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A Nuremberg Rally

Worship in a Violent World

A Nuremberg Rally

As we reflect on the atrocities in Beirut and Paris and elsewhere, James Alison’s talk on Worship in a Violent World is worth a careful read and reflection.

I have a passion for apophatic spirituality, and so I was taken with his starting quote from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):

Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude.

James Alison unpacks this:

This remark, sometimes casually referred to as the “maior dissimilitudo” is much more important than it seems. …It means for instance that when we take the word “god”, a perfectly common pagan word (like “Theos”, derived from “Zeus”) and part of the world of violence which characterizes the cult of divinities, what we mean when we apply that word to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is much more unlike a “god” than it is like it. Or if you like, the word “god” is a deeply misleading starting place for us with which to begin to talk about God, but the one we have which is least inadequate…

This notion of the “greater dissimilarity” presupposes that God likes us so much that he has, over time, made available in our midst a way to disentangle us from the mess we inhabit, before we even knew that it was a mess, and instead has invited us to share with God, at the same level as ourselves, in making something entirely different, together. It is this “liking us even in the midst of the mess” which is what enables us to talk about a “maior dissimilitudo”, because it means that God takes us starting from where we are, with our words to do with god, and worship, and sacrifice, and love and enables us to turn them into something quite else, something which is not full of the fear, ambivalence, violence and frenzy which characterize those words in their ordinary usage. What we are enabled to turn them into is something which is itself much more unlike those words than it is like them, but we find that we are not lying when we say that they are, for instance, true God, true worship, true sacrifice, true love.

Now I suggest that there is a good shorthand term to describe this process whereby someone takes us, starting from where we are, and slowly and gently completely undoes our mindset, starting with the one we find ourselves in, and gives us a completely different mindset such that from the “new place” it looks as though we are in a completely different space from the old, even though there is in fact a genuine organic continuity between the new and the old. The shorthand term is “subversion from within”…

worship is a perfectly normal way of being within this violent world, and is part of its violence. The really interesting question is: what does the “subversion from within” look like, and how did it happen, by which we come to be able to talk about the True Worship of the True God. And here is the catch: if the True Worship of the True God looks like the worship of a god, or if they look more like each other than unlike, then we have fooled ourselves. We have short-circuited our process of living with the “maior dissimilitudo” and we have failed to allow the ordinary notion to be subverted from within. In short we have been lazy, and settled for more of the same with a different name….

For the sake of a convenient peg on which to hang things, I’m going to look at what I call the Nuremberg and the un-Nuremberg. I should perhaps stress that I’m using a Nuremberg Rally as an example merely because so many of the different elements of worship flow together in this one example. We could look instead at the same elements in different places, football matches, celebrity cults, raves, initiation hazings, newspaper sales techniques and so on. My point about a Nuremberg Rally is not that it is uniquely awful, but that it is particularly convenient. The liturgical organisers of the Nuremberg rallies knew exactly what they were doing, and did it remarkably well. You bring people together and you unite them in worship. You provide regular, rhythmic music, and marching. You enable them to see lots of people in uniform, people who have already lost a certain individuality and become symbols. You give them songs to sing. You build them up with the reason for their togetherness, a reason based on a common racial heritage. You inflame them with tales of past woe and reminders of past confusion when they were caused to suffer by some shame being imposed upon them, the tail-end of which woe is still in their midst. You keep them waiting and the pressure building up. All this gradually serves to take people out of themselves; the normally restrained become passionate, unfriendly neighbours find themselves looking at each other anew in the light of the growing “Bruderschaft”. Then, after the build up, the Führer appears, preferably brought in by means of a helicopter or airplane which has been seen from beneath by the gradually effervescing crowd, and before long, the apotheosis takes place, and he is in their midst. They are already riveted, the waiting helped prepare that, they are united in fascination with this extraordinary person, to whom they have handed over the task of being the chief liturgist. And he does not disappoint. With a few deft words and gestures he conjures up the mood of those present, pointing to the huge gathering as a sign of a new unity which is overcoming the pains and humiliations of the past, pains and humiliations caused by enemies from afar, and more important, by readily identifiable enemies who are much closer at hand, he need not say more. But none of these will stand in the way of the heroic victory which this new gathering, this huge unanimity portends. A victory which presages a new world order without the presence of those enemies within, one where only the good and the pure such as those who are gathered here, will remain. The Führer is even able to thank God whose providence has allowed him, unworthy servant of the Volk, to expend his life sacrificially on behalf of his people in his daily work of leading them into this new world. By this stage of course, the crowd is delirious, outside themselves, united in love and adoration of their Führer, and of course ready to do whatever he asks of them. On their way home that evening, though they may not notice it, part of the magic of the day will have rubbed off on them. They will look at the Jew from across the road in a different light. He will have lost personality in their eyes, and become a representative of the sort of thing the Führer had suggested to them. They will be that much closer to turning a blind eye to his disappearance, to agreeing that old Mr Silberstein the cobbler is indeed a threat to society. To the divinisation of the one, there corresponds the demonisation of the other, which is the dehumanisation of them all.

And that is what I take Worship to be. It is a dangerous and dehumanising thing.

The whole, lengthy talk, as I said, is worth very careful reading. I at least leave you with the conclusion:

Typically within Worship as the world knows it, Nuremberg-style worship, we have a sense of being caught up in something bigger than us, which envelops us, is comfortingly ritualistic, whose outcome we know. It is part of a creation, or recreation of an order which we know. It is part of a sense of everything being OK. There should be nothing too unfamiliar about it, nothing particularly new, no great discoveries about the world. It should not threaten us with hazard, except the comfortingly controlled hazard of the choosing of the victim. There should be nothing too risky or open-ended about it. No good liturgist, Führer, or Hierophant would let the liturgy follow uncharted paths.

And often enough, by failing to sit in the maior dissimilitudo, we manage to reduce the events of Holy Week to a comforting expression of some eternal return. I would like to suggest that True Worship was inaugurated in the events of Holy Week as a wholly uncomforting, wholly contingent, wholly creative, wholly open-ended, wholly vulnerable and risky act of human imagination, taking symbols and forms and recasting them in a quite new and unique way, offering through them a way out of a sacrificial world of death and violence, and opening something up in a way which I can only describe as “with jagged edges”. It is the strange combination of the contingent, the creative, the brave, the unimagined, the revealing, the not yet clear or tied up which is quite outside all the normal forms of comforting and regular worship, and it is this “jagged edge” quality which is one of the things which it is most difficult to imagine and to continue to make alive. But I associate this with the bringing about of the New Creation, something which we don’t yet know what it will look like, and something we are invited to have a go at making up along with the one who inaugurated it. It is this jagged edge of creative imagination in the midst of contingency which seems to me to be one of the indispensable qualities of True Worship, and one of the most difficult to learn and to perform.

So I’d like to close with a story which I think illustrates the elements of what I think True Worship in a violent world looks like, and is about. It is a story which I have gleaned from Chris Hedges’ book War is a force that gives us meaning, a book, which I should say, has been particularly instructive to me in my preparation for this talk. Hedges, a war correspondent who covered the Bosnian war extensively, tells of meeting the Soraks, a Bosnian Serb couple in a largely Muslim enclave. The couple had been largely indifferent to the nationalist propaganda of the Bosnian Serb leadership. But when the Serbs started to bomb their town, Goražde, the Muslim leadership in the town became hostile to them, and eventually the Soraks lost their two sons to Muslim forces. One of their sons was a few months shy of becoming a father. In the city under siege, conditions got worse and worse, and in the midst of this Rosa Sorak’s widowed daughter-in-law gave birth to a baby girl. With the food shortages, the elderly and infants were dying in droves, and after a short time, the baby, given only tea to drink, began to fade. Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of Goražde, Fadil Fejzic, an illiterate Muslim farmer, kept his cow, milking her by night so as to avoid Serbian snipers. On the fifth day of the baby having only tea, just before dawn, Fejzic appeared at the door with half a litre of milk for the baby. He refused money. He came back with milk every day for 442 days, until the daughter in law and granddaughter left for Serbia. During this time he never said anything. Other families in the street started to insult him, telling him to give his milk to Muslims and let the Chetnik (the pejorative term for Serbs) die. But he did not relent.

Later the Soraks moved, and lost touch with Fejzic. But Hedges went and sought him out. The cow had been slaughtered for meat before the end of the siege, and Fejzic had fallen on hard times. But, as Hedges says :

When I told him I had seen the Soraks, his eyes brightened.
“And the baby?” he asked “How is she?”

This for me is the sign of True Worship: not only the complete lack of concern about his reputation with his own group; not only the refusal to believe the lies about the despised other whose fault it all was; not only the daily trudging, for fourteen and a half months, through the dawn with milk before the snipers could see well enough to shoot. But the brightening of the eyes at the contemplation of the baby in whose jagged-edged creation he had found himself playing a part.

This attempt of mine to dwell with you in the “maior dissimilitudo” leaves me with a certain fear. It is the fear that True Worship in a violent world is going on all around us, particularly unnoticed by those of us who have a strong interest in Worship and liturgy, and are thus particularly likely to succumb to the attractiveness of the “similitudo” and to be blinded to that of which it is supposed to be a sign. I ask you to pray with me that our deliberations and our liturgies be part of our being inducted, even if it be kicking and screaming, into finding our role in the jagged edge of creation and the brightening of the eyes.

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7 thoughts on “Worship in a Violent World”

  1. As a frequent reader from Germany (and we’ve also met in person in ChCh) I’m just wondering about the photo…
    I’m sick of getting my nose rubbed into our history. We do know well about it. Whatever goes wrong in the world- there is a connection to Germany.
    Nazi-Germany is- thank God- past.
    And sadly enough violence is still present.
    This is no equation.

    Sorry, I had to comment on this.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Eva. Although you explain your sensitivity, I think it is not true that whatever goes wrong in the world there is a connection to Germany. Others, with a different context (eg Muslims spring to mind, or liberals, even gays) would be equally justified by saying a similar sentence about themselves. James Alison explains why he uses a Nuremberg Rally as a convenient peg on which to hang things. The image is not gratuitous – it fits with James Alison’s shorthand to summarise his distinctions. I hope this helps explain a little. Blessings.

  2. Although I read the article and understood the connection I still find it inappropriate for a website like this.
    But this is up to you- it’s just my opinion.

    1. Thanks, Eva. Your opinion is of value – so I wouldn’t use the word “just”. I am not sure which is inappropriate, James Alison using a Nuremberg Rally as his paradigm, or the photo. Once he has described it so vividly, how is the photo of his description (central to the article) inappropriate? You have not suggested an alternative image which more appropriately illustrates his article. Nor, other than it reminds you of history in Germany, why that makes it “inappropriate for a website like this”. Blessings.

  3. Hi – just for the sake of historical accuracy, the picture above is not of a Nuremberg rally. The occasion was a more crypto-religious one, stage managed by Goebbels, and called Reichserntedankfest – a sort of Harvest Festival. It was staged outside a village called Buckeburg from 1933-37, and took place essentially in open fields with a purpose-built gathering area (called the Reichsthingplatz) as part of the Blut und Boden (blood and soil)movement. This was a kind of ersatz religion which was supposed to connect Germans with their pre-Christian roots, and eventually supplant the place of the Churches. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it failed. In 1937, though, about 1.2 million people attended. The Thingplatz at Buckeburg has now reverted to farmland, but there are others which are still in existence and used for other purposes – the most famous being the Berlin Waldbuehne, and there’s also a complete one at Heidelberg.

  4. I know it is James Allison’s story, but he might have done better to give an example also from Nazi Germany at the end, rather than leave the Germans with the bad stuff and assign the good worship to the Bosnian. The story raises the issue of a dichotomy between “soul-soaring worship” on the one hand and self-sacrificing kindness on the other. I would say that all worship should be judged by its fruits.

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