12 April 2012

It is impossible that no offenses should come...

. . . but woe to him through whom they do come! (Luke 17:1, New King James)

During the current political season in the USA, religion has been playing a major role, despite the clear Constitutional division of church and state. Here in Russia, religion also has a political dimension. I'm neither licensed nor qualified to give expert commentary, but I can say a few words about a particular dilemma: the pains and gains of being offended.

Before going further, I want to adopt a device used by videoblogger kamikadze in his recent post on related topics. He provided a button to push if you suspect you might get offended. Push the button and--presto, through the magic of html, you're somewhere else. So if you suspect that my naivete, my American-ness, or my general ignorance bodes ill for this subject, go ahead and push!
In February, a feminist guerrilla punk band named Pussy Riot managed to get into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in central Moscow. How the guards were able to exclude one of the Northwest Yearly Meeting youth group five years ago for wearing shorts, but overlook this recent invasion, is a real question. But the band managed to perform their song, in which they prayed to the Mother of God to do something about Vladimir Putin, before being removed by guards. After a few days, two alleged members of the band were arrested, and a third was detained several days later. All face as much as seven years in prison for hooliganism. This site gives the chronology of events mainly from the band's viewpoint. Recent statements from the point of view of church authorities can be found here and here.

This scandal has stirred up feelings just as church-state-society debates had been heating up over a number of other issues. For example, people both inside and outside the church have been holding lively conversations about the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the recent legislative and presidential elections. Some charge that the Patriarch and many hierarchs made their preferences public and plain--the current leadership should be supported. Others defend the evenhandedness of church officials, who have made it clear that there are good Orthodox Christians in all the political parties, and among all those whose political activities, whether pro-government or dissenting, are within legal bounds.

(American side-note: there is no cause for smugness on our side! We have no equivalent to the close identification between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian national identity, but we do have plenty of politicians who claim special religious favor for one political side or another. For a particularly offensive example, see my post of two weeks ago.)

Another issue that contributes to Russia's current sharp debates on church-society relations: the upcoming national roll-out of a religion/comparative religion/ethics curriculum for fourth graders. The parents of every incoming fourth grader are being asked to decide what stream of this curriculum they will elect for the following school year, choosing among modules devoted to Russia's traditional religions (Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Judaism), or a comparative religion option, or a secular option emphasizing ethics. Schools must figure out what to do with those whose choices form a tiny minority--too few to support a separate class and teacher--within a given school. This article summarizes the situation.

Recently a minor scandal involving Patriarch Kirill's watch has been making the rounds, adding to the Orthodox Church's public relations woes--although how far from Moscow such noise travels is hard for me to judge.

Back to Pussy Riot. At first, I admit, I was impressed by their audacity and shocked by the harsh actions of law enforcement. (No church property was damaged.) Anti-authoritarianism has a long history in the USA, as well as in the Friends church, and that part of my background no doubt helps to explain my reaction. In the early years of our movement, it was usually the government who caused scandals among Friends--disrupting meetings for worship, arresting Friends for a variety of reasons, executing some and allowing others to sicken and die in awful prison cells. We caused our own shares of scandals, from interrupting worship services to going naked as a sign, to re-enacting Jesus' entry into Jerusalem--the latter earning James Nayler a sentence of public torture as well as prison.

Russian people have their own varieties of anti-authoritarianism, including harsh judgments on abuse of clerical power and privilege. However, sacred spaces and sacred symbols are another matter entirely, and this may help to explain why some of our friends here were genuinely shocked and angered at the Pussy Riot "concert." We (Americans generally or Quakers specifically) may be a bit too casual about the importance of such "sanctuaries"--by which I mean places in the pre- and post-Soviet nation that are sacred for the powerful and powerless alike, where all are equal, and where all are welcome in Heaven's embassy on earth. It is not that everyone in an Orthodox church must behave with exaggerated dignity--indeed, people walk in and out during the liturgy, speak quietly, and generally conduct themselves as human beings in Heaven's living room. Occasionally a holy fool or prophet may do or say something entirely unexpected, especially in that moment of the church calendar just before Lent.

But the place is inviolate. After the Bolshevik revolution, thousands of believers died defending their churches and trying to keep the icons and chalices from being desecrated by the godless. In the decades of official atheism that followed, the sacred motions of liturgy and the furnishings of the church sometimes had to carry the entire freight of church teaching, the entire transmission of sacred history from one generation to another, because evangelism and Christian education were forbidden. Whatever my personal theology might be on the role of symbol and place, I can entirely understand why there is a need for the exceptional place, the liminal zone, for people who, in living memory of millions, were generally deprived of any safety zone in any sphere of life.

Part of the criticism of Pussy Riot is the offense they caused to the feelings of believers. I think that within the international Body of Christ it is legitimate to ask, humbly, what exactly it means to offend and be offended. We are not responsible for the actions of Pussy Riot, or, for example, an artist who seemingly mocks the crucifixion (see this post regarding Madonna) or draws a cartoon of Mohammed. But we are responsible for our reactions; we are not helpless victims. Is "being offended" a genuine concern for the reputation of the Gospel, or a cheap path to righteous victimhood? Are there mature Christian leaders that are able to ask this question tenderly among their outraged parishioners, inviting them to listen to the actual content of the offenders' messages, or at least to consider their immortal souls? Does the temptation to throw the book at offenders actually represent the mind of Christ? These questions are particularly acute for the church when it is in a position of power--because power corrupts even the church, rendering it more or less incapable of treating critics fairly.

My last word is for Pussy Riot and other guerrilla-theater protesters. Sometimes people resort to this kind of drama because of a sense of urgency for their cause, or because no other clearly visible public platform seems open. Everywhere they look, the "principalities and powers" are in apparent control, hypnotizing the rest of us with circuses and conventional wisdom delivered by servile media messengers. For rebels with creativity and courage, it must sometimes be very tempting to yell "the emperors have no clothes" even where yelling is prohibited. But the medium is the message; when you scandalize, the scandal is what you communicate. Those who support Pussy Riot now are probably those who were already skeptical about church-state enmeshment; it's hard to believe that anyone new joined their ranks as a result of their action. When I was part of the antiwar movement in my teens, one high school teacher reminded us that sloppy clothing and self-indulgent behavior do not communicate an urgent and coherent message. He challenged us to decide what our central message was, and then dress and behave as worthy vehicles of that message.

However, nothing in God's economy goes to waste. First of all, if their "prayer" was sincere, Pussy Riot was heard in heaven despite the condemnation of church officials. Second, the conversation over the role of church in society, to judge by many recent newspaper articles and blogs, is now livelier than ever.

(Part two, "Prayer and place.")
(Part three, "Is Christianity under attack?")

"God, Bush, and Obama: Why the President Needs to Practice What He Preaches." "As diplomatic history shows, U.S. leaders must tread carefully on religious matters. Not everyone shares the United States' religious worldview, which has two basic components that do not always sit easily with each other: an exceptionalist conceit of the United States as God's chosen nation and an embrace of religious liberty historically grounded in the separation of church and state."

Wess Daniels, "The Politics of Scapegoating."

"The New School Choice Agenda: Why Christians in Richmond, Virginia, and elsewhere are choosing to send their children to struggling public schools."

"Beauty vs Sexuality." "...We shame men by insisting they’re fundamentally weak, constantly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by sexual impulses. We shame women for not being better stewards of that supposed weakness. That shame doesn’t just lead to unhealthy sexual relationships (including between husbands and wives); it leaves too many men feeling like potential predators and too many women feeling as if they’re vain, shallow temptresses."

"Why Nanch Sleeth Wants You to Be a Bit More Amish."

"When Religion is a Refuge for Scoundrels: ‘Ryan Budget’ Edition." "It is 'a pity beyond all telling' that Catholic bishops, obsessed with condoms and such, could not raise their passions and attention above the pelvic zone and shout from the rooftops a message that is crucially and brilliantly relevant to a global political economy on the brink of total collapse."

What I played for my last class session with the graduating class at our Institute: J.C. Rowling speaks on the importance of failure and imagination.


Josh said...

Who taught you in high school? The most poignant wisdom I gained at #Occupy originated from Martin Luther King, Jr... Dress well when protesting to give your message a good name. Your techer seems wise to me.

Johan Maurer said...

My teacher was Owen Hein, at Evanston Township High School, Illinois, USA.