On Christmas Day of 800 C.E., Charlemagne knelt meekly before Pope Leo III, who crowned him Holy Roman Emperor. After four centuries of humiliation, the Western church’s leap of faith and its resurrection of an old title forged what it hoped would be a new era. The act itself was mutually reinforcing: Charlemagne’s gesture of humility before the Pope was reciprocated when the Pope bowed before him, the only Pope ever to do so before a Western Emperor. The Emperor and the church were caught up in a veritable tautology of praise. Charlemagne’s act of submission was at once the very ground for his exaltation, and the church’s adoration of the Emperor was at the same time, the church’s own self-preserving manoeuvre.
Within secular society we like to imagine ourselves as having transcended such spectacle, but what has become clear during the COVID-19 pandemic are the ways in which ritual is not superseded within secularism, but simply transformed. Today, as in 800 C.E., public liturgy seeks to contrive a showy unity between heaven and earth, and to terrible effect.
The politician par excellence of liturgical performance is Justin Trudeau. Every gesture, every word, every cadence—in both official languages—is finely tuned in order to garner not confidence, but devotion. It is as though he had been groomed his entire life for this crisis, in which he steadfastly promises, “we will get through together.” Yet the old symbols of his leadership—his ludic (appropriative?) style, his verbal flourishes, and his—are now turned on their heads, as Trudeau, like Charlemagne, displays, not power, but its secret twin, renunciation. And, judging by opinion polls, his renunciatory gestures—growing hair and beard, studied silence, and taking a knee—are generally met with reciprocal adoration on the public’s part.
Sternly warning the public during March Break that they must “go home and stay home,” Trudeau persistently evoked themes of sacrifice and duty as he traded on Canadians’ collective efforts during the two world wars. “The front line is everywhere. In our hospitals and care centres, in our grocery stores and pharmacies, at our truck stops and gas stations. And the people who work in these places are our modern-day heroes,” Trudeau stated in his address to the House of Commons in April. His speech didn’t just celebrate the “front-line workers;” it presented them as national saints: the selfless martyrs, whom Trudeau was quick both to extol and to emulate. This new piety looked a great deal like an older piety, as the leader of this country appealed to religious traditions now half-forgotten, yet still resonant within the Canadian imaginary.
At the height of the COVID-19 crisis in Canada, Trudeau emerged daily with uncharacteristic and increased scruffiness. Some commentators speculate that his new look was intended to connote greater authority—as in the stern dad admonishing “enough is enough” to those who broke curfew. Yet Trudeau’s beard and hair were neither coiffed nor managed, and therefore presented an exception to his generally impeccable appearance. In the Western church, the beard was proscribed for most of its history (few Popes wore beards) due to the rigour with which they had to be maintained. Christian authorities feared the beard would promote vanity as opposed to charity and humility. Pope Julius II overruled the prohibition against beards when he temporarily grew his beard to mourn the lost city of Bologna in 1511. Pope Clement VII took on a hirsute form while in exile in Castel Sant’Angelo after the sacking of Rome in 1527. Similarly, Trudeau’s beard became at once a symbol of mourning and of resolve. It foregrounded the exceptionality of this time, a time when even personal appearance needed to be sacrificed for a greater cause.
Another renunciatory gesture that Trudeau evoked during this crisis was his use of silence. Silence has a long pedigree in Western penitential practices. Benedict of Nursia found silence to be so conducive to monastic life that he dedicated an entire chapter of his Rule to it as he enjoined monks to “be silent and to listen.” When asked during a COVID-19 briefing about Trump’s threat to use military force against the protestors in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Trudeau responded in a studied 21-second silence. His silence, like his hair, was an exceptional gesture for a Prime Minister renowned for his articulacy. It also appeared as a gesture of humility, an act of deference to racialized persons as he called upon Canadians “to listen” and “to learn what injustices continue”—both in Canada and in the U.S.
This gesture of deference was replicated in the now-familiar image of a masked Trudeau taking a knee at the “No Peace Until Justice” anti-racism demonstration in Ottawa. To me, his gesture did not at all echo Colin Kaepernick’s bold defiance of civil religion. What it did echo is a longer tradition of genuflection, which is penitential in nature. Like Charlemagne himself, Trudeau bent before authority (this time the authority of the crowd) in a calculated gesture of humility. Together with the false renunciatory gestures of the police in the U.S., it displayed the clear connection between humility and power. Trudeau can speak of and gesture toward humility, but never truly disavow white privilege in any material sense. We know that, given Trudeau’s track record on < Indigenous issues or his refusal to investigate RCMP violence in Canada, such privilege will be further enshrined due to these gestures, for such gestures appear to placate justice’s demands. As Rinaldo Walcott, Professor of Black diaspora Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto, put it: “When they take those knees in those public ways at those protests, what they’re doing is they’re playing to emotion—but they’re playing to emotion, minus policy.”
In the Western church, the humble Charlemagne is remembered as Rex Mundi Triumphator (Triumphant King of the World). His feast day was January 28, one day after COVID-19 was first identified in Canada. How Justin Trudeau will be remembered remains an open question. It is likely that posterity will regard his COVID-19 performance as the pinnacle of his career. Here, he convinced the nation to fight a battle, even though the battle imagery is dubious to say the least. Here, he called upon all Canadians to sacrifice for the nation even though the sacrifices would be disproportionately borne by those subjects least protected by the nation state. Here, he would bend his knee before a crowd whose suffering he had the power to alleviate, even while he refused to do so. Here, he would restrain his tongue when bold speech was required. Here, he would forego grooming as a glib gesture of mourning and resolve. That Trudeau’s reign could go largely unchallenged during this time says a great deal3 about how citizens come together when the nation is under threat. It also says a good deal about Trudeau’s peculiar capacity to manipulate public sentiment through gestures and rituals that are half-forgotten, yet nevertheless efficacious. We would do well to ask what lies behind these sacrificial gestures, to refuse their appeal, and to demand real political change in their stead. These “unprecedented times” have precedent.
Jane Barter is a priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, who is currently serving St. Peter, Dynevor (Selkirk), St. Philip (Hodgson), and St. Matthew (Peguis). She is also Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg.