Disrupting Trade in the Temple of the Powerful

September 8, 2013

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 16     Luke 14:25-33     Exodus 1:8–21     Mark 11:15-19

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


In February 2012 three women, all in their twenties, were arrested in a Moscow Cathedral for saying a prayer, [1] and then in August that year were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism. The prayer they offered was short: “Virgin Mother, redeem us of Putin” – Vladimir Putin being the President, the Virgin Mother being Mary the protectress of Russia.


I preached a sermon that year in support of these Christian women who were protesting against the collusion of church and state, their power structures and their authoritarian policies. That sermon was translated into Russian and I was informed that it was welcomed among those marginalized by Church and State.


This morning I don’t want to revisit the specifics of the Pussy Riot protest, the trial, and its aftermath. Instead I want to talk about prayer, and what it entails.


In 2007 Putin made a statement termed ‘nuclear orthodoxy’ – namely that Russia’s nuclear arsenal would protect her from enemies without, and the Orthodox Church would protect her from enemies within. The political and military chauvinism of Putin would form an alliance with the Father Lord Almighty God of the Patriarch. 


One of the convicted protesters wrote: “In our [prayer] we dared… to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with... the spirit of protest in Russia.”


The Pussy prayers were challenging religion’s compliance with and courting of the political power-holders. Was not God a different God from the Father Lord Almighty Goliath? Was not God in midst of the marginalized and vulnerable, those who protested?


During the prayer the group cloaked their faces with balaclavas to de-hierarchize the liturgical space. They appealed to the feminism of the Virgin Mary against the anti-feminism of Putin and the Church elite. The words and actions of the prayer held out a dream, a vision – one of mutuality and equality between women and men, between laity and clergy, and between the governed and the governors.


At the trial the women purposefully drew a connection between their own actions and the New Testament where those persecuted for blasphemy - like Jesus [2], like Stephen [3[, like Paul [4] - turned out to be the rightful bearers of divine truth.


So prayer was action. Prayer was attitude. Prayer was words. Prayer was visionary. Prayer was solidarity with those oppressed by the regime. And prayer was costly. Just like Jesus’ prayer when he disrupted trade in the Jerusalem Temple. Prayer was protest.


Our first reading from Exodus tells of two women, Shiphrah and Puah, midwives, who defied the power of the Northern Egyptian Metropolitan Area Health Board, and ultimately the power of the god-like Pharaoh whose orders the Health Board were enforcing. They were told to kill male Hebrew babies. Shiphrah and Puah, however, believed in a different God than Pharaoh and refused. The penalty for refusing would have been death. When summoned by Pharaoh, they lied: “The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes.” 


I think those who work in the health sector need to remember the ethics and courageous leadership of Shiphrah and Puah. They were the only women in the Book of Exodus to act in an overtly political manner. They were the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation, the liberated people of Yahweh their God. Shiphrah and Puah understood that Yahweh’s priority, and the priority of their profession to save life had a higher priority than the dictates of the Health Board and Pharaoh.


Shiprah’s and Puah’s actions were a prayer: a prayer of deception; a prayer that involved lying; a prayer of vulnerable women that increased their vulnerability by siding with the condemned; and a prayer that defied the god-like power of the almighty Pharaoh.


Prayer is a journey of discovery. The first prayer I remember learning began with the words: “Our Father, which art in heaven.” [5] I remember too the posture of kneeling with head bowed and palms together. The emphasis though was on saying the words.


Not that I understood the words. What was the ‘art’ in heaven? What was ‘heaven’ for that matter? I was quickly told that ‘heaven’ was the location of our ‘Father’ who wasn’t actually our father. Not that one could locate heaven – though it did seem to be more ‘up’ than ‘out’ or ‘down’. It was all rather tricky.


Yet as time went on Sunday by Sunday I realized that the words didn’t matter. It was being together, saying them together, and addressing God that mattered. Not that we had many clues about God. But if God was anywhere God was in church. And a blend of voices – the well-dressed and the not so well-dressed, the knowledgeable and the beginners – all raised in unison was sure to be heard. Or so we hoped.


The benefit of the Lord’s Prayer of course is that you don’t have to think about the words. It can operate as a mantra. This is particularly so when it’s sung or chanted. It is meditative. The mind can wander as the tongue recites. Not that I could have explained that back then.


When I progressed to Youth Group the personalized version of God was all important. Father God was now Daddy God. It was quite nice as a teenager to have a surrogate all-forgiving dad when you were having difficulty with the flesh-and-blood one. So prayer was a kind of personal chat - a largely one way chat, with God having to be a good listener.


But such prayers and the deity they were addressed to, in time ran out of relevance and stalled. Talking can be therapeutic when one needs therapy, but what happens when one doesn’t? A personal daddy-god is nice, though about as useful a teddy bear next to the pillow.


Then in my twenties the whole notion of a Father Lord Almighty God who made the planet, directs its future, and with a straight face calls its human creatures ‘sinners’, began to make as much sense as Santa Claus. As Santa was largely in the pocket of marketers and retailers, so this God was largely in the pocket of elites who wanted to solidify their control and keep others compliant. The object of prayer needed a makeover; as did the purpose and practice of prayer.


And the Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan, was a great example of how. In a long line of unsung saints, including Shiprah and Puah, including a shepherd boy who took five stones from a brook to engage the military prowess of Goliath, Berrigan and his brothers confronted the American war machine of the Father Lord Almighty God and the passive compliance of the churches that sang that God/Goliath’s praise. They broke into a missile silo in Pennsylvania and tried to remake the nose cone into a ploughshare. [6] They poured napalm on draft cards. They disrupted trade in Goliath’s temple.


For prayer, as I was slowly learning, was more than words, mantras, music, silence, receiving communion, or walking a labyrinth. Prayer was a way of living out a vision of a better world, and a better God – one known among the little and the least. Prayer was disruptive action. Prayer was critiquing the alliance between the Fathers – the political/military fathers and the religious God fathers. Prayer was trusting in the futility of five little stones rather than Goliath’s swords. Prayer was creating communities of resistance – like this one - to the Father Lord Almighty God/Goliath.


This understanding of prayer as a visionary way to live, to connect, and to be mutually in God and with God, is foundational to my spirituality. I have found too that the difference between those who worship a hierarchical Father Almighty and those who don’t, who pray in/within a God of mutuality, is very large. These Gods frequently clash. They are irreconcilable. We need to choose sides.


At the Pussy Riot trial the charge of blasphemy couldn’t be proved. Instead they were convicted for ‘hooliganism’ or what we might call ‘disruption’. Such charges were what Jesus was accused of in the Gospel reading today. Such charges were what were brought against the Berrigan’s. The political and spiritual Goliaths will always fear and punish pesky shepherd boys or girls, men and women. And they have a reason to be afraid these Goliaths: for the power of mutual love and fairness is ultimately stronger, more far-reaching and life-changing, than the powers of domination and control.


[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ

[2] Mark 14:55-59

[3] Acts 7:54-58

[4] Acts 23:1-3

[5] Anglican Book of Common Prayer 1662

[6] Isaiah 2:4

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