Thought for the Day - Rev Lucy Winkett - 16/08/2012

Tomorrow, the verdict is expected in the highly controversial trial of three members of the punk band Pussy Riot, who have been jailed for staging what they described as a political performance in the main cathedral in Moscow, dedicated to Christ the Saviour.

Their performance took the form of a prayer to Mary, a standard prayer in many Christian traditions, but the fact that it was a politicised prayer, sung in the context of a cathedral has, as they surely intended, caused huge consternation both in support of and opposition to them, not only in Russia but all over the world. They’ve undoubtedly caused offence to some believers, and they have apologised for that. But they remain unrepentant about the manner and content of their protest and they have attracted high profile supporters, including another woman whose track record in making artistic protests in religious form is well known: Madonna.

The relationship between religion – in these cases Christianity – and protest is complex and long standing. It’s arguable that the Occupy Protest, which accidentally ended up outside St Paul’s Cathedral became newly freighted with religious meaning, and therefore more controversial because of its relationship with religion. I’m not sure there would have been banners saying “what would Jesus do?” if the protest had been outside the Stock Exchange as originally planned.

Reading the closing statements made in court by the members of Pussy Riot I was struck by the religious content of their argument. Their protest is full of Biblical allusions, quotations, and interpretations of religious themes. In some places they have been described as both anarchic and atheist. I found no evidence of either; And so it is not surprising that in order to make a political protest, they went to church to do so. They express what one Christian theologian calls in the spirit of Mary Magdalene - ungovernable female energy. And in doing so they join a procession of women who have embodied protest in every denomination over centuries, sometimes against the church itself, sometimes in defence of social or political freedoms in the context of church.

The tension is a theological as well as a political one. How far does a church protect public space or sacred space, and what’s the difference? What are the limits of human behaviour that are possible within this space, and how is the distinction between what is holy and profane expressed in a society that values free speech alongside an aesthetic of beauty and peace? Different Christian communities come to different conclusions about this and will therefore expect different behaviours but not withstanding the details of this particular case, my own theological stance wants to welcome challenge to the faith that I belong to, as part of the commitment to human flourishing building an ever more just and peaceful society.

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