02 November 2017


Moscow's Wall of Grief, commemorating victims of political repression, was unveiled Monday. (Source.)
Russia's President Putin led Monday's unveiling of the Wall of Grief, the first official national monument to the victims of political repression in the USSR. Perhaps aware of the skepticism of today's human rights defenders in Russia, who charge the president with unleashing a whole new wave of repression, Putin was unusually direct:
Neither talent, nor services to the Motherland, nor sincere devotion to it could help avoid repression [in the Soviet system], because unwarranted and absolutely absurd charges could be brought against anyone. Millions of people were declared ‘enemies of the people’, shot or mutilated, or suffered in prisons, labour camps or exile.

This terrifying past cannot be deleted from national memory or, all the more so, be justified by any references to the so-called best interests of the people.

The history of our country, like that of any other country, has plenty of difficult and controversial stages. People argue about them, discuss them, offering different approaches to explaining various events.

This is a natural process of learning history and seeking the truth. However, when we are speaking about the repression, death and suffering of millions of people, it will only take a visit to the Butovo memorial site or other common graves of victims of repression, of which there are quite a few in Russia, to realise that these crimes cannot be justified in any way.

Political repression has become a tragedy for all our people, all our society and dealt a harsh blow to our people, its roots, culture and self-consciousness. We are still feeling its consequences. Our duty is to not let it slip into oblivion. Remembrance, a clear and unambiguous position and assessments with regard to those sad events serve as a powerful warning against their recurrence.
I quote extensively from his speech, because most of the Western press coverage (example) of the event pays more attention to the skepticism than to the actual event. I'm not necessarily criticizing the skepticism, since it's clear that the space for political activism in Russia has been shrinking continuously since he took over, but it seems patently unfair not to report the guarantee implicit in his speech that the cruelties of Stalinism will not be covered up or repeated.

Stalinist repression represents cruelty on a pervasive, industrial scale. Zooming inward, I reacted with  horror at Manhattan truck terrorist Sayfullo Saipov expressing satisfaction with his actions, regretting only that he couldn't drive farther and hit more people. Cruelty, it seems, is no nation's monopoly.

Another sort of cruelty has been at the center of attention these last weeks: sexual harassment in its most persistent and transgressive forms. Why is the word "cruelty" appropriate here? It just seems the right word to use for any situation where physical or mental pain is inflicted for the satisfaction of the perpetrator. We pacifists might insist that there is no legitimate reason ever to inflict pain, but "just war" reasoning allows proportionate violence when it's, well, just. Violence to assuage paranoia or simply for enjoyment is outside anyone's ethical framework, but it happens, over and over again. My fourteen-year-old sister's murderer faced no threat at all from her, yet he pulled the trigger that blew her stomach away. Cruelty and its delights have been around a long, long time.

Back to aggravated sexual harassment, a cruelty that takes place in the larger context of sexuality, with all its uncertainties and anxieties for those who find themselves at the crossroads of ethical ideals and raw desire. Where are the boundaries, they legitimately ask, especially as culture exalts gratification. Guidelines, etiquette, warnings, second chances for bumblers ... all these devices help us muddle through the typical awkwardnesses of flirtation and courtship, but just don't seem to work when we confront the serial violator.

Elizabeth Bruenig looks directly at this dilemma in her article, "This is why sexual harassment can't truly be rooted out."
Once we exhaust our tools of procedure and persuasion, those who still offend are of a different moral sort. It isn’t clear what to do about them; it never has been. But it seems obvious that we shouldn’t build our public consciousness around their uncommon deficits, or abandon efforts that are generally working (the long-term legal and cultural campaigns against workplace sexual harassment) in favor of procedures designed to do the impossible.
"Hard cases make bad law" goes the saying, and we don't want to descend into a regime of total prudery in a vain attempt to head off the worst cases. Instead, as Bruenig implies, let's do what's already working for the more typical problems. Let's also keep reminding each other -- as Putin attempted to do, whatever his motives -- what cruelty looks like and what it costs society. Let's remove shame from the equation, so that victims regain power, knowing that they can count on our support.

Something in me also yearns to address perpetrators and their spiritual situation. Were they born without an effective conscience, or was that conscience damaged by illness or abuse? Is there room in our discipleship to pray for them, to pray for their release from bondage and the restoration of the image of God in them? If we can't all do this, can it be part of the church's division of labor?

Can we also pray for the healing of memories, and the healing of the world? In Russia, we were often reminded of the persistent echoes of national trauma and the virus of fear that causes so many people to try to live in a cloak of near-invisibility. But as Putin said, every country has its difficult and controversial stages. We are not helpless: let's pray boldly, passionately, and even publicly (according to our gifts and leadings) to exorcise those demons.

When I wrote about #MeToo a couple of weeks ago, I was remembering my own #MeToo moment, around the age of 12, when two guys bigger than me ganged up on me in a bathroom. The sheer number of such experiences challenges us to grow in our awareness of cruelty and bondage, to anchor ourselves in the solidarity of sorrow and joy that we gain from living in reality instead of denial and sentimentality, and to love each other more fiercely in the face of that reality.

A powerful sermon about the most important thing: Becky Ankeny... "On Friday, I started hearing this verse march through my head: whoever comes to me, I will never send away."

Andrei Sabinin talks about what it's like to be a human rights lawyer in Russia.

Stanley Hauerwas asks: The Reformation is over. Protestants won. So why are we still here?

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