• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

“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….)