Pussy Riot: whose freedoms matter most?
Three feminists have been jailed in Russia for performing a song criticising President Putin, in a prominent Orthodox cathedral without permission. The patriarch with responsibility for the church had previously issued a partisan call in support of Putin’s election. Most people in Britain will be shocked at a two year jail sentence, although most people will also have reservations about using a church to mount a protest in this way.
We want to believe in freedom of speech but most of us also want hallowed spaces undisturbed. Even at my aggressive atheist phase I would have been generally against disrupting church services, weddings, or funerals, no matter how urgent the cause. Places of burial and commemoration seem off bounds – a couple of cases of disrespect to war memorials around the country upset many who are strongly against war.
Yet, the Pussy Rioters would argue that controlling the media, stealing an election, and turning Russia’s democracy into a one man band, as they see it, demands a vigorous response. There were some people they wanted to offend. I can still respect someone deeply without accepting that this magically denies me the right to express a view they dislike. Some commentators also muddled motive – peeing on a war memorial drunk is different from demonstrating by one in a moral cause.
The list of religious leaders and prophets who offended is a long one. Hosea compared backsliding Israel to his wife, who was a flagrant prostitute. Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip, and had little pleasant to say about the religious establishment. (Gentle Jesus meek and mild is not found everywhere in the Gospels…) Early Quakers described other churches as apostates, had women preachers, and some ran around in their underwear to prophesy - (‘going naked for a sign’.) Not doffing their hats was like sticking your tongue out.
This difficulty goes across political and religious divides. Some of those campaigning for the Pussy Rioters to be released, would not support derogatory comments about sex, race, or sexuality. If we are honest, many of us waver in our support of freedom of speech and opposition to causing offense, depending on where we stand on what is said, by whom, and why. Freedoms tend to matter when they are exercised in unpopular ways.
I think it’s a harsh and unnecessary sentence, intended to use religious feeling to stamp down on dissent. The Russian Orthodox Church has, wisely, called for clemency. The Church, which has privileged status in Russia, and great popular support, should continue to acknowledge those who were offended, but use its influence to get the women freed. Stalin destroyed the church and it was rebuilt in times of greater freedom, but God lives in all of us, even the loud and disrespectful, far more than in any building.