The Countercultural Power of Worship

Sixty-nine years ago today…

The small speaker crackled with static, and then they heard it. “Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne blessent mon coeur D’une langueur Monotone.” The poem by Paul Verlaine was well known. Many listening had learned it in childhood. The melancholy words spoke of the long, slow weeping of autumn’s violins.

This time, the words held sensus plenior (fuller meaning). This time, they were announcing, somewhere out there in the darkness, ships were plowing their way through the waters of the English Channel—among them, a thousand Higgins boats—the landing craft that would bring soldiers of the Allied Expeditionary Force onto the beaches of Normandy, beginning the liberation of France.

But first, for the members of the French resistance, the words were commands. Men and women began hurrying out across the countryside. They had work to do. They were living behind enemy lines. They were going out to undermine the strength of the enemy. Because, when their neighbors had whispered for them to go along with the Nazis, to acknowledge France’s defeat, and play it safe, they had defiantly whispered back, “I will not.”

When the people of God gather each week, as Stanley Hauerwas has suggested, they gather as outposts of a foreign government deep in enemy territory. These people have given their allegiance to a foreign monarch and openly long for a coming invasion. It is no wonder some of the wisest of earth’s rulers have looked upon their gatherings as dangerous and subversive. It is no wonder some have had no qualms about using the power of empire to bring these outsiders into line and make them safe.

And so, some among the resistance have become comfortable with an enemy culture. They speak of a kinder, gentler empire. They urge the rest to lay aside their separateness. The appeal sounds noble and seductive. Fit in. Be safe. Don’t make them mad at us.

But, the weekly gatherings pose the problem. Messages keep coming from overseas. Messages that constantly push people from safe to subversive. “Respond to hatred with love.” “Craving wealth is a root of all kinds of evil.” “It’s a good thing when the empire turns its iron fisted gauntlet against you because of me.” The play-it-safe approach is constantly undermined by messages that sneak their way into the weekly gatherings.

“Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne … ” Everyone knew what it meant. They knew the next morning’s sunrise would bath light over a few miles of beach, a small slice of poor defeated and occupied soil, that would once again be free France. These were the last hours before liberation. There were orders that had been given and now there was work that had to be done.

The worship of the church is a gathering behind enemy lines to reaffirm loyalty to a foreign power and to receive messages that will send men and women out to sabotage the enemy and to recruit more into the resistance. To those who stand at the doors and urgently whisper to those leaving, “Don’t go overboard. Fit in. Play it safe,” comes the answer of the church, “We will not.”