21 November 2013

Prophets, cynics, and tricksters

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing a couple of well-known Russian Christian activists. One of them is Orthodox and the other is Baptist. Both are known for their willingness to be controversial.

My friend had some doubts about the efficacy of aggressive activism. He said, look how far the new Protestant mayor of Togliatti, Russia, is getting with his quiet, non-confrontational approach.

As usual, I don't like to have to choose between apparent opposites. Many gifts are represented in the Body of Christ, and their practitioners are sometimes likely to get on each others' nerves. One of the first prophets I ran into among Friends often seemed to find herself quite alone at meetings for business. When the Baptist guy I'm referring to here gets his rhetoric going, you can almost sense people running for cover, but I absolutely admire his ability to point out the biblical signs of the times.

So we have the sensible administrator over here; and over there we have the prophet who rushes in where angels and fools alike fear to tread. Shouldn't they be in conversation with each other, and with the rest of us?

The day after my friend and I had this discussion, I saw a one-line news item online that went something like this: artist nails scrotum to Red Square. Instantly I knew it could only be Pyotr Pavlensky. Earlier this year, he had appeared, naked and wrapped in barbed wire, in front of a government building in St. Petersburg. Last year he sewed his mouth shut and stood in front of St. Petersburg's Kazan Cathedral, holding a sign that read, "Pussy Riot's appearance was a replaying of JESUS CHRIST'S famous action (Matthew 21:12-13)." (Photos here. All three actions summarized here.)

Honestly, I was deeply moved by this latest act. I find it impossible to analyze Pavlensky dispassionately, either in terms of art or politics--and I'm not competent to venture into the territory of psychology. In purely human terms, I'm just very impressed with his willingness to confront Goliath, and not Goliath only, but all of us who are chattering away fully clothed on the sidelines and betting that Goliath will win once again.

Don't assume, by the way, that you know who I mean by "Goliath." It's a system, not a person. In the slow-motion drama that is Russia today, and maybe the world as a whole, every human being, and certainly every politician, is playing a role. There are few, if any, total devils or total angels, as inconvenient as that fact might be for those who like to choose sides. We vary only in our degree of captivity or (as I see it in Christian terms) our choosing to accept and proclaim freedom in stubborn solidarity with our neighbors--and then working out through honest dialogue what that really means.

Well, I think it is worth thinking about, anyway. And my thinking recently has been fed by several helpful articles on cynicism in Russia, collected on the site openDemocracy.net. I found "The indiscreet charm of the Russian cynic" especially interesting, in light of Pussy Riot and Pyotr Pavlensky--and in the continuing ability of just about everyone I know to adopt the persona that they need to get through the next routine encounter with power. Without romanticizing a risky path that could lead to perverse self-gratification rather than social blessing, I can't help wondering whether these new tricksters might be provoking a whole new conversation beyond the conventional tugs-of-war of today's conventional politics.

In my first blog post about Pope Francis, I said that John Paul II created and exploited disequilibrium in world politics, and I hoped that Francis would create and exploit disequilibrium in the very nature and understanding of world leadership. It was interesting to see a tiny confirmation of this disequilibrium in what Russian Orthodox protodeacon Andrei Kuraev said about Pussy Riot convict Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's complaints about prison conditions, and about patriarchal representative Vsevolod Chaplin's response (convicts who go to prison for a crime shouldn't expect a resort). From Geraldine Fagan's article, "Russia's spinning moral compass," at openDemocracy.net,
Protodeacon Kurayev’s quite different reaction to Tolokonnikova’s appeal highlights how deep the Church rift over politics has become. ‘Before us is a situation straight from the Gospels – a person is crying in pain, asking for help… Should we make faces and say, ‘No, no, no, until we see an expert analysis in triplicate and officially stamped saying there really are violations and problems there, we won’t waste our compassion’?’

Imagine if such a letter lay on the desk of Pope Francis, asked Kurayev. Would his reaction be the same as Fr Vsevolod Chaplin’s? ‘I don’t think so.’ For the protodeacon, the stakes of clerical support for the regime in the new Putin era could not be higher. ‘This is already a question of the honour of our Church.’
(Here in Russian is Kuraev's original blog post.)

Continuing the theme of cynicism and freedom: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's correspondence with Slavoj Žižek.

More on Francis and the Christian antidote to cynicism: "Why even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis." There's a massive public response to Francis, which should tell us something very significant about the widespread hunger for Christian consistency.

Just one more item! "Confessions of a recovering cynic."

To celebrate the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: Garry Wills, "The Words that Remade America."

See this movie--if for no other reason than to hear the story of Percy Sledge and "When a Man Loves a Woman." But there's so much more!

1 comment:

fdmillar said...

Good to get this news from inside Russia, Johan. I'm never sure how much to trust the bits our media print.