Support the Café

Search our Site

Hooligans or prophets? What’s the difference?

Hooligans or prophets? What’s the difference?

A Russian judge convicted the three singers known as Pussy Riot to two years in jail for “hooliganism” because they sang (or at least videotaped themselves singing) a protest song in a Moscow cathedral. Were they hooligans or prophets?

Two commentators think they were prophets whose act of hooliganism was challenging the abuse of the holy to prop up the political.

Giles Frasier says their crime was essentially swearing in church:

Using swear words in church is an abuse of God,” said the prosecutor, demanding three years jail for the punk band Pussy Riot following their 40-second protest in Moscow’s Orthodox cathedral. Their crime was to sing “Mother of God, chase Putin out”, invoking that young Palestinian woman who desired that the mighty be brought down, the lowly lifted up and the hungry fed. Her story, and that of her son, was also to end up in court. And the charge against him was not wholly dissimilar.

To many, swear words are more than mere rudeness. Profanity is a theological category generated by the binary opposition of sacred and profane. As expressed in the book of Leviticus, the things of God are strictly to be separated from the moral and physical corruption of the world. Death, shit and blood represent a threat to God’s perfection, just as dirty fingers threaten the perfection of a blank piece of paper. Thus the complex rites of purification for those who would approach the holy….

…The problem comes when the holy is employed as a cover to evade critical scrutiny. Even more so when questionable moral or political ideologies are smuggled into the holy – from menstruating women being ritually unclean (thus unable to be priests doing holy stuff in the sanctuary) to the Orthodox church’s support for Putin. For values thus inscribed within the holy can easily come to regulate the politics of a community in ways that resist any sort of challenge. Then religion becomes an adjunct of totalitarianism. And when this happens a pussy riot is an absolute moral necessity.

The legal case against Jesus was that he violated the holy. He was criticised for allowing his disciples to eat without washing properly and for picking corn on the day set aside as holy. He said he was God yet he was born in a filthy stable and willingly laid hands on lepers. He had no problem with being touched by menstruating women or eating with those regarded as unwholesome. In the context of second temple Judaism, this constituted a thoroughgoing deconstruction of holiness – or, specifically, of the way unquestioned holiness had become an alibi for political injustice. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures made exactly the same challenge. And being profane is precisely the point.

Paul Brandeis Radenbush remembered the Magnificat and Jesus’ clearing of the temple courtyard in Matthew 21 when he and thinks of what they did as prayer:

It is clear from the Scriptures that Jesus himself preferred the company of the outcast and that his message was successful because he gave dignity to those whom the established power tried to debase. “Blasphemy” is a charge that has been levied against Pussy Riot by the ‘righteous’, but it is the same complaint that was said of Jesus.

Pussy Riot may not be believers like I am, but I think God uses all kinds of people to remind us that sometimes true power is not with the mighty wielding brute force; and that the Divine is not always found in hushed gilded rooms.

Sometimes it comes from three young women in prison who dare to talk about freedom in a time of oppression. If the church is to mean anything going forward it must be on side of liberation.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Chris Arnold

What a shocking lack of charity and forbearance in the comments on this story.

Bill Dilworth

I didnt say we had to be nice, JC. I said we don’t get to decide other religions’ rules for them. Oh, and I wondered if we could cut out the hyperbole – not because it isn’t nice, but because it’s silly.


BillD, I strongly disagree w/ you. Pussy Riot strongly disagrees w/ Putin, and his idolatrous-to-power RO lackeys. We both will proclaim this disagreement in the mode of expressions we see fit. You want we should be “nice”? I’ll let St Malvina handle this one:


JC Fisher

Gregory Orloff

“Never think that you need to protect God. Because anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.” (American theologian Stanley Hauerwas, born 1940)

Just imagine the impact it might have had if the Russian Church, instead of backing pressing charges and taking these young women to court, had imitated Jesus’ example and said: “We disagree with your behavior, but we forgive you. Go free and sin no more.”

It just might have shocked people into dropping the rocks they had in hand for a good old-fashioned stoning as it did when Jesus said the same before the mob bent on putting the adulterous woman to death, so convinced as they were that they had the law, religion, morality and common decency on their side.

If Amish folk in 2007 could forgive a gunman who shot 10 of their own schoolgirls, killing five, surely we can do no less for lesser offenses.

In some ways, these young women, in making their point, didn’t behave much differently that many eccentric “fools for Christ” Russians now venerate as saints.

Church history is an odd beast. In 1525, Russian church and civil authorities colluded in convicting Maximus the Greek as a dangerous heretic and blasphemer, pretty much hounding him to death in harsh imprisonment. Then in 1988, that same church turned around and added him to the calendar of saints as an exemplar of faith.

Go figure. Ironic, ain’t it?

Bill Dilworth

JC, we get to make the rules for *our* Church – we don’t get to make them for other Churches. You may not care for the power structure of the Russian Orthodox Church, and that’s okay. But no, it wasn’t Pussy Riot’s sacred place to do with as they pleased.

And puh-leaze – the most Orthodox prayer prayer since Putin took power? Is it possible we could discuss this without all the hyperbole?

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café