Russian Band’s Punk Protest Prayer: Prophecy or Blasphemy?

Sometimes a story comes along to intriguing yet so provocative that even I get a little nervous writing about it. But the recent story, offered by Huffington Post’s Senior Religion Editor Paul Raushenbush, was too intriguing not to talk about.

First, there’s the matter of the Band’s name, which I’ve deemed is simply too inflammatory to post here. They use a slang term for female genitalia which usually is meant to denigrate both men and women in the ways it’s used. I think their intent, aside from the obvious shock value, is to flip the meaning and “take the power back,” as it were. It reminds me of what rapper Ice T did back in the 80s, reclaiming the “N-word” as a symbol of empowerment.

That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t mean I should use the word. I’m not really sure if the power-flip strategy works, especially when the terms at the heart of the matter are so laden with negativity, oppression, and the like. But enough on that; on to what the real story is.

The all-female Russian punk band whose name shall not be mentioned (kind of like Voldemort in Harry Potter) was arrested following an uninvited “punk prayer” of protest against Russian president Vladimir Putin and his iron-fisted grip on the forthcoming election. Their boisterous prayer-performance was offered to the Virgin Mary at the altar of a Russian Orthodox church. They’ve been serving six months in jail since the event, and they face up to three more years behind bars.

On the surface, I appreciate the demonstration. One could argue that even Jesus engaged in rather shocking prophetic displays inside temple walls to make a powerful point. And I appreciate that the band members were willing to go to jail (not a surprise they got arrested, really) for what they believe, and on one level, it’s exactly the kind of thing that the punk ethos is all about: shocking people into awareness about the injustices around them, stirring people to action.

I also get that, if the demonstration had been done anywhere other than within the confines of a church, it would not have garnered so much attention. But for me, the same question arises about this event as I ask about many preachers, worship leaders and other folks claiming to seek to bring people closer to God:

Where are your words and actions pointing? Are they directing attention away from yourself and toward the issue, or toward God, or do they actually put the focus more squarely on yourself?

In the case of the latter, I think even the most well-intended prayers, songs, or shocking punk-style prayers of protest slide from the realm of prophetic teaching into self-referential pandering.

I’m hardly a prude, and I’m actually a big advocate of going against the religious grain to do the work to which we feel called. But in this case, I can’t shake the sense that this was more about grabbing headlines and selling records. I could be wrong, and I hope that I am. Ultimately, that’s something that can only be settled between the band members and their Higher Power.

As for their more immediate earthly fate, the Russian Courts will determine the severity of punishment for the band’s stunt on Friday. And considering President Putin’s track record of clamping down on free speech, I’d say any plans for a world tour would be very premature.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=581585394 Nicholas Kapur

    I think that in this instance you undervalue the importance of drawing attention to the actual humans here on earth — but more importantly, I feel like you might be missing some important context for this protest.

    SkepChick has a decent summary here, but I’ll specifically highlight the factors that I believe make this an entirely appropriate action that goes well beyond simple “shock value.”

    As you note, they are specifically protesting Putin’s anti-women policies and decision to run for “reelection” (ha!). However, their decision to do so at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was not for the sake of empty “controversy,” but rather because the Russian Orthodox Church has a very close, very political relationship with the Putin regime.

    It is in this context that the group chose to protest in front of the Cathedral — which is, as Debbie Goddard notes, “an area women aren’t even allowed in!” And in response to this non-violent, non-destructive action, the “Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia” — actual title — had them arrested on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility,” which could result in up to seven years of jail time.

    The very fact that such a charge could and would be used to silence these women neatly demonstrates the precise reason that their civil disobedience is necessary. And as for whether they’re “directing people towards God” sufficiently, I’ll just say that I believe they’re doing much more for the good of Christianity in Russia than a Church that bars women from its “great shrines” and provides spiritual legitimacy to a corrupt political administration.

    • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

      The Russian Orthodox Church’s relationship with the Putin regime is not a clear or simple one. They have criticized him and the regime publicly and worked behind the scenes on a number of issues – for instance, the Russian invasion of Georgia, which the Church publicly denounced.

      The women weren’t being silenced because of their views. I don’t think anyone here at least disputes their right to them, and I doubt the Patriarch cares much about them. They were arrested for, well, hooliganism. Um, and where you got that the Russian Orthodox Church bars women from any of its places of worship, I can’t guess. Did you not see the droves of them in that church on the video?

  • Fred Eisinga

    Come on Christian, what do you believe, that the image bearers, although flawed can only ruffle feathers in a certain Christ like manner. This makes for some un-holy heretical point of views. These women are pushing the bar for dissent in Russia and we N-American, and the whole of the western world need to learn a lesson in resistance to the establishment. Christ calls us into action and we need to be shocked into that realization….

  • Warren

    The Band members deserve conviction. They are guilty of trespass. Furthermore, their mock religious gestures, committed as they were in a place sacrosanct to Orthodox christians, (not merely “in front of the Cathedral” but in close proximity to the Holy of Holies), deserve to be called a hate crime.

    The Band members could have demonstrated anywhere else in public other than the church, as they have so done on numerous occasions. The issue is not one of freedom of speech but rather the abuse of that freedom which occurred in a place where they had no business being. Their actions are not merely offensive but impinge on churchgoers’ reasonable expectation to security of person and the right to worship in peace. If unpunished, the actions of the Band members would set a precedent by leading others to believe that they could impose themselves on innocent bystanders in any place of worship and get away without consequence.

    The Band members are free to act stupidly as they choose and to protest wherever they want. Given their many prior acts and confrontations with authorities, they cannot seriously think that incarceration is an unjustifiable outcome for conducting a protest that posed a threat to peaceful citizens. Let’s not pretend that these veteran rebels are naive. They succeeded in provoking a response. They knew full well what they were doing at the time and they should accept the consequences of their actions.

    The Band members crossed a line. The time they have already served behind bars should be credited to them. Perhaps their sentences can be reduced on compassionate grounds, especially in the case of the one mother.

    • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

      No, no, no! Religious people have no right to own and operate places of worship, in which they can conduct their worship safely and without intrusion. If you hate religion, you can do whatever you like to religious people and their places of worship.

      It doesn’t matter either that this is the same cathedral that was razed by anti-Christians 90 years ago, and only recently rebuilt.

      All that matters is that ***** Riot is hip, that they believe in The Latest Cool Message and that they take Brave Anti-Establishment Risks. Anything they do is fully justified because they believe in free speech and rioting and stuff. Yeah!

      Stupid Christian, you think you have rights in the modern world?

      (tongue in cheek, just to make clear)

      • SonjaFaithLund

        I saw some of the lyrics of the song in question. I never got the sense that they hated religion. In fact, they called upon the Patriarch to stop following Putin and get back to following God: “Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin/Better believe in God, you vermin!”

        Here’s lyrics for the song, translated: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/20/pussy-riot-punk-prayer-lyrics

        • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

          If I broke into your house with a few of my friends and carried on in like manner… just think about that.

  • isaacplautus

    Just a reminder of why I’m glad to live in the USA. Here they would have just been escorted outside by security and that would have been the end of it. To treat an incident like this as deserving of 2 years prison sentence is totalitarian and disturbing.

    • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

      Well, I submit firstly that 2 years is very harsh for their crime. For its part, the Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement of forgiveness and asked the Russian regime to take it easy on the girls.

      But I submit that ***** Riot actually did commit a few crimes, some of which would be considered criminal here in the US, trespassing among them, since they could have reasonably assumed that they would not have been granted access by the legitimate owners for this purpose. Additionally, in Russia as in most European countries, it is a crime to outrage religious sensibilities in places of worship. This pretty much qualifies. It’s pretty hard to argue that there is a *right* to go into someone else’s house of worship and treat them how you please; that effectively means they have no right to have houses reserved for their worship – not even their own property.

      I think a lot of people would be singing a different tune if they had done their little performance in a mosque.

  • Guest

    Some countries have too much freedom of speech, allowing groups such as Westboro Baptist to spout their hatred, some have little or none such as Russia, I’m just glad the country I live in has a balance, where a group such as Westboro would be arrested for hate crimes, but a band like Pussy riot has a freedom to express, both extremes are as bad as each other, thank goodness I live in the UK.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Moote Milton David Grimshaw

    Some countries have too much freedom of speech, allowing groups such as Westboro Baptist to spout their hatred, some have little or none such as Russia, I’m just glad the country I live in a country which has a good balance, where a group such as Westboro would be arrested for hate crimes, but a band like Pussy riot has a freedom to express, both extremes are as bad as each other, thank goodness I live in the UK.

  • Jen

    You think that “grabbing headlines and selling records” is worth a three-year jail sentence? That it could be a more important motivation to the band members than making a political statement? That’s a bit bizarre. O_o

  • Tommy R

    These women really have no idea what they are doing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=581585394 Nicholas Kapur

      Just because you have no idea what they are doing doesn’t mean the same is true of them.

  • George Arnold

    As an Orthodox Christian, Pussy Riot gets 2 thumbs up from me. Jesus exposed the hypocrisy and corruption of ecclesiastical hierarchy in his time and place, and consequently faced persecution. His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and the Russian state deserve all the criticism they have received.

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    Well, there are a few pertinent differences between ***** Riot’s performance in the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior and Jesus’s performance in the Temple.

    1) Jesus is God – the One to whom the Temple belongs – and presumably has authority to do what He pleases in His own house. ***** Riot is not God, and the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior is not their property, nor dedicated to them.

    2) ***** Riot’s intention was to shock, and particularly, to shock the religious sensibilities of people who are rightly grateful to have had their religious liberty restored, even if the restorer is awful in other ways. Jesus’s intention was not to shock people who are trying to be good, but to set aright people who did not care about God, but only their own profit.

    That’s for a starters.