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.