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Pussy Riot — the verdict

18 August 2012

It is now public knowledge that the three members of the Pussy Riot punk group who performed uninvited in a Moscow cathedral have been sentenced to two years in prison for what has been variously described as “disorderly conduct” or “hooliganism” Anger as Pussy Riot Jailed for Two Years | Russia | RIA Novosti:

Anti-Putin punks Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years each in a penal colony on Friday over a protest in Moscow’s largest cathedral, the decision sparking a demonstration outside the court and warnings of a growing divide in Russian society from opposition figures.

Judge Marina Syrova ruled the three women’s February performance of a “punk prayer” urging the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out” was “hooliganism aimed at inciting religious hated.” Only a jail sentence, she said, could “correct” them.

In other posts I have commented on their actions, and different Christian responses, but I have not commented on the trial itself. But now that the trial is over, it is possible to do so. I have refrained from doing this before because the matter was sub judice, and it was better to await the outcome of the trial before commenting on it.

Apart from the sentence of two years’ imprisonment, which seems excessive by any standard, the prosecution has actually damaged the church and brought it into disrepute far more than Pussy Riot ever did.

Sergei Chapnin, the editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate makes this point on Facebook, when he says:

Today I listened for an hour and a half as Judge Syrova read out the verdict. I’m ashamed of how she talks about our church. It is a lie, this is some monstrous provocation. No, our church is not like that. And churches are not (from Google translate, edited).

It was bad enough that the prosecution should try to do this in the name of the Church. That the judge should endorse this is far worse.

The name of the prosecution is Uzzah (II Samuel [Kings] 6:6-7):

And when they came to Nachon’s threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.

Uzzah behaved as if our poor little God needed us to prop him up, as did the prosecution in the Pussy Riot trial. And thus the prosecution and the judge insulted God, just as Uzzah did. The trial itself, and its verdict, was, as Sergei Chapnin says, a “monstrous provocation” — just like Uzzah’s.

It reminded me of something that happened fifty years ago, in Johannesburg.

A Jewish artist, Harold Rubin, put on an exhibition of his pictures at the Studio 101 gallery in Johannesburg. He asked an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, to open the exhibition, which he did, on 23 July 1962. Brother Roger, when he opened it, said that this was not “facile puerility” as some people had suggested. Nor was it obscene, as others have suggested. “If the human body is obscene, then this is obscene; if protest is obscene, then this is obscene.” He said that the pictures of Christ were truly Christian because they showed the meaning of the crucifixion.  Also he said that only three pictures in the exhibition were suitable if you wanted something to hang in your lavender bedroom, but if you want a picture worth keeping, “for goodness sake, buy something.”

I went along to the opening with some friends, and we distributed tracts on Christian art, actually a paper read by the Revd John Davies at a conference of Anglican students.

Two of the pictures showed the crucifixion of Christ, with the title “My Jesus” and there was a series called “The beast and the burden”. One crucifixion showed God’s fool, with a clown hat, and it showed the real horror of crucifixion, the agony of it. Brother Roger likened it to the Isenheim altarpiece of Gruenewald (referred to by John Davies in his paper on Christian art) where the Christ is obviously a human in extreme agony, and the whole being of St John is concentrated in one extended finger, held rigid in a reverse curve, pointing at the crucified, as if to say, “That is the Son of God — believe it if you dare!”

A few days after the opening, the police came along and confiscated the pictures of the crucifixion, and charged Harold Rubin with blasphemy. The case came to trial the following January.  Brother Roger, who had opened the exhibition, was called to give evidence at the trial, and the police stopped the train to Durban and hauled him off it to bring him back. A Dutch Reformed Dominee from Malvern gave evidence, saying the picture filled him with a sense of revulsion and shock. He said he did not like the “cap” on Christ’s head, and the defence attorney read the account of the crucifixion from the gospels to show that Christ was wearing a crown of thorns. The magistrate ruled that the dominee
was not an expert witness, as the prosecution claimed, and ruled his evidence inadmissable. A policeman who gave evidence had not heard of many famous artists, and the defence attorney, cross-examining him, said, “So as far as you are concerned Da Vinci could have been an illegal immigrant?”

Eventually Brother Roger got on the train again and went to Durban, from which he was to get on a ship to go back to England, to the Community of the Resurrection’s mother house in Mirfield, Yorkshire. We were on holiday there, and met him for a farewell lunch. On the way into town he told us about Harold Rubin’s trial, and how he gave evidence. He said that the prosecutor kept making a fool of himself, and asked stupid questions. He had asked Brother Roger if Harold Rubin was a friend of his, and he said “Yes.” “Is he a good friend?” “Yes.” “How long have you known him?” “About a year.” “How can you be a friend of an enemy of God?” “I don’t think I know the mind of God so will not be able to say who is his enemy and who is his friend. How is he an enemy of God?” “He’s a Jew.” And that, says Roger, is what it is all about – anti-Semitic.

Then the prosecutor also asked him how he could claim to be an art critic, and who he had painted with, so he named Pierneef, Preller and a couple of other well-known South Africans, and the prosecutor sat down with a bump. During the cross-examination Dr Lowen (for the defence) asked if in his opinion our Lord was clothed for the crucifixion, and the prosecutor objected to the question, saying that Roger wasn’t an expert witness, so Roger asked, “Well who is then? Nobody living has seen a Roman crucifixion.”

Unlike Pussy Riot, Harold Rubin was acquitted on the blasphemy charge, but the parallels between the two trials are interesting. It was John Davies (who wrote the paper on Christian art) who remarked, of the Harold Rubin trial, that the name of the prosecution is Uzzah. In both cases the State was ostensibly acting to protect the good name of God and the church, and in both cases the State did far more to damage the good name of God and the church than those they were prosecuting had ever done.

And, as Sergei Chapnin points out, in the Liturgy of St Basil we pray, “Remember, O God, those who are in courts, in mines, in exile and in harsh labour, and those in any kind of affliction, necessity or distress.”

_________

See also:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Everett permalink
    18 August 2012 1:36 pm

    Last two paragraphs of an “open letter” publish on the Ekho Moskvy site:

    Данный текст не является письмом в защиту группы Pussy Riot. Скорее это письмо в защиту Христа и Его Церкви, в защиту Христианства, дух которого искажает своей политикой руководство РПЦ.

    Считая себя учениками Иисуса Христа, членами Его Церкви, мы свидетельствуем, что не разделяем позиции официального церковного руководства, считаем ее прямо противоречащей заповедям Христа.

    Александр Белавин, физик
    Владимир Шишкарев, музыкант, поэт
    Олег Степурко, композитор, заслуженный артист России

    My translation:

    This text is not a letter in defense of the group Pussy Riot. It is more a letter in defense of Christ and His Church, in defense of Christianity, the spirit of which the leadership of ROC (Russian Orthodox Church] perverts with its politics.

    Considering ourselves students of Jesus Christ, members of His Church, we witness that we do not share the position of the official church leadership, we consider it directly contradicting the preachings of Christ.

    Aleksandr Belavin, physicist
    [http://www.ams.org/distribution/mmj/vol3-1-2003/belavin-60.html]
    Vladimir Shishkarev, musician, poet
    Oleg Stepurko, composer, deserving artist of Russia
    [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOq2Y0SK3ic]

  2. Irulan permalink
    20 August 2012 9:20 am

    your contact with CoR interests me, particularly Br Roger. Is the community’s ministry in SA defunct? I’ve skimmed the library at St Benedicts – is it still accessible?

Trackbacks

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