“Pussy Riot” and Churchly Hypocrisy

I’ve been tweeting occasionally in disgust over the way the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church has been responding to the “Pussy Riot” court case. I’ve been saying that the hierarchs could have come out very nicely and helped their pal Putin by forgiving the women and begging the state not to prosecute them.

A friend, however, has asked me whether I know that the Church has forgiven Pussy Riot. Why would I be accusing them of failing to do what I want them to do?

This article, however, squares with other accounts I have, indeed, read. Here’s how I hear the “forgiveness” offered by these spiritual and ecclesiastical leaders: “We forgive you and at the same time  we completely support a blatantly corrupt and oppressive government’s prosecution of you for doing something that is supposedly religiously offensive in one of our churches.”

This blather is even worse than a straightforward declaration that “We’re in bed with Putin and we stand together with him for the sacred autocratic principle of ‘our way or the highway.'” Instead, Pussy Riot receives a thread of “forgiveness” lightly draped over an iron fist of vengeance.

If the Orthodox Church instead had said, “We forgive these young people and we beg the authorities to let them go: We will engage them instead in churchly conversation, hear their concerns, express ours, and come to some churchly understanding,” then Putin could say, “Well, okay: I’m a law-and-order guy and I can’t stand people criticizing me, but if the Church really wants them let go, I’ll let them go.” He could have saved face and the Church could have come out smelling like a rose.

But the Church did not do that. The Church instead chose to eat its cake (“See? We’re really spiritual! We’re forgiving them—for three minutes of disruption”) and have it, too (“But we support a massively disproportionate prosecution”).

Now I don’t think there is any necessary contradiction between someone forgiving an offender and still supporting the wheels of the criminal justice system grinding on. There are usually several concerns at stake in such a prosecution, and genuine forgiveness can walk hand-in-hand with both retributive and restorative justice if other legitimate interests are in play: protection of public order by discouraging similar wrongdoing, affirmation of the rule of law and the consequences of criminal actions, and so on.

In this case, however, the response of the church and state authorities seems wildly out of proportion to the crime. Should anyone be allowed to commandeer a church to make a political statement anytime he or she likes? Of course not. The women of Pussy Riot know that, too, I’m sure. So what would drive them to such extreme behaviour? How about extremely odious collaboration of the Russian Orthodox Church with Mr. Putin in a system of corruption and oppression?

I am not surprised that Kirill & Co. have reacted this way. They love to dress up in gorgeous robes and sit on fabulous thrones and wear extravagant wristwatches (let the reader understand) and have the state back them up when their hollow moral suasion will not avail. This behaviour is entirely what one would expect of men who so utterly and deliberately remove themselves from the concerns of the flocks under their care.

I am, nonetheless, outraged at this behaviour, and Christian teachers ought to express outrage–not just secular journalists or appalled believers of other faiths. We need to say, “This is not our religion. These people are wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretenders and perverters.” We want Muslim neighbours to denounce extremists in their religion around the world? We Christians need to do the same.

One more thing, however. It’s pretty easy for me to do a little yelling here in Vancouver about something happening in Moscow. No one in power (and few that aren’t!) cares much what I think anyway, so I’m risking nothing. I recognize that fact.

The issues, however, are globally relevant. Hypocrisy by church leaders, deliberate confusion (“We’ll forgive even as we seek crushing revenge”), sanctimony, unholy alliances–such matters are hardly confined to Russia or the Orthodox. And a cursory glance over the history of this weblog will indicate that my gaze usually falls on matters much closer to home. To those I will undoubtedly return soon. But for now, a few minutes of solidarity with desperate people in terrible circumstances trying to do something constructive—as I see the Pussy Riot performance as being. And it has in fact exposed the fraudulence of the mightiest men in Russian government and church, so my hat is off to them.

And my contributions will keep going to Amnesty International in hopes that those women will not have to serve two full years–just disgusting–in a Russian prison.

(Could the Orthodox Church yet ask—meaningfully—for clemency for them, now that the “power point” has been made? Oh, hope springs eternal….)

14 Responses to ““Pussy Riot” and Churchly Hypocrisy”

  1. Beth

    I really appreciate you writing something about this… I have yet to see anyone from my Christian circles comment about it, but it’s been the biggest topic of conversation among my activist/anarchist friends. I thought this was a great reflection about what churches could and should do when offended, especially if the “offenders” might be unwitting tools of the Holy Spirit to convict and reveal sin in the church.

    • John

      Yes, they went through the motions of “asking” for “clemency”–and in the same breath thoroughly supported the prosecution and denounced what the women did as a crime against “the faith of millions.” What I’m talking about is real forgiveness and real clemency–in proportion to the act and in proportion to the mercy of Christ. I’m not seeing the former, let alone the latter, in their statements, but instead only pious posturing and a truly repellent thirst for vengeance. I know these are very strong terms, but I’ve read and re-read what I can about the hierarchs’ responses and I have yet to see grounds to soften my interpretation.

  2. Dan H.

    I saw Garry Kasparov speak in the United States a couple years ago and he shed some light on the increasingly odious practices of Putin. It’s a shame that the RO Church is in such cooperation with this regime, though it’s honestly hard to blame them for wanting as much governmental influence as possible given the Soviet regime.

  3. David Harrison

    John,

    The world media seems to have done a very poor job of investigating all the facts. LifeSiteNews did a piece with the caution (**** WARNING this story contains graphic information, viewer discretion is advised***). In light of their investigation I think the Russian Orthodox Church deserve a little more slack. As to whether their forgiveness is sincere God will be their judge. I think the group got off very lightly (politics aside).

    http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/western-media-concealing-facts-about-female-rock-bands-desecration-of-russi

    • John

      Brother David,

      I know that Pussy Riot has been offensive–not just to Russian Orthodox hierarchs and babushkas, but to me, too. Yet I didn’t learn much from the LifeSiteNews article to which you directed us. I already knew about the profanity, gestures, and so on that took place in the church.

      Interpreting an art form properly requires various kinds of knowledge. I seriously doubt that LifeSiteNews’s reporter has much of a background in (a) Russian politics, (b) the genre of punk rock, (c) the theatre of the absurd, (d) Russian Orthodoxy, (e) the history of church-state relations in Russia–just for starters. My nodding acquaintance with these various issues has led me to take the generally (not entirely, but generally) supportive stand I have taken: Pussy Riot is extreme performance art that is largely (not entirely, in my view, but largely) justified in its extreme context.

      Here’s the thing. If Pussy Riot had to spend some time in jail awaiting a trial that they fully intended to undergo in order to publicize their concerns, then fine. I expect Russian jails are not hotels–the Canadian jails I visited thirty years ago (although not, to be sure, as an inmate) were likely much nicer than anything Pussy Riot has endured. Okay: that’s the price civil disobedience has to pay.

      But TWO YEARS IN A RUSSIAN PRISON is what the Church seems entirely content to see visited upon these young people.

      And where is the dialogue? The pastoral concern to understand, to teach, and maybe [sharp intake of breath] to learn?

      I’m a middle-aged theological professional myself. I don’t always “get” some of my more radical students and they don’t always agree with me–as this weblog indicates at times! But I at least TRY to understand them, guide them, and be guided by them. Do you see any of that sort of (pretty basically Christian) attitude in the hierarchs? I don’t.

      We do have to ask ourselves when we’re faced with extreme politics–whether Pussy Riot’s public demonstrations in Russia or black bloc protestors on our own streets–just what is animating these people. I took a black bloc leader to breakfast and learned a lot about what motivated him. And I chided the Occupy movement not with, I trust, lofty condescension but with an earnest desire that all that energy would be channelled, not dissipated. I’m no exemplar of holiness: I’m just asking my counterpart religious professionals in Russia to even approach this very elementary level of humility, fellow-feeling, and pastoral concern.

      Thanks for pushing back, David–gently and thoughtfully as you did! I don’t mean to be stubborn: I hope I’m being more clear now as to why I’m backing these people, and their art, and their politics–offensive as it seems to me, too.

      • Dan H.

        I’m extremely pro-life, but I don’t like the vibe I get from this “Life Site News” article. I get the impression that they think it’s wrong to imprison people for insulting a politician, but not for insulting the church. That seems to go against the ethos of the Sermon on the Mount.

  4. Paul Johnston

    John, I’m wondering if you are familiar with the case of Canadian citizen, Linda Gibbons and if so, what your position is?

    • John

      I am somewhat familiar with Linda Gibbons’s long career of anti-abortion protests and counseling. A reply to a comment to a blog post isn’t the place to discuss the in’s and out’s of this complex matter–because it is at least somewhat complex in terms of law, conscience, social change, civil disobedience, pragmatism, idealism, and more. But I can at least say that so far as I am able to understand what she does and why she does it, I am sympathetic. I am quite conservative regarding abortion and her protests continue to give our society, and every individual who is confronted by them, an opportunity to re-think our tragic and evil capitulation to an extreme pro-choice position.

      • Paul Johnston

        Thanks for a thoughtful and fair reply, John.

        My reference to Linda Gibbons was sparked by your statement,
        …”One more thing, however. It’s pretty easy for me to do a little yelling here in Vancouver about something happening in Moscow. No one in power (and few that aren’t!) cares much what I think anyway, so I’m risking nothing. I recognize that fact.”…

        Given Linda has spent about 9 of the last 17 years in Canadian jails for silently praying and offering cousel only to those who first agree to listen to her, within 60 feet of an abortion clinic, one wonders why there is no inernational outrage over her plight. No concern for her freedom of expression and right to dissent.

        9 years in jail for being a 63 year old woman who stands alone praying….who in a recent judgement was described as an “anarchist” , “a threat to the very fabric of civil law”…..allowed testimony that described her as “threatening”, “mentally disturbed” and “creepy”….for me this is a travesty of Canadian justice and no one comments. Not Madonna not Paul McCartney, not even us.

        I’ve had the honor of meeting her and if first impressions are true she is spirit filled and dare I say “Christlike” in her sublimly dogged persistence and resistence.

        LInda Gibbons is a Canadian citizen. If those who are deeply offended by the actions of the state in Russia want to have a real impact on dissproportionate suppression of dissent by the state, they should make themselves familiar with the details of Linda’s circumstance and raise their voices here.

        Thanks also, John for allowing me to raise the spectre of Linda’s case here. I understand that my efforts do not deal directly with the subject matter being discussed and I am deeply appreciative of your tolerence.

        His peace be with us.

  5. Ryan

    John, I’m wondering if you came across Vadim Nikitin’s piece in the NYT on Monday and, if so, what your take on it would be.

    For me, Nikitin’s piece does two things: 1) It offers a reminder of just how easy it is for us to adopt convenient and opportunistic narratives that serve our causes (Pussy Riot as exemplars of “freedom” and “democracy”); and 2) It provides an even more compelling reason to affirm the central point of your post. As Christians, we are to model ourselves after Jesus. How does Jesus treat his enemies—even really nasty enemies whose ethics and politics are perhaps more repellent than we first imagined? He forgives.

    • John

      I’m not clear what to say, Ryan, in reply, since I knew all that this NYT writer had to say before I wrote what I wrote. So, I guess, sure, I can agree with his piece, but it’s clearly directed at other people’s take on, and perhaps misuse of Pussy Riot, not mine–or am I missing something?

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