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Pussy Riot Sentencing: Can't Jail Female Fury

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Three women from the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot were convicted Friday 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 Friday 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).

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, Feb. 1), 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 Sojourners' 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.