The evils of rigidity


As the world is once again shocked by another brutal terrorist attack – this time in Brussels – I want to quote some words written by the late, great French theologian and philosopher, Jacques Ellul (1912-94), in his book Living Faith. He wrote of the connection between rigidity and violence, and thus the two faces of violence – the violence of rigid religious fundamentalism and government’s response to it.

The more one is afraid, the harder one’s armor becomes, the more it turns into a part of one’s own body like a kind of carapace. Like fear rigidity manifests itself in every area of life. We find it in religious movements as a return to dogmatic narrowness, formalism, scriptural fundamentalism. We see rigidity in administrators and planners – a sure sign that dictatorial tendencies are reappearing. When fear sweeps over society, a security grid will have to be imposed upon it. And this will necessarily be some kind of fascism, whether of the Right or the Left, which, before bringing on the terror, will have people heaving a great sigh of relief, glad to think that at last they know where they’re going, that someone is protecting them. Rigidity in religion will be matched by rigidity in politics.

Ellul wrote this book in 1983, long before Islamist fundamentalism and terrorist movements and the West’s attempts to respond or deal with this phenomenon. Fundamentalism is rooted in fear. Religious fundamentalists invariably leads to violence on some scale. It can be on the scale of “Christian” fundamentalists who bomb abortion centers or kill abortion doctors; or it can be on the more global scale of the Islamist terrorists of recent decades. Either way, it is the same phenomenon: Fear of change and fear of women!

That’s right, you read that last line correct – fear of women! Islamists are afraid of women asserting their equality with men. I know I’m probably over-simplifying things as I usually do in big matters, but I have long believed that the primary fear that motivates Islamist terrorism is not the Israel-Palestine conflict – they use that as a cover – nor Western support of Arab dictators, but the fear that women in their societies will wake up… To whatever they wake up, it doesn’t matter.

And that fear is not only limited to Islamist fundamentalism. It undergirds much of Christian attitudes to women over the centuries and TODAY! Why do churches refuse to ordain women to any role other than cooks and servers of parish dinners and singers in the choir? Why does our Orthodox Church still maintain such strongly patriarchal language in its liturgical practice? Why do we always ask for the “prayers of our holy Fathers”? Why never our holy Mothers? Why even in the prayers of the Soul Saturdays with which we welcome Lent every year do we pray for the souls of our fathers and brothers and forefathers, etc. etc. – all male entities? Do our mothers and sisters not count? Or is it enough that we fill in their general absence with their specific names that we hand to the priest?

Why in the new Liturgy translation that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is printing for parish use has the English version of the Creed reverted to antiquated, gender-exclusive language – “for us men and for our salvation” – in willful, intentional, yes rigid, rejection of the changes that the English language has undergone in recent decades? When a woman has been hearing “for us and for our salvation” for the past thirty years in the previous translation now hears “for us men” is she supposed to think that she is now being excluded from salvation? Or is the expectation that she will mentally footnote this phrase and understand that “men” includes her too? Of course, most other Orthodox churches in the English-speaking world have been using “men” all along! Now the Greek Archdiocese of America has chosen to do likewise. Too bad, our loss.

There is a sickness in the world – the sickness of religious fundamentalism. Sometimes it leads to violence and death, as in Brussels today. More often it leads to the quiet despair of women in the pews of churches that refuse to recognize them as fully important human beings. (And there are other people and groups of people who also sit in quiet despair in our churches or simply drop away to escape the hatred and mistrust aimed at them!)


We’re all in this together. Whether it’s death or quiet despair, the evil is the same. It flows from fear and rigidity. And the fear and rigidity of religious violence lead to a political response that usually results in the tyranny of the state. We see this trend growing in Europe and in North America; not to ignore Asia and elsewhere. In one brief paragraph, written over 30 years ago, Jacques Ellul brought to our attention both sides of rigidity and fear: the violence of religious fundamentalism and the violence of the state’s response to it. The future of life on our planet is looking pretty bleak right now. Sorry I can’t be more positive today on this, another black day of violence and hatred.

3 Replies to “The evils of rigidity”

    1. I haven’t had much chance to read your posts, though I have been following your website because of my own interest in Girard and mimetic theory. There is so much I don’t know and yet so little time to read all the things I want to read. Thank you for your supporting comment.

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