Pussy Riot and the Holiness of Place

Yesterday’s sentence on three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian Punk band which performed an anti-Putin ‘prayer to Mary’ in a Moscow Cathedral, has been widely condemned. If my Twitterstream was anything to go by, people leaped in to defend the band without really considering whether their conduct was in any sense justifiable or excusable. Many ignored the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church had asked for clemency and roundly condemned both Church and State for their harshness. Apparently, being anti-Putin makes everything all right and we western liberals will back anyone and anything that protests against his illiberal regime.

As it happens, I too think the sentence was unduly harsh, but I don’t think the band should have got off scot free. I suspect you have to be Orthodox or Catholic to understand the full horror for believers of what happened. To parody a prayer may seem nothing to those who don’t believe, but to those who do, it is bordering on blasphemy. Then to proclaim that parody, full of expletives, before the most sacred area of a cathedral is indeed a profanation. Orthodox churches, by and large, are not just buildings which come alive at occasional services and are routinely used for other purposes. Like their Catholic counterparts, they are charged with Presence; people pray in them at all times (go into Westminster Cathedral after you have been to Westminster Abbey and you’ll see what I mean: it isn’t that the Abbey is any less a place of prayer, it is simply that people in the Cathedral pray all over the place rather than in reserved quiet chapels).

The members of Pussy Riot knew what they were doing, and they must take the consequences. Had they entered a mosque and behaved in the same way, western opinion might not be so forgiving. I hope that the women’s sentence will be suspended or whatever the Russian equivalent is, but I also hope that those who have unthinkingly championed them will stop for a moment to consider the thoughts and feelings of Russian Orthodox Christians. ‘Holy things to the holy’ sings the deacon before the moment of Communion. Holiness. We have not heard much about that in media coverage or commentary, but it does exist, and holiness of place is surely part of it for those who believe in the Incarnation. We may not share the beliefs of others, but shouldn’t we accord them respect?

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43 thoughts on “Pussy Riot and the Holiness of Place”

  1. Thanks, Sister! Well balanced and beautifully written as ever and filled with graciousness… No need to be Orthodox or Catholic to understand the full horror – I can see it even with my non-conformist Protestant eyes (albeit with a love for Orthodox worship…)

  2. Yesterday’s sentence on Jesus Christ, the Messiah who turned tables over in the temple, has been widely condemned. If my Twitterstream was anything to go by, people leaped in to defend him without really considering whether his conduct was in any sense justifiable or excusable. Apparently, being the Messiah makes everything all right and we western liberals will back anyone and anything that protest.

    As it happens, I too think the sentence was unduly harsh, but I don’t think he should have got off scot free. I suspect you have to be Jewish to understand the full horror for believers of what happened. To turn over the tables in the temple may seem nothing to those who don’t believe, but to those who do, it is bordering on blasphemy. Jewish temples , by and large, are not just buildings which come alive at occasional services and are routinely used for other purposes. Like their Catholic counterparts, they are charged with Presence; people pray in them at all times (go into Westminster Cathedral after you have been to Westminster Abbey and you’ll see what I mean: it isn’t that the Abbey is any less a place of prayer, it is simply that people in the Cathedral pray all over the place rather than in reserved quiet chapels).

    Jesus knew what he was doing, and he must take the consequences. Had he entered a mosque and behaved in the same way, western opinion might not be so forgiving. I hope that his sentence will be suspended or whatever the Roman equivalent is, but I also hope that those who have unthinkingly championed him will stop for a moment to consider the thoughts and feelings of the Jewish traders. Holiness. We have not heard much about that in media coverage or commentary, but it does exist, and holiness of place is surely part of it for those who believe. We may not share the beliefs of others, but shouldn’t we accord them respect?

    • You overlook something rather important: Jesus purified the temple of those who profaned it, arguing that it should be a place of prayer. The Pussy Riot lyrics hardly constitute a prayer for purification, nor did the way the band acted (if the video clip is to be trusted).

      • If we could watch a video of Christ driving out the moneylenders, it might be shocking, too, and I am sure that many onlookers that day felt it was a shocking act of blasphemy.

        I do not defend Pussy Riot’s action, but I think we should listen to what they were saying. According to their own statements, they were attempting – albeit in a way that was going to be offensive to many – to warn of danger as Putin’s government snuggles up to the Church.

        When Church and State are in bed together the sex is never safe, and it is always the Church that gets hurt.

        Thank you for letting me comment.

        • Thank you for your comment, but I must point out there were no ‘moneylenders’ in the Temple. There were money-changers. If you re-read the accounts of the purification of the Temple, you will see why I reject your analogy. To parody the words of the Holy, Holy, holy (sung before Communion) using an expletive for excrement instead of the word ‘holy’ may not seem very shocking to some, but it certainly would be at odds with everything we know about Jesus. At no point did Jesus mock the Law or the Synagogue, much as he questioned lawyers and synagogue officials. Never did he speak disrespectfully of God, nor did he ever profane the Temple space by flouting its rules. When he drove the money changers out of the Temple, he was driving them out of the outer court, not from the inner court, and certainly not from the Holy of Holies which, as an observant Jew, he would not have dreamed of entering. Everything we know about Jesus speaks of respect. That isn’t the case here. The band’s performance was deeply offensive to many Russians, if we are to believe the reports we have received. Those who argue that the end justifies the means will have to explain why they think sacrilege is acceptable. Does being ant-Putin trump every other value? For myself, the answer is no. (And I hold no brief for Putin or for the authorities of the Orthodox Church.)

          • Sorry. Of course it was money-changers. Worse than lenders. Thank you for the correction.

            I appreciate what you are saying. The message and the medium do not always match in any given protest situation, that’s for sure, and you are right to insist on that. As I said, I am not defending the particular actions chosen by the band, nor am I saying one should be insensitive to the pain the actions caused. I do not believe anyone’s actions can be set in an x = y equation with those of Jesus.

            Still, it is recorded that that Jesus said and did things that many devout people found deeply offensive and profane. John 6:52-60 comes to mind, and his repeated breaking of the Sabbath laws. The evangelists did not elaborate as 21st century writers would on the pain these things caused, but it does not meant there was no pain.

  3. My sympathies are with Pussy Riot, only because of the nature of the Russian state and its co-option of the Orthodox Russian church.

    Pusey Riot are guilty of trespass, but this conviction and punishment is designed to imitators while avoiding the outrage a longer sentence would bring.

  4. I suspect that I like many people, admire their protest actions, but regard this particular action as a mistake. My understanding is that the Russian Orthodox Patriarch described their actions as blasphemy and called for their prosecution. Having seen the severity of the sentence, they have asked for clemency. I can understand the outrage of the Church and the faithful, but just wonder about an overreaction in it.

    My reading of the situation is that the bulk of opinion in Russia, while agreeing with their sentiments, disagrees with and condemns this particular action, so perhaps our western liberal perceptions are not in line with most of the Russian population?

    Freedom of expression in the West is not the same in Russia, and the hangover from the former Soviet Regime is that punitive laws remain in place and can be used to suppress dissent, again, we can condemn, but I wonder how much appetite there is in Russia for change to a Western style democracy – perhaps the Russian Bear remains secretly a repressive state.

    I can’t imagine such a sentence in the West, which just shows how wide a gulf remains between our cultures. I hope that President Putin is moved to clemency, but I’m not holding my breath.

    • I think, Ernie, the form of protest matters. One does not have to be a Putin supporter to find the action objectionable any more than one has to be a supporter of Pussy Riot to think the sentence harsh.

  5. I understand the deep offence felt by believers who feel as described above, although I do not share that sensibility about sacred places. I recognise and value such places but I think of them as more spiritually resilient and therefore view any perceived insult of them as far less consequential.

    It is regrettable that Pussy Riot offended some believers. We shouldn’t cause each other to stumble by arguing about ritualistic aspects of belief (although Christ himself is the stumbling block, as Mischievous reminds us above). Their message may yet be part of a more important message. Even if not, however, I don’t think criminal law should be used to judge and punish such irreverent behaviour. It wasn’t vandalism; it was standing and speaking in certain places. It was the echo chamber and significance of the Cathedral that brought their cause more to my attention and I think, in the desperation of the political climate, they chose a place of supposed sanctuary and hope. Any Presence present would have mercy on them.

    • I wouldn’t myself call the beliefs of Russian Orthodox Christians ‘ritualistic’, I think they go deeper than that. In my post I am pointing out the offence to believers. (What God thinks is beyond me, although I wouldn’t equate forgiveness/mercy with approval. That is a commonly held opinion but I don’t subscribe to it.) Put it another way, what right had the band to do what they did in a building they do not own, which is sacred to those who use it for the purposes for which it was intended? Would you/we feel the same if the band had used a mosque or synagogue (Obviously I don’t know the answer to those questions!)

      Again, you’ll see that I don’t agree with Mischievous’s analogy. When Jesus purified the Temple, he was driving out those who had profaned it by using it for purposes for which it was not intended. ‘Zeal for thy house will consume me.’

      Having said all that, I am grateful for you comment. I wouldn’t want everyone to agree with me!

  6. Completely agree with this blog. The Western press reporting this seem to have no appreciation of the concept of sacred, or at least, not when it applies to Christians. I don’t think they should have been jailed for more than a few weeks, but what they did was terribly wrong.

  7. I always thought Jesus’s actions were in defense of maintaining the holiness of the temple, and against the comnercialisation he saw there. It’s why I find the increasing prevalence of cafes in the back of churches makes me slightly uneasy. Fantastic if they bring new people in, and make churches more approachable, but if they destroy the space for prayer, I am not impressed. I went into a cathedral last week and literally could not fund a quiet corner to use for this purpose!
    I am not opposed to protest, but I believe it underminds your point if you do it an oppressive way. I struggle to empathise with a protest that seems to have been designed to cause shock and distress more than make a political comment. That said, the sentence handed down rather does make the point for them. God works in myseterious ways?!

  8. I wonder if Pussy Riot’s choice of place to make their statement of protest was not made to signal the role the Church ought to be playing in also making protest of injustice? Perhaps they intended as part of their message to underscore the silence or inaction of the Church? I ask, ” Is the Church playing it safe, too safe. ”

    In saying this, I do not condone any unwarranted intrusion into sacred space, and tire of its use for an easy draw of attention to an issue, however important the issue may be.

    And lastly, I must say that I admire and appreciate the gutsy, courageous, creative and passionate action of these young women. They have stepped on some toes to be sure but they are willing to risk and suffer what most of us would not for what so dear to us all.

    • I’m tempted to say, define ‘Church’ and what the Church ‘ought’ to do! It is a perennial problem for all who hold office in the Church, and has been ever since Constantine, to decide to what extent it should challenge political authority and to what extent it should uphold it in order to achieve goals it believes to be for the good of all, e.g. rule of law, education, healthcare, or whatever. The situation of Syrian Christians demonstrates exactly the kind of dilemma I’m talking about. We in the west have no stomach for Assad’s atrocities, but many Christians in Syria seem to take a different view. It may be no more than a case of ‘the devil you know being better than the devil you don’t’, but our tendency to see things in black and white and to applaud those who come closest to our notions of what ought to be is an uncertain help, at best, to those in the midst of the horror. I’m sure there will be a lot more debating of this subject, but in singling out the invasion of sacred space for my own comment, I was simply drawing attention to something I think western coverage has almost completely overlooked. And that overlooking is significant.

  9. I felt a palpable sense of sacrilege when I first saw the video, and I wish I knew more about church/ state relations in Russia in order to form a more informed opinion. Still, I don’t think holiness is something that can be protected by putting young women in jail for a song that lasted less than a minute.

  10. I have now seen the clip two or three times, and the blasphemy still has the power to shock me. I had been wondering whether it was my advanced age, or my conventional upbringing or something of that sort. But it has disturbed me profoundly, and I think the reason is that it shows contempt, not just for God and the Church as a whole, but for all the people who have ever prayed in the cathedral. I don’t know what punishment would be suitable, but perhaps a series of conversations with members of the congregation might fit the bill?

  11. In Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches the reserved consecrated Host is kept in a tabernacle. We believe the consecrated Host is the real, true body of Christ. Therefore, when anyone enters a church, we genuflect, bend the knee as Jesus commanded (at My name every knee shall bend), in reverence and homage to Him.

    The performance of these protesters, ignoring Jesus, in this space was the basis for the sacrilege beyond the disrespect for the church space. Were they fully aware of the nature and depth of their blasphemy? We don’t know their backgrounds, whether this was purely protest co-mingled with shock value as to locale.

    Last weekend our priest’s homily consisted of a catechesis on the correct manner in which to receive the Body and Blood in the Blessed Sacrament, not approaching with hands in pocket, bowing deeply or kneeling before receiving, taking the time to commune after reception. From time to time congregations are reminded that this is not merely a communal meal, it is the reception of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

    The press also reported that following sentencing of these girls, another woman took a chainsaw and hacked off a wooden cross at another Orthodox church in retaliation. This, too, is blasphemy, note it wasn’t a fence post she destroyed. It reminded me of an incident here in Alberta where some young people stole a statue of the Blessed Virgin and destroyed it, leaving it in a ditch. I believe there is more to this story than politics and youthful foolishness.

  12. To clarify, the bare chested chainsaw protester acted out in Kiev, Ukraine. The cross she cut down was actually a crucifix, so included the corpus. The judge found the rioters guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

  13. Thank you for all your comments. I think Ernie (UKviewer) made an important point when he said that Russian opinion is predominantly against the kind of protest the band mounted. A BBC report (can we trust the BBC?) late yesterday corroborated his view. I suppose one thing we have all learned is how differently we in the west tend to view things, being readier to see events through the prism of politics rather than faith. The subject for another blog post sometime, perhaps.

  14. Thank you for your post. I agree with what you write. It seems that much (hopefully not all) of the western media is so blinded by its own captivation to the idols of power and money that it cannot understand the Christian counter culture. And we Christians need to live as if we really believe that power and money are not the most important things.

  15. Laurel Masse, Jesus was permitted to “break” the sabbath laws because he was greater than the chief priests, who were themselves permitted to carry out their work in the temple on the sabbath. The scripture you refer to, John 6:52-60 refers to His real presence in the Eucharist. He was teaching about the necessity of receiving Him, body and blood as a requirement for salvation. If you are Catholic, and attending mass then you will know we have been following the bread of life discourses for the past few weeks. He spoke of Himself as “true bread”, referencing the manna sent by God for salvation previously, Jesus is the new manna. The sacrificed lamb at Passover had to be eaten as part of the fulfillment of the law in order for salvation, thus the new sacrifice, Christ, had to be consumed in like manner. These were all difficult and new things for followers to hear, but the salvation of their souls depended upon it. Eventually, they came to understand, with the exception of those who refused to listen, read further about the incident on the road to Emmaus and how they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread. If anyone is interested, we have just finished reading “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper by Brant Pitre. The book explains the basis of our Catholic belief in transubstantiation which is not a ritualistic stumbling block, but rather the truth as stated by Christ Himself. This was no protester stunting, this was God made Man offering us eternal life. The pussyrioters have their own agenda but it need not have been demonstrated at God’s altar.

    • Thank you, Jean, for you thoughtful response to my comment. I did not mean in any way to imply that Christ was “protester stunting”. I only meant to point out that many who could not accept his actions and his words believed him to be a blasphemer, and I suggest that, for them, being present during one of the acts which they they called blasphemy would have been shocking and painful. Of course he was permitted to “break” the Sabbath laws, his being the highest authority. But people at the time were scandalized. When Jesus said eat my flesh and drink my blood, he did not explain all the references. It is St. Paul who did that, and the succeeding centuries of theological insight.

      I wish this conversation could be happening around a big table, so that we could all see each other, and hear each other’s voices. I don’t thing we actually are in much disagreement, but type is flattening expression and squelching nuance.

      Thank you for letting me engage with you in this conversation.

  16. On this issue, I find myself in the odd position of disagreeing with nearly everybody.

    According to CNN, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were charged with “hooliganism aimed at inciting religious hatred”, a crime that carries a sentence of up to seven years. “The defendants were accused of offending the churchgoers present — through their actions, obscene language and their clothing — and showing a lack of respect for the rules of the Orthodox Church.”
    Amnesty International called the women “prisoners of conscience” and condemned their conviction as “a bitter blow to freedom of expression.”

    To begin, I disagree with Amnesty: this is not an issue of freedom of expression. Although a cathedral is open to the public, it is in fact a private place: those who are in the cathedral are there by invitation, and must either agree to abide by its rules of decorum, or leave.

    Yet I disagree with those who claim that this was an act “aimed at inciting religious hatred”. It was, rather, a political act, aimed at Vladimir Putin and his allies – among whom the hierarchy of the church, who know which side their bread is buttered on, have numbered themselves – but not at believers or the church per se. The band, arguably, did not know what they were doing, not fully. I know, because in our diocese, blasphemies aimed directly at the church, and calculated to hurt believers, have been carried out by persons protesting one or another of the church’s doctrines or actions. Most recently, these blasphemies have been carried out by supporters of “gay” marriage, a few of whom have deliberately desecrated the Blessed Sacrament – an action that, I think, is far graver and far more hateful than any number of vulgar songs.

    It is a powerful temptation to us believers to invoke the power of the state against those who offend us: to make criminal that which is blasphemous and hateful. But that is a temptation we must resist. When the state assumes the power to define what is blasphemous, it’s a short step to its assuming the power to define faith and doctrine – a fierce temptation to those hungry for power. The desecration of the Blessed Sacrament is a horrible sin, but it should not be a crime. Let Caesar confine himself to his own affairs, and leave the rest to God.

    Finally, two years’ imprisonment is a rough sentence, but it could have been much worse: they might have ended up like Anna Politkovskaya. And that still could happen, once they’re safely locked away, out of the limelight. Let us remember Nadezhda, Maria, and Yekaterina in our prayers, and ask God to watch over them and bring them safely home again.

    • Fred, I think you overlook the fact that different countries frame their laws differently. The same action may be dealt with under quite different laws, and with quite different penalties: try dropping litter in Singapore and you’ll soon find out what I mean! So, I’m not sure we can really assess the Russian law on incitement to religious hatred by western standards.

      The other point I’d like to take up is the question of criminality. According to St Thomas, law has both a directive and a compulsive force. We tend not to think too much about the former, but many people take their ideas of what is right and wrong from the law. So, if there were no laws governing respect for religion (directive), we could find ourselves faced with some very ugly behaviour indeed. Usually people cite Nazi Germany in this context, but the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and attacks on Jewish synagogues in Britain and other parts of Europe during the last few years is deeply troubling.

    • Wonderful comment, Fred. Attacks on any religious place – cemetery, synagogue, mosque, church, grove – are troubling, and more than troubling, and desecration of the sacrament is a grave sin. But sin is not in the law’s jurusdiction. Woe to us when it is.
      The question is: how do we respond to these affronts? What is the appropriate response? OUR appropriate response, I mean, not that of a government? What is the healing response? What will change hearts and minds, and make a difference, maybe not this week, but in the long run? Since we are all in this for the long run.
      And yes, we must be praying for these women, regardless of where we come down on what they have done and what they “deserve”. They go into prison now, away from the spotlight. They are not safe.

      • Laurel, many sins are also against the law, eg murder, rape, theft; so I don’t see the logic of excluding sacrilege. As I said in my original post, I think the PR sentence unduly harsh, and I’m certainly praying for the band members and their families, but I also think people have a right to have their religious spaces respected (the argument of my original post), and I believe that law has an important role in that for the reasons I’ve already given.

        How would you balance conflicting rights, eg the rights of Russian Orthodox Christians to protect their sacred spaces and the right of the band to protest? The protest didn’t HAVE to take place in the cathedral. I don’t disagree with your desire for a ‘healing response’, but I take a different view of what is genuinely healing because I think we need to take into account the reaction of the Russian people.

  17. “I take a different view of what is genuinely healing because I think we need to take into account the reaction of the Russian people.”
    Yes, of course. I meant healing for all involved, the congregation, the band, the onlookers, everyone. And God’s love and forgiveness are the true healers; it is our job to make tangible God’s love on this earth.

    Murder ends a life. Rape destroys a life. But sacrilege is a religious, not a legal term. Who defines it? Is it a sacrilege to destroy the sacrament? Yes. Is it sacrilegious to burn a Torah scroll? Yes. A Qu’uran? To carve the Rushmore monument into the face of a holy mountain? Deface tombstones? Poison a sacred well? Deface a statue of the Blessed Virgin? Of the Buddha? Cut down a thousand year old tree where someone has put an altar?

    Who decides?

    The government can make laws about vandalism, theft, assault, and murder, and further specify when these crimes are hate crimes. We need the government to do this, to protect the community. But do we really want it defining what is and what is not sacred, when there have been so many historical instances of government getting that wrong?
    (I realize this is going afield of your initial topic, and thank you for your tolerance of that).

  18. Laurel, I’m giving up! But before I do, I will try to answer your point as clearly as I can, although you haven’t yet answered mine :—)

    I’ve said that law is framed (ie expressed) differently in different countries, has both a directive and compulsive force and is designed to protect and uphold the rights of individuals and corporate entities, especially where they clash. We could say a lot more, but I hope that is a useful summary.

    Sacrilege is defined as the misuse/misappropriation of space/objects/property/even persons publicly dedicated to the worship of God. Most European law, including English law, has Christian roots and therefore expresses this in ways that prohibit the kind of conduct we saw in Moscow (and, incidentally, the defacement of tombstones which, although not publicly dedicated to the worship of God, express the religious beliefs of those who erect them).

    Russian law expresses all this differently again, and Pakistani law, which incorporates a certain amount of Sharia, differently again. It is not the secular law defining the sacred, but the secular law upholding the rights of religion — and, indeed, secularism and humanism. I agree about forgiveness, but as I’m now notorious for saying, forgiveness is not the same as approval.

  19. I agree very much with your statements Sisters. I feel myself that the girls are somewhat deluded and perhaps were looking for attention which they now have. If they were really interested in a Prayer to Our Lady they would have respected the Church and done so in silence. To disregard the Holiness of this Church in the way they did was terrible. It was also an insult to all those who suffered for Christ and the Catholic Church in their own country during the harsh and terrible years of Communism. These girls should realise that there are so many people still suffering in the world for that faith which is so precious.

    • And for all Orthodox Christians who have suffered very much for their faith in Russia. The performance of these young ladies was a slap in the face to them and all Christians.

  20. Yes to all you have said, except your statement that I haven’t answered your point. I basically agree with you, which I may not have said strongly enough. And there are other, less localized, aspects of the whole event that concern me. Sort of a “Yes, yes, yet…”.
    But thank you for your explaining your points. I do understand them, and perhaps could have made it more clear that I do.
    Blessings, Laurel

  21. I am Orthodox. You mention the Russian Orthodox Church asking for clemency; however, this did not happen, as far as I can tell, until after the sentencing. Previously, Patriarch Kirill sent petitions around provoking the laity to ask the prosecution for the maximum sentence (seven years). After widespread media attention, the Russian Church was merely silent. Then, when it’s too late, they forgive. It’s reminiscent of the proverb about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

    I agree with your other statements.

    Eric Simpson

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