In February three women, all in their twenties, were arrested in Moscow for saying a prayer, and on Friday sentenced to two years in prison. They are members of a punk rock group called Pussy Riot. They were alleged to have said a blasphemous prayer at the altar of the Cathedral. The prayer essentially said “Virgin Mother, redeem us of Putin” - Vladimir Putin being the President, the Virgin Mother being that young Palestinian who prayed that the mighty be brought down from their thrones.
The Pussy Rioters were dressed in bright coloured garments, with balaclavas over their faces. The clothing was not sexually provocative. The women looked somewhat like clowns. Note the YouTube clip the Rioters produced has been supplemented with music and guitars. They simply prayed and were quickly led away by security. Note too there was no church service in progress. The nine so-called ‘victims’ [those who heard their prayer] were predominantly security personnel and visitors. Note too that the three women as well as being feminists are active Christians.
They prayed accompanied by kneeling and by crossing themselves. The so-called ‘disrespect’ shown to the Virgin Mother, the protectress of Russia, seems to be that their request was of a political nature, it was lay women making the request, their dress of was not the usual clerical garments, and that they were facing the wrong way. [Their backs, and thus their bottoms, faced the holy altar.] The women have said they meant no disrespect to the Church.
However, they did mean to disrespect the close relationship between the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Putin’s re-election, and its alleged irregularities, has signaled a retrogression towards the authoritarianism of the past. Patriarch Kirill has been openly supportive of Putin before and after the election this year.
And they did mean to create a scandal. The Cathedral is a stone’s throw from the Kremlin and is deeply symbolic of current Church-State co-operation, having being built in the 1990s to replace its predecessor, which was destroyed by Stalin. The site, like the Pussy prayer, asks the fundamental, scandalous question about who owns God. Is God just a puppet toy belonging to the Church, a toy for the State to manipulate the strings and enhance its own power? Or is God a subversive power, out among the people, always working fearlessly to promote justice, mutuality, and equality?
Patriarch Kirill and his cronies responded with ferocity. Kirill circulated a letter to be read out in all his Moscow churches encouraging the faithful to write to the Procurator General requesting the maximum sentence for the women – five years – for blasphemy and aggravated hooliganism. Then he conducted a service in which some 20 bishops in full regalia lined up to purge the sanctuary. Later they called a public rally.
Fr Chaplin, who often acts as the Church’s spokesman, has made some revealing comments. “It was a sin against God,” he said. “But they also insulted the Patriarch who is a symbol of the Church.” “All these acts around symbols are attempts to redistribute power” [well he’s right about that]. “This trial has been willed by God” and he called on Russia to do away with its secular state.
When Christian leaders start to equate what they find offensive with what God finds offensive, when Christian leaders start to believe criticism of them is criticism of the Church, and when Christian leaders openly seek more power in the running of the State we are far removed from the humble carpenter’s son who sought to be true to a egalitarian vision of justice. The egocentrism and blatant aggrandizement of power revealed by these statements from the hierarchy of the Russian Church is unfortunately typical of unaccountable power, and is rife across the Christian world and in Christian history.
Yet the Patriarch is not the only voice of Russian Orthodoxy. There are the ‘traitors in cassocks’ as Kirill calls them. A retired priest, Fr Vinnikov, likens the baying of the mob, led by the Patriarch, for the blood of the three, to those who called ‘Crucify him!’ He goes on to recall that during the Communist times when the Church was persecuted by the State the Patriarch and Bishops did not raise their voices in protest. No, they only raised their voices to condemn those who did protest. Fr Vinnikov and other priests and academics of the Moscow Helsinki Group have written invoking the ancient Russian tradition of the ‘Holy Fool’ who was able with impunity to criticize the Tsar. St Basil was a holy fool and, the Group writes, “Today his well-educated and courageous followers are kept behind bars”.
The tradition of being a fool for Christ has a long history not exclusive to Russia. It goes right back into the biblical prophetic tradition where courageous individuals tried to call the powerful to account. These individuals often made dramatic actions and/or lived in a manner that set them apart. Many would say this is the tradition that shaped Jesus of Nazareth and in which he walked. Many of the saints of the church have followed this prophetic foolish path since – dressing differently, rejecting the trappings of power, criticizing both church and state, and calling us all to a vision of equality and mutuality. They are the ‘clowns of God’.
As soon as I saw the YouTube clip of those women in front of the Cathedral I knew the tradition they were walking in. I know the tradition because I too have walked it. I was arrested in 1983 for wearing sackcloth and putting ash on my head in the midst of a service where the Church had prostituted itself by getting in bed with the State. I, and those arrested with me, were calling the Church to return to it’s origins as known in the justice of Jesus. Yet our arrest and punishment is nothing compared to what these women have already endured. There is a cost to being a faithful fool for God.
Indeed it is that cost that has swung public opinion. Although the prosecution was seeking a reduced sentence of three years of corrective labour out of the seven possible, that only happened once polls showed opinion shifting and church supporters suddenly being outnumbered by those who viewed Pussy Riot's treatment as too vindictive for the actual crime involved.
This may be a worrying sign for the Orthodox Church which has grown exponentially, both in power and property ownership, under Putin and now views itself as Russia's moral voice. Olga Sibiryova of the Sova human rights centre said many were fearing that cases like Pussy Riot show "that Russia is no longer a secular state." The liberal Vedomosti business daily concluded that the Church had just committed its "biggest error since 1901" - the year it excommunicated the beloved writer Leo Tolstoy.
This morning we heard read King Solomon asking for the gift of wisdom and receiving it along with riches and glory. Stefan Heym’s novel, The King David Report, accurately alerts us to the political spin-doctoring written into the Scriptures by the ecclesial elite, that is going on as David and Solomon are praised and adored. What we need to be aware of with Solomon is a story of a king excessively taxing his people to build great edifices allegedly to God’s glory, but also to his glory, and even using his people as slave labourers to this end. It is no surprise that upon Solomon’s death the Kingdom fractures and falls apart. I mention Heym’s novel because the novel is a clever critique of the East German power structure in the 1970s, and the sort of authoritarianism that is re-emerging under Putin. The equation of religious leaders receiving earthly riches to build glorious buildings in return for political sycophantism is a very old scenario.
Pussy Riot is symbolically the head of a protest movement in Russia that is being shut down. Bloggers have been arrested, and people are scared to express any anti-Putin sentiment. Only state-sanctioned demonstrations are allowed. Pussy Riot draw attention to precisely what is so disturbing, a totalitarian nation where the church and state are becoming one.
The Bible and our Church tradition are familiar with these interwoven issues of prayer, prophets, and power. How, who, and where one prays to God, and who decides how, who and where, are issues that occur regularly and repeatedly throughout history. Religion again and again slides into the mire of elitism where only authorized clergy can pray and authorized liturgies can be prayed in public, and again and again brave prophets have to remind us that God is not in the pocket or pay of the elites.
Some religious people, who spend significant periods of time praying, develop as a result certitude about life, their sense of belonging, and a sense that others don’t belong. They develop a moral ideological perimeter that excludes the ‘unfit’. They believe justice is about the less powerful agreeing to the requirements of the more powerful, and their God will offer grace and forgiveness upon compliance.
Yet other religious people, who may pray less, who may attend church less, and who may even believe less, become through their prayer less certain about right and wrong, and more tolerant towards those who don’t fit. The discipline of prayer connects them with all people, crossing moral and ideological perimeters. They believe justice is about empowering the less powerful and disturbing the imbalance of power that elites like to maintain. Their God is a subversive energy permeating the halls of privilege causing discomfort, confusion, and chaos.
The former is the God of Putin and Kirill, the latter is the God of Pussy Riot and St Matthew’s.
Christian clowns, girls with guitars and foolish knitted hats, not men with guns, head a revolution against authoritarianism and the betrayal of the Church by its leaders. It was not just three women on trial. It was and is also Putin. It was and is also the Church. It is a way of exercising power that is on trial. It is the people’s right to pray that is at stake. It is a clash of Gods. And it isn’t over yet.