23 August 2012

Is Christianity under attack?

Last Friday, I sat for over three hours in front of my computer monitor, watching coverage of the Pussy Riot verdict and sentencing, both via Ridus/Ustream from outside the courthouse, and from RIA/Novosti from inside the courtroom. I sat there with my heart in my mouth, because I was witnessing an incredibly complex confrontation that seemingly could not end up well for anyone. Furthermore, I doubted and still doubt that I could adequately explain why my feelings were so mixed.

So, here are some of the faces and voices from that day.

Defendant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in the "aquarium" wearing an anti-fascist t-shirt

Outside the courthouse: "Throw the book at them."

"Free Pussy Riot!" "Put a stop to medieval obscurantism!"

"Come back to the ORTHODOX."

Crowd interacts with the police after one of the several dozen arrests that afternoon.

The t-shirt is a bilingual pun but its meaning is clear: "Let them serve time."

Judge tells the defendants one by one that they will serve two years in prison, including time served in jail.


This observer tells the cameraman that the young women's acts are part of a global conspiracy against the church.

In all this coverage, two things impressed me particularly. One was inside the courtroom. I listened to the judge summarizing the case on both sides, but I could not detect any consistent rules of evidence. She stated that her ruling was based on nothing but law, on Russia's secular constitution. But the actual evidence she cited related to church custom and the offended feelings of believers, almost none of whom were present at the time of the scandalous behavior. On another level, logic didn't matter; she was observing a time-honored practice that might be labeled Russian pragmatism. "Come on," she might have said, "Let's be real! These young women (1) were cavorting and gesticulating in a space reserved for priests and liturgical acts; did they really believe that such an offensive parody would have no consequences?; (2) have left a long trail of evidence that they use extreme vulgarity to promote their views; (3) clearly had planned carefully in advance; this wasn't an act of spontaneous outrage. Can we really just let that pass?" In Russian, there are two words for freedom. One, svoboda, is the word that normally relates to democracy and civil liberties; but the other, volya, has an edge of anarchy or chaos to it. One of the paradoxes of Russia is the interplay of authoritarianism and volya, and the judge as much as said that she was imposing a sentence of "real jail time" to keep things from getting out of hand.

The criminal element of the charges against the defendants was the charge that they were expressing hate. We in the West have developed some pretty strong legal doctrines about hate speech. Is it really that much of a stretch to believe that there was at least intense dislike in the Pussy Riot action? From a legal point of view, the evidence that their "hate speech" (if you grant that interpretation) was directed at believers--that is, against the purported victims who gave evidence--seems very flimsy to me, but I could actually imagine that they might not have gotten past an American jury any easier than that Russian judge.

No matter what we believe about the integrity of the court process, the court was taking Pussy Riot seriously--not just their acts of that February day at Christ the Savior Cathedral, but a previous punk action in another church, other "concerts" and the trail of documents found in their homes and computers. These are serious women. Their message, their ideology, the deliberate vulgarity with which they express it, their clear political rage ... these are not innocent, cuddly heroines, but something closer to revolutionaries. We foreigners can certainly sympathize with them and with their right to express their dissent, but they do stand in a definite tradition in Russia, one that doesn't always have happy outcomes --and most of their international fans are cheering them on from a safe distance away.

I have grown to have a lot of respect for them, but it's a complicated respect. Those among my Russian friends who support Pussy Riot almost always preface their remarks by saying, "Of course I don't condone what they did." Of course? What they did is fully consistent with what they believe and stand for. When all is said and done, I'm not sure that the outcome of this present case was so wildly unjust--or so terribly surprising.

(What saddened me as much as the outcome was the petty vindictiveness of not giving them enough rest and food during the trial. The conditions of their incarceration--if it comes to that--will bear careful monitoring! Of course that should go for everyone in prison.)

The second thing that made an impact on me was the man in the last photo above, and what he told the cameraman. He was one of the 2000 or so observers around the courthouse, by one count. They clearly represented two camps--Pussy Riot's supporters and their Orthodox Christian critics. I was impressed by how civil they were to each other. They were yelling and waving placards in close proximity to each other, but I saw no shoving matches or the like. Both groups were serious about their advocacy. These were Russians--they were emotionally invested in the events of the day as a sign of what kind of Russia they would be living in. The man in the photo (a priest?) said that the Pussy Riot action and the wave of support the women received were all part of an international conspiracy attacking the Church. This is a huge meme here in Russia; just this evening, doing fact-checking for this blog post, I've probably skimmed a couple of dozen of many many Web pages devoted to this thesis, or opposing it: the three young women and their fans are supposedly part of a network of feminists, homosexuals, child molesters, and liberals, whose success would represent the end of Christian civilization in Europe.

For those who sincerely believe this, it's not hard to see how punk parodies near the altar of Christ the Savior, and the international approval that followed, would seem like an obvious confirmation of their worst fears. How many of those who have a more nuanced position are ready to do the hard work of bridging  this enormous gap? For one thing, it feeds into centuries of intellectual tradition that Russia is in fact the last outpost of genuine Christian faith. (American evangelicals: feeling a twinge!?) On a more emotional level, what weight do we Westerners bring into the conversation when we appear to treat faith as such a private. optional, decorative thing, that Elton John can hire the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York for a birthday party, with the altar converted into a stage, with almost no scandal? I'd suggest that anyone who thinks this is trivial is unqualified to weigh in.

Having said all that, I don't think Pussy Riot, or Madonna, or Western liberals, are anywhere near the danger to Christian civilization that graceless authoritarians within the church are. What made me angry about the whole spectacle is the church missing a huge opportunity for global evangelism, by choosing to whine and pout about offense instead of recognizing a golden teachable moment--expressing humor and forgiveness and the joy of the Lord in full view of a skeptical, cynical world. OK, I'm not a Russian, but I am a member of the Body of Christ, and I get to have my little say about what redemption looks like. Promoting a persecution complex that will end up costing three young women their freedom and safety is not acceptable.

A few years ago I quoted Stan Thornburg on the movement to protest Madonna's performance that included a mock-crucifixion on U.S. television. His words seem applicable today:
With tens of thousands of innocent (let me emphasize innocent) civilians being slaughtered in Iraq, tens of thousands of innocent people being raped, displaced, murdered in Darfur, unimaginable suffering in the Middle East, TV Evangelists ripping millions out of the hands of seniors citizens, all kinds of suffering supposedly in the name of Christ and what do I get all upset about...MADONNA?! A pagan who mocks Christ for a living? What else would we expect from her? Where is the outrage because CHRISTIANS ARE MOCKING CHRIST?
I can almost hear C.S. Lewis. When Christians are not Christ-like, there's not much need for Satan to spin external conspiracies.



Two more voices asking us to go deeper than simply idolizing or demonizing Pussy Riot. First, Eastern Orthodox commentator and writer Frederica Mathewes-Green; second, journalist Vadim Nikitin. More about the trial and its fallout here.

Are you as tired as I am of fake outrage, particularly in this particular U.S. political season? Politicians: does this help you re-evaluate your priorities?--"Deadly Poverty." Maybe the fact that my own sister died on the streets of Chicago affects my perspective....

Here's a follow-up to my post last week: "How to follow Jesus ... without being Shane Claiborne."

If these young evangelical thinkers can have a cordial conversation with Frank Schaeffer, then there's definitely hope!

The end of an era: Religion in Eastern Europe is ending publication after the next issue.

Take a look at the redesigned Web site of Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services.



"Kneeling there in deep contrition, help my unbelief."

5 comments:

Donna L said...

Hi, Johan:
I was wondering how your students have reacted to Pussy Riot's actions and their jail sentence, or has school not yet started for you? Hope you have a good school year--
Donna Laine

Johan said...

Hello! I won't raise the question, but of course if they mention it or ask about it, I will listen with interest and ask questions in a neutral voice. As you probably already know, I never make comparisons or push my own viewpoint in the classroom.

School starts September 3. Coming soon!

Alan P said...

"they do stand in a definite tradition in Russia, one that doesn't always have happy outcomes"

Could you say a bit more about this? Who else stands/stood in this tradition (should that be anti-tradition?) The Nihilists? The Futurists??

Johan said...

Alan, yes, along those lines. (Also see Sean Guillory's interesting article.) I want to stay vague because I don't want to imply guilt by association or cause further trouble for these women by drawing awkward parallels in public.

Johan said...

PS to Alan: Also see this article in The Moscow Times.

(Note--after a few days the article will go behind a paywall.)