"Pussy Riot's Theology," by Timothy Beal, originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 17, 2012

On February 21, a week before the beginning of Eastern Christianity's Great Lent, five members of the guerrilla feminist punk collective Pussy Riot walked into Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, took off their winter gear, put brightly colored balaclavas over their heads, walked up to the altar, and started jumping around, punching and kicking the air, and kneeling and genuflecting while being videotaped from several angles by other group members. Almost immediately, security personnel stopped them. It was all over in about 30 seconds.

By the end of the day, the group had used the shots to create a "punk prayer" music video on YouTube called "Mother of God, Put Putin Away,"condemning Russian Orthodoxy's ties to the Putin regime, describing the church's teaching that women must "know your place in the birthing ward" as "holy shit," declaring that "the most holy Mother of God is at the rallies with us," and imploring her to chase Putin out of her church. 


 On March 3, a day before Putin's re-election, two of the women—Nadya Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24—were arrested, charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," and put in jail to await trial. Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, was arrested on March 15. On August 17, the three women were convicted of plotting to "undermine civil order, motivated by religious hatred," and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in a penal colony.

Pussy Riot's case has attracted increasing global attention and outrage. Amnesty International has condemned the women's prosecution. Rallies and vigils have been held all around the world. Celebrities including Madonna, Billy Bragg, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have taken up the band's cause. No doubt all this global flak is what has motivated Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, on September 12, to call for their release, even though he said their actions had made him sick.

Until the trial, understandably, most of Pussy Riot's supporters assumed that the group was motivated by a healthy punk-rock sense of atheistic indignation toward religion, especially orthodoxy, but rightly championed their right of free expression.

Some, however, recognized a more complicated relationship with religion, even a kind of prayerfully radical sincerity. In April, for example, the Fordham University associate professor of theology Tom Beaudoin asked if the group was "intentionally or accidentally helping the church meet its own potential theological goals of distinguishing Christianity from state power."

Now, with the publication of the group's closing statements, delivered last month, we can be certain that there's nothing accidental about Pussy Riot's promotion of that theological goal. Indeed, taken together, these three statements reveal just how central lived theology is to their activism.

Yekaterina Samutsevich's statement explains succinctly that the band's "punk-rock adventure" was a creative, seriously playful engagement in the battle over the role of religion vis-à-vis state power. She describes an official state-media project that works to marry Putin's regime to the Russian Orthodox Church, with its traditionally strong "mystical connections with power," in order to establish "more convincing, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the helm."

She briefly documents how the church has become "the project's principal executor in the media" since the enthronement in 2009 of Putin's alleged former KGB colleague Kirill Gundyayev as patriarch of Moscow, using the cathedral as background for continuously running, highly produced national TV broadcasts of uplifting news stories and speeches linking patriarch and Putin, thereby creating "the impression of something natural, constant, and compulsory."

Pussy Riot's media invasion of the cathedral, she says, interrupted this relentless media production with "a visual image of Orthodox culture and protest culture." As such it "violated the integrity of this media image, generated and maintained by the authorities for so long, and revealed its falsity," while also associating Orthodoxy with protest culture.

Maria Alyokhina's statement develops the biblical-theological dimensions of the media marriage of religion and empire that Pussy Riot violated, giving voice to her profound disagreement with the church's implicit understanding of how Scripture should be engaged.

"If approached from a Christian perspective," she says, "we see that [traditional] meanings and symbols are being replaced by those that are diametrically opposed to them." Her primary example is the Christian concept of humility, which she embraces as a means of developing inner freedom, a "path towards the perception, fortification, and ultimate liberation." Within the current church-state regime of socialization, however, she sees it being reconceived in terms of what she calls, quoting the Russian existentialist theologian Nikolai Berdyaev, "ontological" or "existential humility," an instrument of subordination and dependence, which turns "sons of God" into "slaves of God."

Not incidentally, Berdyaev himself was arrested and exiled from Russia in 1922 on account of his Christian theological advocacy of individual freedom and creativity in the face of what he considered the suppressive, mechanized social and symbolic order of the Bolshevik regime.

In the same Christian-dissident spirit, Alyokhina offers biblical support for Pussy Riot's "innocent creativity." "Our motivation," she declares, quoting Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, "is best expressed in the Gospels: 'For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened' [Matthew 7:8]. I—all of us—sincerely believe that for us the door will be opened. But alas, for now the only thing that has happened is that we've been locked up in prison."

She then turns to another Gospel text, the very one that church authorities have used against the group: the scene in John in which temple authorities try to stone Jesus for blasphemy (John 10:33). "Interestingly enough," she says, "it is precisely this verse that the Russian Orthodox Church uses to express its opinion about blasphemy. This view is certified on paper, it's attached to our criminal file. ... The Russian Orthodox Church did not even bother to look up the context in which 'blasphemy' is mentioned here—that in this case, the word applies to Jesus Christ himself."

The point there is not only to highlight the biblical illiteracy of her accusers and the resulting irony of the present trial, but also and especially to make a serious theological point about biblical hermeneutics. Pussy Riot's religious opponents, Alyokhina says, treat the Gospels "as static religious truth ... that can be disassembled into quotations to be shoved in wherever necessary." On the contrary, she argues, "religious truth," including biblical tradition, "is a process and not a finished product," and it is given meaningful life not in the static institutions and dogmas of church authority but in the continuing, creative processes of art and philosophy.

Finally, Nadya Tolokonnikova's statement further develops the group's theological case by laying claim to two closely related biblical paradoxes, both of which are rooted in the theology of Paul, namely, wisdom in folly and strength in weakness.

In Pussy Riot's search for a mode of creative intervention, she says, they were drawn to the yurodstvo, or "holy foolishness," of punk. This term, sometimes translated as "folly of Christ," derives from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in which he describes divine wisdom as worldly folly. Because the world fails to know God through wisdom, Paul says, God decided to reach us "through the foolishness of our proclamation" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

The Pauline figure of the holy fool has deep roots in Russian culture, from Orthodox "fools for Christ" like Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg, who gave away all her possessions to follow Christ and spent the rest of her life wandering the streets of the city wearing her late husband's military uniform, to Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, whose story suggests that the only place for a saint in this world is an insane asylum.

In claiming inspiration from such holy folly, Pussy Riot allies itself with a long theological and artistic tradition in which the fool's "passion, openness, and naïveté" expose official "hypocrisy, cunning, and ... contrived decency. ... The state's leaders stand with saintly expressions in church but, in their deceit, their sins are far greater than ours." Moreover, Tolokonnikova reminds her listeners, Jesus himself was condemned as "out of his mind" (John 10:20).

Later, she ties this "genuineness and simplicity" of holy punk foolishness to another Pauline paradox, strength in weakness.

"We were, as always, sincere in saying exactly what we thought, out of childish naïveté, sure, but we don't regret anything we said, even on that day," she says. "We are reviled, but we do not intend to speak evil in return. We are in desperate straits but do not despair. We are persecuted but not forsaken. It's easy to humiliate and crush people who are open, but when I am weak, then I am strong."

In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, he writes that "power is made perfect in weakness," and that he is therefore "content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ ... for whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2:9-10). For those with ears to hear, Tolokonnikova, like Paul, is poetically and theologically reimagining worldly folly as spiritual wisdom and worldly weakness as a spiritual power that is closely allied with political protest and rebellion.

Taken together, these statements are nothing less than a radical theological apologia for Pussy Riot's media altar crash.

About a week after the court's sentencing, Tolokonnikova sent a letterfrom prison to the cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, thanking him for his support and reporting, in a spirit of rejoicing not unlike that of Paul in his letters from prison, that "this has proven to be the continuation of the political liberation miracle-movement. ... The inmates are learning 'about the violence.'"

To which Zizek replied not only with praise and encouragement but also with prayer: "It may sound crazy, but although I am an atheist, you are in my prayers. Prayers that you will soon see your family, children, friends. Prayers that you will at least have some time to read and reflect in peace while in prison!"

It takes a powerful performance, not just a punk stunt, to make an atheist pray and a nation search its soul.