians who engage in “mere symbolism.” But Rush Limbaugh—at least on this point—is not to be believed. Gaining and holding power has always been bound up with manipulation of impressions and images, and this has become even more evidently true now that the media have such a prominent role in driving politics. Much of President Clinton’s popularity had to do with his habit of surrounding himself with the coolest of the cool—movie stars, pop musicians, sports personalities. Breathing the same air, he participated in their cool, and was transfigured into another pop icon. Likewise, John McCain’s appeal in the Republican primaries had more to do with his informal style, his refreshing bluntness, his humor, his underdog status, and his legendary experience as a POW than with his policy positions.

Pointing out that politics is shot through with symbolism is not the same as proving that Christian worship is a political act. And asserting that liturgy and politics are inseparable is not the same as explaining how. My insistence on the inseparability of liturgy and politics is not an endorsement of trendy efforts to make Christian liturgy “more relevant.” Liturgies for the homeless, for AIDS victims, for the oppressed peoples of the earth, for the whales, for an end to Florida’s recounts, for whatever are objectionable not only because they are kitschy and not only because they bind worship to a political agenda. More fundamentally, they are objectionable because they assume that the liturgy itself is apolitical and needs to be made political. Those who wish to purify the liturgy of politics and those who want to inject contemporary politics into the liturgy share a common basic outlook: both assume that politics and liturgy are separable zones of life, which can be mixed or not mixed as we please.

For the apostle Paul, the connection of worship and politics was axiomatic, though the political import of his liturgical discussions can be obscure to modern readers. Paul’s lengthiest discourse on Christian worship comes, oddly, in the midst of his answers to questions about eating meat sacrificed to idols, which he addresses in his first letter to the Corinthians. Now on our scale of concerns, what to do about meat sacrificed to idols ranks somewhere below decisions about whether to sod or seed the yard, but in Paul’s day eating meat was a question about the limits of Christian participation in pagan culture. In a city like Corinth, much of the meat offered at the butcher’s shop had been sacrificed to idols. Indeed, in ancient Greek, the same word was used for both “butcher” and “sacrificer,” and procedures for butchery were normally religiously prescribed. Had Christians been forbidden to eat meat sacrificed to idols, they would virtually have had to become vegetarians. And their vegetarianism would have been a form of political protest (much as it is today).

Paul did not urge Christians to become vegetarians, as we know. Since there is only one God, idols are nothing; so long as the Christians offered thanksgiving to God for the meat, they could accept it without any qualms of conscience, as a gift from the hand of the One who opens His hand to satisfy the desires of every living thing. Paul later reiterated this principle: “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience’s sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’s sake.” Freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols was limited only by the demands of love: “Take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak, lest your eating offend any brothers for whom Christ died.”

Later in the same section of 1 Corinthians, however, Paul appears to shift ground and prohibit eating meat sacrificed to idols. Gentiles sacrificed to demons and became communicants with demons in the process, and Paul warned the Corinthians not “to become sharers in demons” (10:21). Well, could they eat or couldn’t they? The resolution to this apparent contradiction is to notice that Paul was addressing two different sets of circumstances. On the one hand, all meat available at the local butcher’s was to be accepted gratefully. On the other hand, Paul prohibited Christians from actually participating in the sacrificial rituals of pagan worship. It is possible to receive meat sacrificed to idols and give thanks to God. It is not possible to share a meal dedicated to Luna the Moon Goddess and simultaneously give thanks to God. Participating in the Lord’s Supper in the Christian liturgy was incompatible with participating in the feasts of pagan gods.

In urging the Corinthians to refrain from idolatrous feasts, Paul was exhorting them to separate not merely from pagan “religion,” but also from the pagan social and political system. Unlike cities of the modern West, the Greco—Roman city was as much a religious as a political organization, and citizens were expected to participate in thoroughly religious civic festivals, which included sacrifices to the gods and goddesses who served as protectors of the city, whether Athena in Athens, or Artemis in Ephesus. Refusal to participate in the feasts of idols was thus a refusal of one privilege (and duty) of citizenship.

Paul did not require that Christians renounce all rights as citizens—he himself made use of his rights as a Roman to advance the gospelbut the fact that the Corinthians ate at the Lord’s table meant they were citizens of the Lord’s city to which their citizenship in Corinth had to be subordinate. This was not an apolitical act or a renunciation of politics, but a sign that the Church was a different sort of political order. As such, it was a direct challenge to the claims of the pagan political order.

The Eucharist was a sign of the Church’s distinctness from the world, a sign that she constituted a new “city” that had invaded the ancient city, a sign that, contrary to Aristotle, the virtuous life was lived in the Church rather than in the Greek polis. By participating in this ritual, Christians were committing themselves to maintaining a critical distance from the political system. They were committing themselves to what Rowan Williams has called the “fundamental Christian vocation of not belonging.” And that commitment, enacted liturgically, is emphatically political.

Peter J. Leithart is Fellow in Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of Blessed Are the Hungry: Meditations on the Lord’s Supper (Canon).

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