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Trump and Twain: An Anti-Liturgy and a War-Prayer

We have a problem in the western world: it's that we have invented this realm of the "secular" that is thought to be separable from the so-called "religious" realm. 

But to do so blinds us from seeing things we likely need to see. And such blindness, of course, leads to yet more and deeper problems.

Here's one possible solution: let us examine so-called "secular" matters in the same way we might examine so-called "religious" matters. This may allow us to see elephants in the living room. Or to see that the emperor has no clothes. Or to take the red pill to get outside the Matrix. You get the idea.

I know you must be asking for an example by now. Excellent question. Here's one:

Let us consider again the word "liturgy," which comes from a Greek word which literally means "work of the people." When theologians (or anthropologists) discuss liturgy they will often ask questions like these: in what ways do these acts of worship form us? What kind of people do we become when we do these sorts of things? What sort of god, what sort of commitments, what sort of values are being extolled and embraced by this liturgy? 

So let us try this, and let us suppose that anytime there is a purposeful massing of people, then we will witness there a liturgical act. Let us consider any and all massing of people, crowds, parades as liturgical.

And from there, let us inquire about Mr. Trump and his parade.

Mr. Trump longs for a military parade. This comes as no surprise. He has used apocalyptic language regarding warfare. He has touted that he has a bigger button than the dictator of North Korea. He generally touts bigly things. A big wall, the biggest crowd for inauguration, and even bigger nuclear missiles. 

Such a parade, of course, would be a liturgy of the highest order. I imagine it would run something like this: a worship of the glory of power and strength; with strict prescriptions for when to stand and sit, and perhaps when to kneel (and when not to); music and oratory; a somber meditation perhaps, upon the great act of human blood sacrifice; a celebration of our own might, our own weapons, our own capabilities; confident promises that no enemy shall stand against us, and that by the power of our hand, and tanks, and missiles, we shall be great again, and eternally victorious. 

Mr. Trump’s parade would, in other words, be a sort of anti-liturgy to the Christian church. The oratory and music and liturgy of the Christian church, in contrast, celebrates this one who, being in very nature God, had all might and power and strength, and yet surrendered it to become a servant. We stand and sit and kneel in order to praise the mighty one who loves, loves even unto death, loves even his enemies, indeed gives his life for his enemies, so that all may come to know the goodness of life. We celebrate indeed the capacities given us by God, but are ever mindful that all is gift, and that no power or strength or might is ours, but God’s. And we remember the Hebrew prophets who denounced foolish trust in chariots and horses, and we remember the Christ from Nazareth who denounced foolish trust in might and wealth, and insisted that greatness comes through service. 

Mr. Trump’s anti-liturgy, undoubtedly, is not the first American anti-liturgy. It is perhaps unique only in its blatant dis-regard for taste or historical precedent, and its failure to pay attention to President Eisenhower’s warning about the undue influence of military might in a democracy. Or perhaps it’s unique in its failure to realize what most of us learn as elementary school children: that the loud-mouth show-off is often the most insecure weakling on the playground. 

In spite of the patently obvious manner in which Mr. Trump’s liturgy is an anti-liturgy, the church in America too often seems to prefer the anti-liturgies of the nation-state.

Ironically, then, it is often the critics and atheists and agnostics who help Christians consider their own infidelity to Christian liturgies and convictions. That is, some Christians may find their incapacity to do incisive social critique made new by paying attention to their atheist critics.

Mark Twain’s infamous "War Prayer" is perhaps one of the most profound examples. The short story depicts a church gathered in war-time to bless its young men, to send them off to the battle-front, to beseech God’s blessings and strength and might and protection, to grant victory over the enemies. The pastor prays this way.

And then a stranger appears, claiming to have a word from the very throne of God. He has been commissioned to make explicit the implicit, to state clearly the unstated assumptions of the pastor’s prayer. He has been sent from the throne-room of God to say out loud what few are willing to voice, because we’d rather not think about the implications of our parades and prayers.  And thus the stranger, the messenger of the Lord, makes plain the petition:

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

“For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

“We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”

 

To get free private access to an interview with famed actor Hal Holbrook, in which he discusses and recites Twain’s War Prayer--among other jewels of Twain's repertoire--sign up here to get the link in your email inbox:

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