You Shall Pursue

September 19, 2012

Pussy Riot! A Religious Person’s Argument for the Separation of Church and State

Filed under: Choosing Life, Social Justice — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 12:37 pm

This is slightly old news, but I think that it bears talking about. For those of you who were not following the story, Pussy Riot is a Russian punk band that was sentenced to two years in prison about a month ago for a protest concert in which they broke into Cathedral of Christ the Savior in order to stage an anti-Putin protest video. The video is below:

The women were charged with, among other things, “the insult and humiliation of the Christian faith and inciting religious hatred” and it is this charge that I wanted to take a minute to write about, as it was the subject of the closing speeches at the sentencing.  The band members speak eloquently of how Putin’s government uses popular sentiment towards the Orthodox faith as a tool of state control and power, and how vital it is to protest this link in pursuit of a just and politically free Russia. Yekaterina Samutsevich, one of the band members, explains it this way:

Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project [re-imagining the Orthodox Church as a tool of the state] has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national television for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during a difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant, and compulsory.Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity.

There is something terrifying to me, as a religious person and as a liberal, in the conflation of State power and religious power. For, make no mistake, religion is tremendously powerful. And therefore it is a weighty responsibility what we as religious people do with the power of our words, teachings, and rituals. As a member of a minority religion, I recognize the dangers that come when the majority religion is too closely allied with the political process.

American freedom of religion is what allows American Judaism to thrive, and it is also what allows religion to serve as an agitator for change. I think that, in large part because of our minority status, Jews are disproportionately involved in social justice movements, protests, and other forms of striving against State power. We have the ability to stand firm in our convictions, even when they go against the majority political winds. And while religion’s relationship to power is very complicated in America (see: the uproar when the Democrats tried to remove the word “God” from their party platform) there has always been resistance coming from the leadership of all faiths in this country.

When the power of religious authority allies itself perfectly with the power of the State, that means that there are two hugely influential and well-organized groups legislating in lockstep. As  we seek to bring change, it is important to police our borders as strongly as possible. Otherwise, as in Russia, there are ever shrinking avenues of organized dissent for those dissatisfied with the current social order to turn to.

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