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.