Well, this takes me back. Do you know how long it is since anyone accused me of being in the pay of the KGB?

I have been taking some heat for a column I wrote over at RealClearReligion on the subject of the punk band Pussy Riot, and their demonstration in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Here’s the background. For excellent reasons, a lot of Russians are alarmed by the authoritarian direction of their post-Soviet government, headed by Vladimir Putin. In order to gain maximum visibility for their cause, Pussy Riot tried protesting in a variety of venues before singing a “punk prayer” before the cathedral altar, blaming the leadership of the Orthodox Church for collaborating with Putin. Last week, they received two year sentences for hooliganism and what a judge termed “hooliganism driven by religious hatred.” An international outcry followed, and Pussy Riot became martyrs.

What my article pointed out was that, no matter the cause, the Cathedral was absolutely the wrong place for a protest. A long-standing symbol of Orthodoxy, it was one of countless buildings targeted for destruction by the Bolsheviks after 1917, and actually was demolished in 1931 to inaugurate the new godless Russia. This act was part of a savage persecution that claimed the lives of many thousands of clergy, and possibly millions of ordinary believers. If only a Right-wing regime had been responsible, we’d have heard more about it in the history books.

After the fall of Communism, the Cathedral was rebuilt, and it was rededicated in 2000. It  stands today as the token of a resurrected church. Memories of those countless martyred dead are strongly present. And now enter Pussy Riot, recalling the anti-church demonstrations of the 1920s.

A good number of commentators have accused me of supporting Putin and defending the sentences on Pussy Riot. Actually, I am just begging for consistency. Democratic European nations themselves have severe laws against hate crime, and an exceedingly broad definition of what constitutes offensive behavior against ethnic or religious groups. Do not for a second contemplate protesting in a mosque or synagogue or gurdwara  in Germany or France or Britain – or, dare I say, in the US or Canada. If you do, don’t sit around waiting for the US State Department to condemn the jail sentence facing you. Expect the judge to go overboard on sentencing if your crime involves a cherished site that evokes the brutal persecutions of a bygone day, such as a restored synagogue in Germany or Poland. Good luck with your defense that you were acting in the cause of human rights and democracy.

My concern, then, is not in defending Putin, but in demanding respect for the victims of anti-Christian persecution, and their memory.

I also believe that anti-Christian acts fit precisely into the category of hate crime. If they don’t, then the time has come for a thorough re-examination of that whole legal concept. It must offer protections to all religions, or to none.


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  • Philip Jenkins

    In response to Eric, who actually at one point illustrates my argument perfectly. He writes:

    “Without any of that context, it is of course much easier to make anachronistic analogies. Or imaginary comparisons, like the scenario of a political protest in Poland taking place in a synagogue merely “in order to grab media attention.” There’s no real comparison here, beyond the apparent inviolability of hallowed space.”

    Um, don’t you think that last factor in itself represents a massive issue, and underlies much hate crime legislation around the world? (Look it up). Please, read the piece before commenting, repetition is boring.

    Also, I tried to make as clear as I could that the Orthodox church suffered a persecution that killed millions. Not as total as the Jewish Holocaust, but assuredly deserving respect. I see not a word in his comment of any acknowledgement of that persecution.

    Does he not know or not care about that history? Which interpretation would be more damning?

    I actually mused over his line about “anachronistic”, as I have no idea what he means here. Certainly nothing resembling the normal sense of the word. The Kollontai/Militant Godless analogy is precisely accurate, and just as alive and relevant today as smashing synagogue windows is for Jews, or burning crosses for African Americans. Just because it doesn’t matter to you, or you’ve never heard of it, it matters enormously for Russians.

    Proof: the millions of Russian whose small donations in the 1990s went to restoring that cathedral and reversing past atrocities didn’t think the project was “anachronistic”. Presumably they also hoped that this time round, the structure would be safe from desecration and stunts.

    And sure, Pussy Riot chose the cathedral for maximum public relations and shock, after exhausting other venues, eg Red Square. That’s not under debate.

  • John

    While I appreciate the point that you are trying to make Dr. Jenkins, I would suggest the power issues at play in this instance makes your condemnation of the Riot Girls excessive. Clearly their protest was intended to be a religiously offensive act – which it would have been had they done the same thing at the main altar of any Orthodox Church (given the Orthodox theology of worship). However, the Orthodox hierarchy in Russia and the history of the Orthodox tradition in general invites these kinds of protests because of how it has consistency entwined itself with political power.

    While there has always been a counter current in Orthodoxy which has been willing to pay the price of speaking God’s truth to human power (St. John Chrysostom being the most prominent historical example), the mainstream has consistently sold itself to tyrannical regimes since the Byzantine period. Orthodox Christianity is not alone in this, but it has been particularly susceptible to this fault and after the brutal persecutions of the Soviet era I would have (perhaps over-optimistically) hoped that the Russian Church leadership would have repented of this historical tendency. However, when the Church visibly chooses to side with tyrants it invites this sort of offensive response.

    Let us not forget that this Cathedral is not even technically the property of the Russian Church. The original church was built by the Czars and was state property, and the new church is also state property. Both versions of the Cathedral serve as symbols of the ties the Russian state has with the Russian Church (and the control it exerts over it). Religious hatred was one primary reason why the Bolsheviks destroyed the original church, but the other was that it was a symbol of Czarist tyranny and the Church hierarchy’s collusion in it. What differentiates the Riot girls protest from the earlier Bolshevik atrocities is the factor of power. In 1931 the Russian Church was a defenceless victim, and the Church’s Bolshevik critics were the tyrants in power. In 2012, under Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill the situation is to a large extent reversed (though of course Putin’s regime has not committed crimes of nearly the same magnitude as those of the Bolsheviks). The offences of the Riot Girls and Bolsheviks are not equal, nor should they be equated.

    Furthermore, what of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” or Paul’s words in Romans 12, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” If this is true when the offence is committed by a persecutor in a position of power, how much more true is it when the one giving offence is a victim with a legitimate grievance? Finally, the Scriptures tell us that offence can be prophecy, and even those who do not recognize the God of Israel can function as his prophets. While you seem to be thinking primarily in legal and historical terms I would suggest that this should also be seen through a theological lens.

  • Philip Jenkins

    John – You make excellent points about the dilemma of using civil or criminal law in defending churches and Christian institutions, especially when that risks over-close entanglements with state power. Would you however not accept that, given the dreadful history of persecution in the old USSR, it’s easy to understand why believers would be so anxious to seek such legal protections?

  • As you say, if these women did their protest in a mosque, the punishment handed down by a PC judge would probably exceed that handed out by Putin’s men. But then, they wisely did it in a church.

  • John

    I would definitely agreeIt is understandible why so many Russian Orthodix Christians would be anxious to make use of legal protection. As much as the present situation is different from the past, fear has a powerful way of distorting perspective. At the same time Christians must not give in to fear, especially when it leads them to turn to charismatic strongmen who promise them protection. We all know where that led when Christians in Germany gave into fear during the turmoil of the Weimar Republic and turned to Hitler as their saviour from perceived enemies within and foreign domination from without. Giving into such fear not only opens the door to tyranny and atrocities, but also leads to unfaithfulness to the God who calls on us to trust in him and not human rulers.