‘Pussy Riot’ Sentencing: Can’t Jail Female Fury

Handcuffed members of Russian punk feminist collective. T-shirt says "No Pasaran."

Three women from the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot were convicted today of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were arrested in February following an uninvited “punk prayer” of protest against the iron fist and faux democracy of Russian president Vladimir Putin and calling to account the theological rubber-stamping of Putin’s repressive regime by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Their “performance prayer” titled “Hail Mary, Putin Run!” (see video and lyrics) was offered to the Virgin Mary at the altar of Christ the Savior Orthodox Cathedral in Red Square. After spending five months in jail since the event, they were sentenced today to two years–time served credited against the sentence, so they’ve got another 19 months to go.

While some have directly attacked the band as anti-religious, others have attempted to more subtly undercut them by saying their actions are just publicity stunts to get money. I say, Wrong and wrong. Acts of ecclesial disobedience are called for when institutions that are supposed to represent God fail to do so. And spending two years in a Russian prison – as a woman – is not the kind of thing we do for money.

According to Reuters,

“The girls’ actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church’s rules,” Judge Marina Syrova told the court as she spent three hours reading the verdict while the women stood watching in handcuffs inside a glass courtroom cage. … State prosecutors had requested a three-year jail term. Putin’s opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement. “They are in jail because it is Putin’s personal revenge,” Alexei Navalny, one of the organizers of big protests against Putin during the winter, told reporters outside the court. “This verdict was written by Vladimir Putin.”

The Associated Press reported,

The judge relied extensively on the testimony of church laymen, who said they were offended and shocked by the band’s stunt. “The actions of the defendants reflected their hatred of religion,” Syrova said in the verdict. She also said that the defendants’ feminist views challenged church doctrine. The Orthodox Church said in a statement after the verdict that the band’s stunt was a “sacrilege” and a “reflection of rude animosity toward millions of people and their feelings.” It also asked the authorities to “show clemency toward the convicted in the hope that they will refrain from new sacrilegious actions.” The case comes in the wake of several recently passed laws cracking down on opposition, including one that raised the fine for taking part in an unauthorized demonstrations by 150 times to 300,000 rubles (about $9,000).

Supporter for Pussy Riot in the pink balaclava of the movement.

I wholly agree that “the defendants’ feminist views challenged church doctrine.” As a Catholic woman, I’m familiar with how sensitive church doctrine can be. Sometimes it feel like just existing is a challenge to church doctrine. Which makes me think that church doctrine had become too removed from the real lives of people. Jesus became incarnate in order to exist in our real lives, not an idealized dream state.

In Female Fury by Sergey Chernov (St. Petersburg Times, February 1, 2012), the women of Pussy Riot describe their own place in the current Russian resistance movement and their musical lineage with punk rock, riot grrrrls, and third-wave feminism:

“The grassroots protest force is more radically-minded than official rally organizers imagine. We believe that a large number of people are ready to demonstrate without a sanction. People were happy to share the quotes from our songs: ‘The time for a subversive clash has come,’ ‘Live on Red Square / Show the freedom of civil anger.’” The group — which features from three to eight performers — sees itself as being “on the border between punk rock and contemporary art.”

“Contemporary culture is characterized by diffusivity, mutual influence and the interaction of different directions, the intersection that leads to transgression,” Pussy Riot says. “It’s possible to find features of 1990s Actionism in our performances, while the motif of the closed face of the performer — which has been used by many music bands such as Slipknot, Daft Punk or Asian Women on the Telephone, for instance, is borrowed from conceptual art where the tradition of not showing one’s face is present.” …

According to the group, one of the events that led them to form Pussy Riot was Putin and Medvedev’s announcement made to the United Russia party congress on Sept. 25 that they would change posts in the upcoming presidential elections due on March 4. The move has been compared to castling in chess, when a rook and a king swap places. “We don’t like this kind of chess,” Pussy Riot said. Since then, Pussy Riot has held unsanctioned performances in boutiques and at a fashion show as well as on the roof of a garage next to the detention center where the imprisoned participants of anti-fraud rallies were held. They unveiled a banner, lit flares and performed a song called “Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest” and escaped without being arrested.

The group cites American punk rock band Bikini Kill and its Riot Grrrl movement as an inspiration, but says there are plenty of differences between them and Bikini Kill. “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse, non-standard female image,” Pussy Riot said. “The difference is that Bikini Kill performed at specific music venues, while we hold unsanctioned concerts. On the whole, Riot Grrrl was closely linked to Western cultural institutions, whose equivalents don’t exist in Russia.”

The performance in on the altar of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church is shocking, evocative. But I’d argue that it is not blasphemy against God. To blaspheme means to injure the reputation of a religious deity or holy person or thing. The punk band actually treated God and Mary with a certain level of respect. However, they do injure the reputation of an institutional hierarchy that too often promotes a theology more akin to a Russian civil religion rather than Christian faith.

“Christians should always live uneasily with empire,” writes Jim Wallis, “which constantly threatens to become idolatrous and substitute secular purposes for God’s.”

Let me be clear. Most Russian Orthodox Christians are genuine in their faith, worship, and ministry. They are devout and are a blessing to those around them. But as a member of a church that has also at times abused its power, I can appreciate the performance art needed and the sacrifice made to shake up an unshakable institution. Remember Sinead O’Connor‘s bold 1992 indictment on Saturday Night Live of child abuse within the Roman Catholic church? She tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II and said “Fight the real enemy.” Look where her “blasphemy” led; the slow uncovering of massive crimes against children and the building up of a process, yet imperfect, for restoration and justice.

So, say a novena for the women of Pussy Riot. Light a candle in church for them. Even more, take a public action for justice, women’s empowerment, and freedom. But whatever you do, don’t dismiss them.

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor. She blogs at rosemarieberger.com.

“Darth Vader! Only You Could Be So Bold.”

Hi. My name is Rose. And I’m a Star Wars junkie.

As my grade school friends will recall, I saw the original Star Wars approximately 24 times when it was released in the spring of 1977. Nearly all of them were at the Century Theaters at the corner of Arden Way and Cal Expo in Sacramento–huge screens, plush bouncy seats, and the theater had just installed speakers compatible with SurroundSound. I had every line memorized.

I still get chills at the rise of John Williams’ opening score and recall the breath-takingly long Imperial battle cruiser glowering low over my head. The theater walls actually rumbled!

So while the new docuflick The People vs George Lucas may do nothing more than reveal what happens when a culture has no roots, I do understand their hunger for mythos.

Along with all that, the great folks over at Improv Everywhere (“We Cause Scenes”) staged a reenactment of the first Princess Leia/Darth Vader scene from the original Star Wars on a New York City subway car. “The white walls and sliding doors on the train reminded us of the rebel ship from the movie, and we thought it would be fun to see how people would react to a surprise appearance by the iconic characters.” (I love it that Princess Leia is reading “Galactic Rebellion for Dummies.”) Just for fun, here’s the video clip:

Praising Benedict and Madonna

I’m thrilled to see that my buddy Mark G. Judge has a new book out called A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Mark and I are so opposite politically that we bump into each other coming around the back side. And he’s a fantastic writer plus a witty, wicked smart, courageous companion on the journey.

I haven’t read the new book yet, so can’t give it a proper review. In the meantime, Mark says of the book, “It is interesting theologically and very pro-pop music. I praise Benedict and Madonna, sometimes on the same page!”

Congratulations, Mark!

Duke Ellington’s D.C.: ‘What we Could Not Say Openly, We Expressed in Music’

Duke Ellington in front of the Apollo Theatre, New York, 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon.

Last week I watched the 2000 PBS documentary Duke Ellington’s Washington. It’s a great way to learn the history of D.C. at the turn of the century – especially the Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, and Shaw neighborhoods around where I live. I highly recommend it for viewing! Here’s a short description of the video:

“Before the Harlem Renaissance, Duke Ellington’s Washington was the social and cultural capital of Black America. From 1900 to 1920, it was this country’s largest African American community. Anchored by Howard University and federal government jobs, this community became a magnet for African American intellectuals and sent a stream of shining talents to the nation for generations. It developed a prosperous black middle class which forged a strong society of churches, newspapers, businesses and civic institutions. Its businesses were black owned and run; its buildings, designed, built and financed by blacks; its entertainment, by and for African Americans. This was a proud and elegant community that flourished despite, or perhaps even because, of Jim Crow, the oppressive segregation that forced blacks to create their own separate destiny.”

The New Yorker (May 17, 2010) also has a great essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont titled Black, Brown, and Beige: Duke Ellington’s music and race in America. Pierpont reviews Harvey G. Cohen’s recently released book “Duke Ellington’s America.” Both the book and Pierpont’s essay are an interesting way to examine race in America through classical American music – jazz. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

“What we could not say openly, we expressed in music,” Ellington wrote in the British magazine Rhythm, in 1931, trying to explain the Negro musical tradition that had grown up in America, music “forged from the very white heat of our sorrows.” All his life, Ellington gave the impression of having been unscathed by racism, either in his early years—color, he said, was never even mentioned in his parents’ home—or during the long professional decades when it defined almost every move he made: where he could play his music, who could come to listen to it, whether he could stay in a hotel or attend another musician’s show, and where (or whether) he could find something to eat when the show was over. The orchestra made its first Southern tour just after its return from England, in 1933, travelling (thanks to Mills) in supremely insulated style: two private Pullman cars for sleeping and dining, and a separate baggage car for the elaborate wardrobe, scenery, and lights required to present a show more dazzling than any that most of the sleepy little towns where they made their stops had ever seen. Ellington made a special effort to perform for black audiences, even when it meant that the band added a midnight show in a place where it had performed earlier that night exclusively for whites. Reports from both racial groups were that the players outdid themselves; it is difficult to know where they felt they had more to prove.

Segregation was hardly peculiar to the South, of course, any more than it was limited, in New York, to the Cotton Club and its ilk. The down-and-dirty Kentucky Club had been no different: even without thugs at the door, there was an unspoken citywide dictate about where the different races belonged. The only exceptions were the “Black and Tans,” the few Harlem clubs that permitted casual racial mixing, and to which Ellington seems to have been paying tongue-in-cheek tribute with the not-quite-meshing themes of “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This was the first number played, after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at Ellington’s landmark Carnegie Hall concert, in January, 1943, although the piece sounded very different from his twenties hit: taken at a slower tempo, with extended solos, it was twice its original length—so deliberative it seemed a kind of statement—and showed off the burnished power of Ellington’s forties band.

Read the whole essay here.

The Mosque in Morgantown: Finding Our Religion within American Pluralism

Asra Nomani (center) and family
Asra Nomani (center) and family

In March, I had lunch with Asra Nomani at Sticky Fingers, the vegan bakery across from the Sojourners office. Nomani, former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, mentioned the culmination of a two-year film project she’d been working on that PBS would be airing as part of the “America at a Crossroads” series. The Mosque in Morgantown premiers Monday, June 15, 2009, at 10 p.m. EST. (Check your local listings.)

I first came across Asra Nomani in 2003. There was a small article in The Washington Post about a woman who was fighting for women’s rights in her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. I was intrigued by a Muslim woman — born into an Indian Muslim family and raised in the United States — not only returning to the heart of her religion but doing it in a way that produced the kind of radical call to freedom true faith engenders. I was intrigued that she claimed Sojourner Truth, the ex-slave who adamantly defended the rights of women in the church and in society, as one of her inspirations.

The Mosque in Morgantown is the story of Asra and her mother, Sajida, who in 2003 entered their mosque in Morgantown by the front door and prayed in the same room with men. This was counter to the rising practice in many mosques, in which women are forced to pray behind partitions. In June 2004, five women from around the country joined the Nomanis to pray in Morgantown’s mosque.

Not only did Nomani forcibly integrate the mosque, she “nailed” (taped, actually) her “99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds, and Doors in the Muslim World” and an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women on the mosque door. She stood firmly in the tradition of Martin Luther, who pounded his 95 Theses into the church door in Wittenberg, and Martin Luther King Jr., who posted the demands of the open-housing campaign on then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s office door in 1966.

The Mosque in Morgantown takes the viewer inside a religious community that’s in the midst of a simmering battle between progressives and traditionalists. We see how Nomani’s prophetic tactics of direct action alienate the moderates and horrify the traditionalists. We see the struggle for power that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever served on a parish council or vestry. We see the creative responses that emerge from the community as it is forced to deal with change.

Nomani is driven to fight the “slippery slope” of extremism that she perceives to be taking over the leadership of the mosque her father founded. It’s clear to the viewer that Nomani, who was a close friend of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, must take clear and decisive action against religious extremism in her home community because she’s seen where such extremism can lead.

At the same time, members of her community take great offense at being lumped in with violent extremists just because they take a traditionalist view of their faith. Other community members don’t like her tactics. They prefer a moderate, more measured, course. “The American experience,” says moderate mosque member Ihtishaam Quazi, “works against the idea of a slippery slope that Asra is so afraid of.”

Unfortunately, as we’ve learned from the murder of Dr. George Tiller by religious militant extremist Scott Roeder and the murder at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum by militant religious extremist James W. von Brunn — both of whom claim to be Christians — the “American experience” and the vibrant flame of a pluralistic democracy must be guarded with eternal vigilance.

Watch The Mosque in Morgantown on PBS and find out more here.

This post first appeared on GodsPolitics.com. For more about Asra Nomani, see “Men Only?” by Rose Marie Berger and “Living Out Loud,” by Laurna Strickwerda. To read Nomani’s articles in Sojourners, see “A Faith of Their Own,” “The Islamic Reformation Has Begun,” and “The Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”

What Does the Contemplative Life Require?

merton-jean-jacketCatholic monk and writer Thomas Merton grew into his contemplative life at Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky. He didn’t enter the monastery as a full-blown contemplative. He learned his calling over time.

As I explore what it means to nurture and cultivate a Christian contemplative life while living in the inner city and working an 8-hour day to the rhythms of the American work force, I find Merton’s list below revealing.

This will give us some idea of the proper preparation that the contemplative life requires. A life that is quiet, lived in the country, in touch with the rhythm of nature and the seasons. A life in which there is manual work, the exercise of arts and skills, not in a spirit of dilettantism, but with genuine reference to the needs of one’s existence. The cultivation of the land, the care of farm animals, gardening. A broad and serious literary culture, music, art, again not in the spirit of Time and Life – (a chatty introduction to Titian, Prexiteles, and Jackson Pollock) – but a genuine and creative appreciation of the way poems, pictures, etc., are made. A life in which there is such a thing as serious conversation, and little or no TV. These things are mentioned not with the insistence that only life in the country can prepare a [person] for contemplation, but to show the type of exercise that is needed.–Thomas Merton

The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, edited by William H. Shannon (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, p.131).

Library of Congress Seeking Sermons on Obama Inauguration

On Jan. 20, 2009, the United States will inaugurate Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American smallpresident. In anticipation of citizens’ efforts to mark this historic time around the country, the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress will be collecting audio and video recordings of sermons and orations that comment on the significance of the inauguration of 2009. It is expected that such sermons and orations will be delivered at churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship, as well as before humanist congregations and other secular gatherings. The AFC is seeking as wide a representation of orations as possible. This collection is one of many oral history and spoken word collections at the AFC that preserve American emotions and memories of important cultural events.

Congregations and groups interested in contributing to this once-in-a-lifetime documentary project are asked to record sermons and orations delivered during Inauguration Week 2009 and donate them to the Library of Congress. The donated recordings will be preserved at the AFC in order to enhance the nation’s historical record and preserve the voices of religious leaders other orators for researchers and scholars of the future. After being processed by archivists, the collection will be made available to scholars, students and the general public.
See all the information here: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2008/08-234.html