If Pussy Riot followed Jesus’ example, wouldn’t their demo have been in Holy Week?

A venerated religious institution, the focus of faith of thousands of worshippers, steeped in the history and culture of its people, is invaded by protesters. The faithful witness a violent and abusive tirade directed against a governing tyranny, including the religious authorities. The religious institution is not a direct part of the secular government but the protesters are none too polite about the religious heirarchy’s complicity with the tyrants of the day. Had today’s news media reported Jesus’ attack on money-changers in  the Jerusalem Temple, that is one angle they would probably have taken.

Among the chorus of comment on Pussy Riot’s action I have yet to hear much from the world’s churches. Do we Christians not see the similarities between the Jesus’ fate in the Passover that became the first Easter and that of this punk band challenging Russia’s Caesar? Have our churches become such a parody of the teachings of Jesus that we have become like Caiaphas, the Temple’s High Priest, and his minions when faced with a secular tyranny? Are we now so focused on our what we suppose is our heaven that we are no longer much use here on earth?

Was Jesus’ action a brave opposition to tyranny, or an ill-mannered and boorish insult to the righteous at prayer? A witness’s response, then or now, might depend on how the witness saw the Temple. Is institutional religion a bastion of faith? Or is it, as one 21st-century teenager once described the modern church: “a club for old people who are scared of dying”?

Jesus had arrived, a few days before Passover, from Galilee, now in the north of modern Israel. Passover celebrates the people of God’s exodus from slavery in Egypt and their journey to their own land. Christians (including not a few Jews) now see the Exodus as emblematic of God’s rescue of the cosmos from slavery to sin and death through Jesus the Messiah. At the time, however, messiah (‘anointed’) meant chosen by God, in the belief of most of the Hebrews in the Temple that day, to lead them in a war against pagans (the Roman Empire, they’d have said) that would see their promised land under Jewish control once more, from the Mediterranean coast to the River Jordan.  Ever wondered why so many Jewish boys at the time were called Judas? Was this upstart Galilean going to do that ?

Questions about Jesus’ authority to disrupt the worship of his people follow. Eventually, in an attempt to get him to commit sedition, Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Tiberius, the Roman Emperor. His reply, now immortalized as “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” has since lost some of its subtlety in translation. A Roman listening might have heard a statement of civic duty to Caesar. A Hebrew might have heard an echo of Judas Maccabeus’ demand, uttered during the Maccabee revolt years earlier, that the Gentiles should be paid back in full (Jesus’  uses a metaphor: in their own coin) for the suffering that they had inflicted on faithful Jews.

This response doesn’t salve the outrage of the religious or their priests, who arrest him anyway and hand him over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. With Pilate unable to convict Jesus of a crime, Caiaphas and his colleagues tell Pilate that “you are no friend of Caesar”. They threaten to tell Tiberius that Pilate is releasing a man challenging Tiberius’ authority to govern. Pilate, perhaps for safety’s sake, crucifies Jesus who suffers the fate of Rome’s political criminals. This creates two reasons why, then and now,  many judge that Jesus’ wasn’t messiah: he died and he died on a cross.

It is often enough for evil to triumph that the good do nothing. Pussy Riot will probably have plenty of time to contemplate that. Their comments that I have read suggest that they are bravely accepting that, like many before them,  they will suffer at the hands of the powerful. They may feel relieved that, unlike Jesus, they won’t suffer crucifixion for their supposed crime. On the other hand, they may already know that Jesus rose from the dead after three days, whereas their freedom may be rather longer coming.

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