Sunday, February 23, 2014

Orthodox Priests and Pussy Riot: On Turning the Other Cheek

Might I request that before (or after) you read this post, you listen to this sermon?

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-way-of-love-matthew-5-38-48/id626318984?i=263772555&mt=2

We are called to read the Sermon on the Mount in its historical context stripped of illusion. Although it is a record of what witnesses testify Jesus to have preached during his earthly ministry, the gospel itself, Matthew, was written and published some time after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., probably between 80 and 90 A.D.

My basic assertion: Jesus' instructions to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, and so on, are all historically contextual instructions. The original hearers would have heard this sermon as instructions in how to exercise creative peaceful resistance under the conditions of occupation, oppression, in the face of Empire.

Jesus' sermon is decidedly not supposed to be heard as a call to passivity in the face of violence. Instead, it's a call to active peacemaking. Active peacemaking of necessity is creative, and often surprises us and subverts established norms.

Two events widely publicized in the news these past weeks that I believe illustrate what "turning the other cheek" might look like if creatively re-appropriated for the modern context, are the presence of Ukrainian priests among the protestors and police in Ukraine, and the presence of Pussy Riot in Sochi.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/02/20/dramatic-photos-ukraines-priests-take-an-active-role-in-protests/?tid=pm_world_pop
http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/feb/20/pussy-riot-tour-of-sochi-protest-winter-olympics
On the surface, this may seem a false pairing. The priests, after all, have the backing of the establishment, of institutional Christianity. Dressed in flowing robes and sporting lengthy beards, they represent on many levels traditional patriarchal culture (at least to a Western eye). Pussy Riot, on the other hand, is as far as I can tell a gyno-centric Situationist-style guerrilla performance group that protests what they perceive as the imperialist, dictatorial leadership of Putin. Because Putin is tied closely to the Russian Orthodox Church, it could even seem that Pussy Riot's form of event-focused performance art is directly at odds with the devotional performance undertaken by Ukrainian priests.

Yet there are remarkable similarities. Both the priests and Pussy Riot believe the spectacle of what they are up to is central to the the peaceful resistance they are undertaking. Both seem to understand themselves at odds with, on some level or another, statist authoritarianism or late capitalism. 

The spectacle of punk video production in bright clothes, or the spectacle of public prayer and penance in clerics, are both types of performance art. Liturgy done outside is, in the modern era, decidedly avant-garde performance art, even, perhaps, guerrilla theatre.

I am taken with how close the actions are of these groups to Jesus' instructions: And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second (Matthew 5:41). 

The priests go the first mile, to the site of protest, and into pastoral care with the police. Then they go also the second mile, into the breach, in that liminal space between protestors and police power. They risk slaps from either side.

Pussy Riot, already arrested in Moscow and detained many places, go to Sochi, and perform there, fully anticipating the same treatment they have already received numerous times before.

Neither takes violent action. Neither resists arrest. Neither fight back. Both take considerable risks. Both exhibit profound courage. And the power imbalances are astounding. They take these risks with very little guarantee anything will change. It is a small band of women, a declining church and clergy, against empire, against force and war and misogyny and hate.

Punk, the very force of disestablishment the world hopes will grow up, exhibits in this instance considerable Jesus-like maturity. The priests, of whom the West have become slightly skeptical, themselves illustrate the same mature spirituality of resistance to Empire.

The only ones who aren't yet mature, who as yet are incomplete, imperfect, are those of us who do not think there is anything to resist, or are completely unaware of how much we are complicit in Empire.



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