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?