Church Grants Forgiveness, with Strings Attached


Pussy Riot: Still behind bars

Today, the feminist-punk-collective Pussy Riot was supposed to have a hearing. It was delayed because one of the members dismissed her attorney. However, on the eve of the court date, the Russian Orthodox Church urged government officials to grant the women clemency.

Well, they didn’t just encourage clemency — they said that the women should be forgiven and release from prison if they repent:

On the eve of a critical appeals hearing, the Russian Orthodox Church has called for leniency for three young feminist punk rockers who received worldwide attention after performing a subversive stunt in a Moscow cathedral.

On Monday a court will hear the appeal of three members of the group Pussy Riot, who were sentenced to two years in jail in August for what they called a “punk prayer” in Christ the Savior Cathedral, in which they begged for divine intervention to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.

The church released a statement saying that the stunt “can’t be left unpunished,” but that if they show “penitence and reconsideration of their action,” then that “shouldn’t be left unnoticed,” according to The Associated Press.

That’s right, the church’s position is that grace is earned by an act of repentance, not freely given.

For my new book, I’ve been thinking a lot about the activity of God, and whether God’s activity is contingent on human action. I don’t think so. That seems to me to make God not much more than a glorified human being.

The church is arguably God’s agent in the world (I don’t necessarily think that, but the Orthodox Church surely does). So don’t you think that the church should advocate for free grace being shown to the members of Pussy Riot, regardless of whether or not they repent?

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  • Mike

    This is killing me at the moment. I am mission pastor of a church in the UK and I have some serious misgivings about how we (in the teaching courses we offer) deal with the atonement and forgiveness but I am struggling with how I express these thoughts without causing chaos. I don’t think people would be particularly opposed to me presenting a different viewpoint but I don’t seem to be able to get myself to any definitive viewpoint at this point. Ha. I read Towards A Better Atonement and some of where that book went really resonated with me. I’m finding it to be a bit of a battle to get my head around what I actually believe (or don’t). If only God wasn’t mysterious eh 😉

    • Mike, as it was with how Jesus did things, there are moments where speaking the truth will absolutely trigger chaos in those who are not disposed to hearing it.

  • Pax

    Should the Orthodox Church adopt a modern, progressive, Protestant view of grace and repentance? I can’t imagine how the various sides are going to come down on this one.

  • I’m not convinced that all of God’s activity is contingent on human action. Though some, perhaps. In a recent post you discussed communication with God, which I prefer to call communion. In that case, it’s not our action necessarily that triggers a response from God, but our receptivity. God knocks, calls, serenades us, but doesn’t necessarily intrude unless we desire and consent to intimacy. Such is the nature of relationship.

    As for forgiveness . . . yes it should absolutely be given freely. It’s the very nature of grace.

    As for repentance, it should be a response to grace, not a requirement for it.

  • If they gave it away for free, what would the church be there for at all? Wouldn’t they be admitting that Christ’s work is truly finished and the church should stop telling people what to do and just do what Jesus already told them do?

    • Exactly, Lausten. If certain institutional churches felt they no longer had the power to tell people what to do, they’d have no reason to exist anymore. Such institutions aren’t about reflecting the free grace of Jesus and dispensing radical forgiveness. They’re about self-preservation (power, money, position, ego, money, political influence, money, etc., money, etc., money).

  • Craig

    Do you really want to say that God’s activity isn’t contingent on human action? That would seem to imply that God could never respond to anything we do. It would seem to imply that God could not interact with anyone.

    It might be easier to accept that God is only just a bit more than a glorified human being, but I don’t even see why contingency on human action would force that conclusion.

    • I don’t really want to say that, but the more I think about the nature of God, the more I think that I’m bound to say that…

      • Craig

        Most believers will probably take your modus ponens as a modus tollens. That God can respond to us and interact with us will be, for most believers, more axiomatic than any theological premise entailing the contrary.

  • NateW

    Thanks for this post Tony. Of course I think that the stand of the church should be condition less forgiveness, because this is the only thing that can truly lead a criminal to repent. Violence against an unrepentant criminal will only feed the vicious cycle.

    What we are faced with is a great (the great?) paradox. A society that would choose to treat all criminals with unconditional forgiveness thus opens itself up to death at the same criminals hands. Yet a society that condemns and isolates criminals to protect its people only reinforces and perpetuates the cycle of violence.

    The only truly just society then would only be one that is willing to cease to be a society, one that is willing to collapse, to sacrifice itself in order to show unconditional forgiveness.

    I can only think of one Kingdom that operates this way…

    In the end, no society is able to risk its own downfall or else it ceases to be a society that forgives because it will be eradicated by another more violent society.

    So, what does this mean for the Orthodox Church and Pussy Riot? I honestly have no idea. How do choose between allowing anarchy and controlling with condemnation and violence? It seems like the whole idea of independent societies and governments is inherently flawed, and that true justice is impossible. And I wonder why politics depress me so much….

    In the end it really comes down to simply loving your neighbor on a personal level. Where society cannot sacrifice itself to forgive its enemies, we can. The just society can only come about when it arises from change within. Justice cannot be handed down from a position of power and authority.

    So, yeah, in a lot of ways I think we are gods agents. Not because he isnt all powerful, but because he chooses not to wield his power in coercion or violence. He has been sacrificing himself since the dawn of creation so that we could experience and share his unconditional forgiveness.

    The only way that this would ever be possible on a societal level is if every citizen were in complete unity with every other and all walking in knowledge of their own unconditional forgiveness. I guess that’s the vision of the kingdom of God!

  • Another thought: my post above applies as equally to the organization church as to larger society. The only true church is that which would rather cease to exist than cease offering hospitality to sinners and forgiveness to criminals.

    It makes me sad that church “growth” is talked about mor than church death. We fear death and irrelevance just as much as the rest of the world and have the budgets and 10 year plans to prove it?

    And… Of course I can’t escape from this personally. I cling to my own life every day in so many ways. I want to Love my neighbor… I’m just not willing to step into the darkness…

  • One last thought, haha. I guess that, yeah, in this case it’s fairly clear that it is the church’s responsibility to forgive unconditionally. Whether the state should listen or not I guess depends how dangerous they believe these girls to be if released.

  • Evelyn

    I just read up on the Pussy Riot case today. It’s been in the news for months, of course, but I’ve been averse to reading any of the articles because the name of the band really put me off. It seems that they walked into an Eastern Orthodox church and protested what they see as a political joining of church and state. They were arrested and charged with “hooliganism” and prosecuted as if they had committed a “hate crime”. I’m not going to go into details about protesting political oppression vs. committing hate crime but I think their action would be equivalent to an American going into Harlem and protesting reverse discrimination. It’s more of a political protest than a hate crime even though it is related to racism.

    The Eastern Orthodox church, in this case, seems to be covering their tracks by extending an olive branch. Their offer of clemency for recanting is more of a political move masquerading as one that is based on religious principals than an act of grace.

  • Tim

    First, such an embarrassing scene for the Russian Orthodox church. PR should have been fined and dismissed/deported. At the same time, I am afraid that most churches (and institutions in general) would not fare much better.

    Certainly, the RO Church should encourage their release with no more strings attached. It would be cool if PR and the Cathedral could have a moment of reconciliation but it’s only cool if it’s not forced. And at this point, it would be hard to believe that it isn’t.

  • toddh

    Minnesota will make you a Lutheran eventually! 😉