What do Pussy Riot and Jesus have in common?

Have the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church got no sense of irony? Jesus was arrested after leading a protest in a religious building.

Members of the band Pussy Riot briefly sang a song in a cathedral, attacking Putin and the Orthodox Church’s subservience to his regime. Amongst other offences, they have been accused of inciting religious hatred. In this context, this seems to be a euphemism for “having a go at the dominant religion”.

While the trial has been criticised around the world by civil liberties campaigners, politicians and singers, there’s been a marked lack of comment from the world’s religious leaders. Many of them doubtless regard the Russian Church’s reaction as ridiculously over-the-top, but probably don’t want to be seen to be attacking another faith group. They could avoid this by giving their backing to those members of the Russian Orthodox Church who are speaking out against their leadership.

Sadly, the Church of England might not be in much of a position to offer criticism, given its role in the eviction of Occupy London Stock Exchange. It is now clear that the authorities at St Paul’s Cathedral colluded with the police to remove peaceful activists from the church steps in the final hours of the eviction. Along with several others, I was dragged from the steps as I knelt in prayer. But horrible as that experience was, it’s very different to the prospect of three years in prison, which will await the Pussy Riot singers if Putin and the Russian Orthodox leaders have their way.

The Church’s leaders have been criticised by Russians who say that a Christian response would be to forgive the singers, or at least to call for more lenient sentences. There is some truth in this, but it understates the Christian case against the prosecution. The reality is that the Pussy Riot singers followed the example of Jesus far more than the Russian Orthodox Patriarch they were challenging.

Jesus’ protest in the Jerusalem Temple was a key event in his life. Historians differ over the various events described in the gospels; there are a range of views on the historical accuracy of particular incidents. However, the protest in the Temple is regarded by most scholars as one of the events most likely to be historical. It seems to have led, either directly or indirectly, to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

In protesting against the commercialisation of the Temple, Jesus was not resisting a one-off misuse of a religious building. Commerce was central to religious buildings in a number of cultures (and still is).

He was attacking those who exploited the poor, particularly those who benefited from religious hypocrisy. For example, the gospels say he turned over the tables of those selling doves. Doves were the cheapest animal to sacrifice in the Temple. Poor people were spending money they could ill afford on ceremonial sacrifices. Jesus knew very well that the prophetic traditions in the Hebrew Bible declared that God wants lives of love and kindness, not religious ceremony.

Similarly, the moneychangers, who exchanged Roman money into Temple money at exploitative interest rates, were benefiting from the actions of those religious leaders who colluded with the Roman occupation and were prepared to ignore the oppression in return for their own position and privileges.

In short, Jesus was attacking political oppression, exploitation of the poor and a religious leadership that colluded with both. He staged a protest in a religious building in a way that would have shocked those who heard about it. If you’ve been reading about the Pussy Riot trial, this might sound familiar.

Jesus refused to go along with oppression and hypocrisy, living by the power of God within himself and free from the powers of the world. They killed Jesus because he was too free. One of the Pussy Riot defenders, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, said at the trial yesterday, “We are freer than those who are prosecuting us. We can say everything we want, and they have their mouths shut and are puppets.” Every Christian in the world should be cheering her on.

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