What in God’s name are you doing?

With deference, this question is directed to the President of The Russian Federation, and more pointedly, to his ecclesial counterpart, the Patriarch of Moscow.

Vladimir Putin apparently has his appeal amongst the fairer sex, Patriarch Kirill, presumably less so. Yet, in tandem, they managed to incite”or depending on your view”incur a riot. It turned out to be a Pussy Riot.

In any case, a resultant skirmish has since grown to surprising scale, gained international attention, and may yet prove to be a grave miscalculation on the part of the two leaders.

In March, activist group, Pussy Riot, staged a decidedly inelegant “protest” inside one of Orthodoxy’s highest profile shrines”a stunt that, in terms of physical threat, posed less of one than a gaggle of pigeons flying inadvertently into the same space.

The space in question was Christ the Savior Cathedral, seat of the Russian Church, located in intimate proximity to the Kremlin. And Pussy Riot’s presence there was anything but inadvertent.

Three of the protestors were later arrested and spent the next five and a half months in jail awaiting a trial that ended a week ago. This past Friday, they were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.

The charges, delivered in a 2,800 page bale, sound eccentric to Western ears ”hooliganism being the chief complaint”and speak of offenses against the sensibilities of religious believers as well as the integrity of the social order.

For their part, the activists have maintained their intent was never to insult the Church, or the state, but to add a sense of urgency to the concern that the relationship between the two is growing increasingly unseemly. It’s hardly an extremist view, one shared by a wide range of people”most of who don’t wear balaclavas or jump around in tights when expressing it. One, Gary Kasparov, was arrested outside the courthouse while protesting Friday’s verdict.

Initially, Patriach Kirill refrained from weighing in. When he finally did, he weighed in heavy”painting the protestors as agents of the diabolical and calling for the harshest consequences.

Defenders of Kirill are quick to claim that Western critics take a simplistic approach to a social reality we don’t understand and are not competent to judge. No doubt, there’s some truth in that. The catastrophe of the Soviet persecution of religion, for example, placed church leaders who survived, in often-impossible predicaments, forcing compromises they felt obliged to accept, and over which they never ceased to agonize. Whereas developments in the West led to separation of church and state as the default position of the contemporary polis, the East has traveled a different path.

Perhaps nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in Russia, heir of Kievan-Rus, where pre-schism Christianity was embraced in its Eastern form by Prince Vladimir at the close of the 10th century, and quickly “bestowed” upon his subjects. While only Constantine may have played a larger role in fusing cross and crown, it is Vladimir’s legacy that is being felt most palpably in our own day”and in places like a Moscow courthouse last week.

Yet, the Church is called to be the Church ”royal, priestly and prophetic”dwelling in graced tension with any and every temporal institution. To my knowledge, the Church has never viewed itself as a fortress in need of protecting. Rather, especially in the East, it is the image of the hospital” a place of forgiveness and healing”that is prescriptive.

The satisfaction of humbling one’s opponents is no match for the evangelical power of forgiving them. Thus, Patriarch Kirill’s demand for severity seems to strengthen the perception given voice by Pussy Riot, that the Church is able, willing, and eager to supply spiritual muscle in the cause of eliminating opposition to Mr. Putin. In so doing, it only helps enlarge popular acceptance of the most negative stereotypes of Christianity in general, and Orthodoxy in particular.

The defendants faced a maximum of seven years for their hooliganism. They received two”an outcome hinted at by President Putin during a brief trip to London during the Olympics.

There, in calling for “leniency,” he put some distance between himself and a swelling chorus of international critics. He may have also put a little space between himself and the Patriarch, leaving Kirill the singular face of the reactionary element.

Last Friday, many in Russia, and millions beyond, hoped to witness a tangible sign of a loving father’s forgiveness of three of his young daughters. It didn’t happen.

Tim Kelleher is a television and film writer, actor, and director.

RESOURCES

Tim Kelleher, The Patriarch & Putin Have a Pussy Riot

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