History, Blasphemy, and Russia

[August 22, 2012]

When the “Pussy Riot” protesters were sentenced last week for their performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, a friend asked me why Orthodox Christians were so upset about what they’d done. For him, this was clearly a political protest. It was aimed at a too-close entwining of church and state, so it took place in a church. What’s the big deal?

But, in practice, there’s a difference. If you protest at a government building, you impact people in that government. If you protest at a business, you impact people in that business. But when you protest at a church, you don’t hit only those in power. You hit all the ordinary people, too, the ones who don’t have any influence or power. They come to church on a weekday afternoon just to pray, because they’re worried or sad about something. When someone mocks their faith it wounds them. It wounds their fellow-believers all over the world, who have no connection at all to the target of the protest.

What caused this pain was that the women sang a song that contained obscenities and a parody of a prayer. Those on the outside might not get why it was so hurtful. Well, for one thing, the altar in an Orthodox church is felt to be especially holy; it’s not like the stage of a church auditorium. Because Christianity grew out of Judaism, the altar is like the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple.

But the form of the protest, a mocking and obscene prayer, also hit on particular, and painful, memories. My spiritual father, Fr. George Calciu, spent 21 years in communist prison. (He died in 2006). He was subjected to the brainwashing process, and they used both physical and emotional torture. They mocked everything and everyone he loved—his wife, his child, his faith. A centerpiece of the brainwashing program was to subject prisoners to parody church services, with obscene and mocking prayers.

All Christian prisoners endured this abuse. Millions of clergy, monastics, and lay people died for their beliefs. Fr. George survived, and, thanks to the efforts of Romanian expatriates like Eugene Ionescu and Mircea Eliade, he was freed in 1984.

It’s not that long ago.

The problem was the mockery of our prayers, not the protest against Putin and the official church. There are many Christians who share these women’s concerns, and our faith has a long history of prayer for deliverance from unjust rulers. A sincere prayer might have had an entirely different effect; it might have attracted allies everywhere. Sincerity is always better than mockery.

Also, the church where this happened has a sensitive history. The original Christ the Savior Cathedral was built in the 19th century, modeled on the finest Byzantine architecture and filled with treasures of art and iconography. In 1931, the Soviets destroyed it—they blew it up. You can see the footage online. Artworks were thrown in a pile and burned—destroyed specifically because of their religious content, like the Buddha statues dynamited in Afghanistan.

But in the 1990’s there grew up a popular movement to rebuild the Cathedral. A million citizens of Moscow donated to the fund. The new cathedral is identical to the one that was destroyed. So this church has a significant story: it was destroyed by the powerful, and rebuilt by the people.

The new cathedral was consecrated in 2000. It’s not that long ago.

What’s the right punishment in such a case? We could try picturing analogous incidents, imagining protesters invading a mosque or a synagogue and chanting obscene parodies of the worshippers’ prayers. But I don’t know that there’s a need for punishment. Community service would be better. These women could use their talents to gather and tell the stories of those who lived through the bad times, and the stories of those who did not make it through. That would be something we could all agree on—a project that could bring healing and understanding, and strengthen memory against future abuse.

When you’re young and strong, like these women are, it can be hard to imagine that anyone was ever weak, or suffering, or persecuted, or afraid. You might think, “It can’t happen here.” But it did happen—right there. And not that long ago. We know this from history: if you forget the times when the faithful were mocked with abusive and obscene words, it won’t be long before we’re hearing those words again.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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