UNPOPULAR OPINION: Pussy Riot's Church Protest Was Misguided And Wrong

Pussy Riot made international news and brought awareness to the injustices of modern Russian government, but while they were at it, they also pissed off and confused a bunch of innocent church-goers, likely even hurting their cause.

Mar 12, 2014 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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In early 2012, Pussy Riot made international headlines with their protest performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, followed by the arrest and imprisonment of three of its members. Madonna, Amnesty International and just about everyone I know jumped on board to back them. Even a documentary was made
 
As a liberal vegan feminist raised in the Washington, DC area on a steady diet of Fugazi, I believe in taking action. I banged a drum against Apartheid in front of the South African Embassy as a teenager, fed the homeless in front of the White House with Food Not Bombs, bought records whose profits benefitted the ACLU, and marched in many anti-war protests. I appreciate free speech, adore performance art and do love a good act of hooliganism.
 
I’m in my 40s now, but there are days I still want to smash the state and eat the rich and all that. Sometimes you gotta fuck shit up. But I think Pussy Riot's church intrusion in this case was ineffective and just plain mean. 
 
Don’t get me wrong—I acknowledge the bravery of these women in going up against an entire government with their lyrics and most of their actions. Politically, I stand with Pussy Riot. Russia’s anti-gay laws are despicable. Their human rights violations are inexcusable. There is plenty to protest and fight for, including a mandated separation of church and state.
 
I also don’t believe the women’s punishment fit the crime. I’m no lawyer but it seemed possibly even “cruel and unusual.” I abhor the death threats and sexist reactions they and their most public defenders endure. I do think they’re an important part of the cultural conversation.
 
However, I also think their staged protest in the church was just uncool. It seemed misdirected and counterproductive. Scaring a bunch of elderly Russian ladies mid-prayer does nothing to change minds regarding the separation of church and state. (An Economist article estimates that 94% of Russians aged 18-29 do not attend any church.) The members of Pussy Riot sacrificed the experience of worshippers in order to make a larger point, using the old “ends justifies the means” concept. It’s the equivalent of PETA throwing fake blood on fur coat-wearing people.
 
Does behaving in an inhumane manner lead to a more humane society? Such acts can detract from a cause rather than change hearts and minds. Protest at the Kremlin or some other prominent governmental building—not a quiet space where people are peacefully gathering to do something that comforts them. 
 
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Maybe this rankles me so much because when I was a kid, some evangelical Christian woman told me that my whole Catholic family was going to hell “for drinking wine in church.” When I relayed this to my mom, she was shocked but said we should forgive her. I later went to a Catholic high school with three Jewish students (of whom I was jealous because they were excused from mass), it being the only private school in rural Maryland at the time. As an adult, I found myself teaching as an atheist professor in a Christian college with Muslim prayer rooms. Today I believe in freedom from religion as much as I believe in religious freedom. ‘Don’t force your beliefs on me and I won’t bother you while you’re practicing your faith’ seems a reasonable expectation. I try to respect the sanctity of spirituality—everyone’s.  
 
What would happen if a group of masked people busted into an American synagogue or mosque mid-service and rocked out in front of the congregation? News media would actually have something to report! We’d invoke the Bill of Rights! Some might even call it a hate crime. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 allows federal prosecution of anyone who "willingly injures, intimidates or interferes with another person, or attempts to do so, by force because of the other person's race, color, religion or national origin” and was amended by Obama to include “to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.” 
 
Goddess forbid your yoga class or board meeting is disrupted in a similar manner—the US government would label these activists domestic terrorists. Think I’m kidding? Two environmentalists charged with a “terrorism hoax” are currently facing 10 years just for unfurling a glittery banner in an energy corporation’s Oklahoma headquarters.
 
I don’t equate peaceful activism to terrorism. Nor do I believe in interrupting peaceful religious practices with activism. It’s just funny to me that some of the same people sporting those “Coexist” bumperstickers on their cars (you know the ones, with all the little religious symbols?) and wearing “Free Tibet” t-shirts think it’s fine to barge in on a Russian Orthodox service.
 
Yet whenever I’ve expressed any bit of dissent from the progressive party line on Pussy Riot, the dialogue is met with a shut-down reeking of Putinism. “They’ve got kids and are being treated like murderers. Putin is a monster. They’re fighting for their ideals,” people say. But the harassment of Christians adds just a whiff of Stalinism, and both attitudes stink like rotten borscht. 
 
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Pussy Riot made international news and perhaps brought awareness to the injustices of modern Russian government, but while they were at it, they also pissed off and confused a bunch of innocent church-goers, likely even hurting their cause. Tolerance is just as important as freedom of expression. Respect for religious freedom and activism can go hand-in-hand. If we are going to “make art, not war,” as the slogan goes, isn’t it important to respect our fellow human beings, aiming our anger in the right direction?