Disrespect to What Religion?

Now, let me start with the assurance that I do not support the actions of the punk band Pussy Riot for which they got 2 years in jail by a Russian court.

No, not because they were “sacrilege,” not at all. If someone should be accused of sacrilege for vandalizing a temple – a true temple, mind you, not a semi-pagan shrine of images and idols – that would be Nebuchadnezzar who vandalized God’s Own Holy Temple in Jerusalem and took away all the sacred vessels he could find there. And yet, God called him “my servant” several times – and that before Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged God – and said that He Himself gave the order to desecrate the Temple.

Anyone want to accuse God of “sacrilege”?

If anyone should be accused of “sacrilege,” that would be the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church for the last several centuries. They have been consistently violating the first three Commandments of the Decalogue, all in the name of Christ, using tax-payers’ money and the monopoly of the civil government, while at the same time acting not in service of Christ but in service of their political masters; elevating them as gods over the populace. (See here an Eastern Orthodox priests kissing Putin’s hand, a greeting reserved in the East only for religious, not political leaders.)

Using a temple as the stage for a protest is not sacrilege. Violating the first three Commandments of the Decalogue is. God does not dwell in temples made by human hands. But He does care for His Law.

I don’t support the three girls because I believe the means they have chosen were foolish. But that doesn’t say it is invalid, or “sacrilegious.” I may be wrong. It may not be foolish; it may signal the beginning of a new era in Russia. It may be that martyrdom example that encourages others to follow suit and actually change something in Russia where things seldom change. Who knows.

In any case, I don’t think they were oblivious to what their actions meant for their future. They were not just acting mindlessly; they knew very well what they were doing. They knew there would be repercussions. They knew there would be a trial and a court sentence. And they knew they couldn’t expect mercy. But they did it anyway. For this, I admire them. Courage is to be admired always, even if it was for the most foolish reasons.

I don’t support the girls in their specific act. But I do condemn their imprisonment. Yes, by the Russian laws, it is a perfectly legal verdict. But being legal doesn’t make it moral. To the contrary, the verdict that the court gave them was immoral to the core, one of these typical cases that we have seen in the last two centuries where the totalitarian state imposes immoral laws and then equates them with morality. No. The law used to imprison the young women was immoral. And, as we Reformed Christians know very well, it is the duty of every decent person to oppose immoral laws. And a Reformed Christian, before he passes judgment on whether the verdict was legitimate or not, should have first inquired as to whether they were judged by a law that conforms to the Law of God, or by a man-made law that opposes it.

I was planning on remaining silent on that issue. Until I saw a professing Reformed Christian declare that “World Condemnation of Russian Imprisonment of Punk Rockers is Sign of Global Disrespect for Religion.” No, it isn’t. And whoever wrote that thing did not stop to consult his Reformed faith, his Reformed heritage, and his Reformed worldview. He has written it hastily, influenced by the public opinion, not by a careful consideration of how his confession of faith informs his view on the issue. And while I may agree that it is a sign of disrespect to religion, I reject the conclusion that it is disrespect to the Christian religion. To some other religion, yes. But certainly not to Christianity, if we carefully examine the issue, informed by our Christian Reformed faith.

So I can’t remain silent.

Let me start with reminding the readers, and the writer in question, that if we need to look for historical precedents of iconoclasm, of desecration of church buildings, we don’t have to look too much farther than ourselves, the Protestants. A good example would be the beeldenstorm (the “statue-storm”) in the Netherlands in 1566, which gave the start to the revolt of the Protestant population in the Low Countries against the Hapsburg monarchy. It started on August 10 (The St. Lawrence Day) with the destruction of the chapel of St. Lawrence in Steenvorde. St. Lawrence was considered the personal protector of the Spanish monarch, Philip II, so the desecrators deliberately targeted that chapel as a form of protest against the political authority: a religious-political connection I will talk about later in this article. It spread to other cities in the Netherlands mainly along the coast where the Hapsburg monarchy was especially loathed. Ten days after the initial attack, the largest at the time cathedral in the Low Countries – the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp – was sacked and stripped of images by a Protestant crowd. In some towns in the north the stripping of churches was directed by the local nobles and the town militias; in others, it was just spontaneous acts of crowds influenced by “hedge-preaching” by Calvinist preachers. The accusations of the Roman clergy were that the crowds were driven by “atheism,” “disrespect to religion,” and “Satanic fury.” Hundreds of Roman church buildings were stripped of their images and statues, and the altars were left plain and bare.

Some modern Protestant historians are trying to blame the unruly crowds, or Roman provocateurs for the beeldenstorm. The reality is, though, that it was a direct consequence of the preaching by Calvinist, Lutheran, and Anabaptist preachers in the Netherlands. While these three groups have always had their differences, there was one thing they agreed on unconditionally: Images in the churches were a violation of the First and Second Commandments of the Decalogue. Every single major Reformer of the 16th and 17th century preached and taught against images in the churches, and against sacramentalism as the religious arm of statist oppression.

Predictably, the beeldenstorm wasn’t limited to the Netherlands. The Huguenots in France organized large scale events of stripping churches of their images, and even got into skirmishes with the loyalist forces for that. From 1560 until the end of the Wars of Religion, France saw multiple waves of such iconoclastic fury. Even before that, in the 1520s and the 1530s, Germany and Switzerland experienced their own “statue-storms.” Luther was sympathetic to them in the beginning, even if later he changed his mind on that specific issue (although not entirely). England and Scotland went through their periods of iconoclasm in the 1600s. The Foxe’s Book of Martyrs contains engravings of stripping of churches of images under the heading, “The Temple Well Purged.”

And contrary to our modern, politically correct view of it, there was nothing wrong with it. First, because a church with images for veneration is not a true church to start with, it is a shrine for idolatry, and therefore there is no desecration involved. The only disrespect there is shown to the idols, not to the true Christian religion.

Second, because sacramentalism in the church is always the main ally of statism. (No wonder the main proponents of sacramentalism in the Protestant church are also those who call for statist policies and statist voting; the Anglican church and the Federal Vision movement come to mind.) In Europe in the 1500s, the Roman Church was the main ally of the Hapsburg monarchy in its attempts to centralize its power and impose taxes and regulations that would subject populations to slavery. Statism itself is highly sacramental. Just watch videos with Nazi rallies of the 1930s, and with Communist parades in Eastern Europe. And both Communists and Nazis used the same sacramental language as the Roman church and the Eastern church for manipulation of the masses. The destruction of statues of Communist leaders in Eastern Europe in 1989 was defined as “desecration” by the Communist press; the irony of using that word was hidden to them, apparently.

Therefore, we should expect the first step of the revolt against statism to be a revolt against the sacramentalism that supports it and manipulates the masses in its favor. The Reformed “desecration” of Roman temples was not desecration at all. It was a legitimate revolt against religious tyranny and statist tyranny. And, if we look at the history of those nations where the iconoclastic revolts happened, none of them was punished by God for the alleged “desecrations.” To the contrary, these nations were the most blessed nations in the centuries to follow. God honors the righteous wrath of His elect.

But the three young women didn’t even do any desecration or destruction of images. All they did was dance, and sing, and offer prayers to Virgin Mary to remove Putin. A prayer that is shared by millions of Eastern Orthodox Russians in front of their home altars, who understand that the nation is pushed by its former KGB apparatus back to the dark years of Communism. Are they all “disrespectful to religion”? And it was that specific issue – the prayer to remove a political ruler – that was the true attack against religion. But not the Christian religion.

Let me make one thing clear: What they did was not trespassing on private property. The Russian Orthodox Church is not a private entity which is independent from the government. It is entirely dependent on the government, and it gets the bulk of its finances either directly or indirectly from the government. That church which they “desecrated” was built with government money and then rebuilt with government money. That is, the government took money from unbelievers, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and others, to give it to the religion that is the most faithful to the regime and works most closely with the regime in keeping all political dissent down. Since the building was built with money stolen from the taxpayers, then all taxpayers have the right to enter it and use it. The legal monopoly of the church, a non-government organization which is not accountable to the taxpayers who foot the bill, is an egregious example of wealth-redistribution in favor of a corporation, and of an unholy alliance of statism and false religion. Talking about corporate welfare, we often complain here in the US about the favors the US government bestows on certain corporations. Few Americans know, though, that the Russian Orthodox Church is the longest surviving instance of corporate welfare in the world today, tracing back its dependance on the government in Moscow to as early as the 1400s.

Therefore, claiming that their use of the church as their stage was the same as vandals entering a Baptist or a Roman Catholic Church here in the US is not even close to the truth. Churches here in the US are private property. The Russian Orthodox Church is an arm of the central government, a Ministry of Religious Manipulation of a sort, living off the backs of the Russian taxpayers. Legally, it may be independent. Morally, it is not, and it has no moral right to its property, bought and paid for by other people’s money at the point of a gun.

It’s very important here to distinguish between what was seen on the surface and advertized by the agents of the Russian government and the Russian Church, and what the real motive of the young women was. The motive was political, not religious. The reason the church was chosen was because of that very connection, that unholy alliance between church and state in Russia where the church only serves the totalitarian state in its encroachment on civil liberties. And that specific building, The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, was chosen because of all Eastern Orthodox temples, it is the most prominent symbol of that unholy alliance of the two institutions against the Russian people.

Russia today is in the process of going back to totalitarianism. The leading positions in the nation are taken by the former KGB apparatus, and the way the political system is designed, there is very little option for anyone who is not part of the good ole boys club to enter politics and change something. Defectors from the regime’s apparatus and vocal critics are simply killed, or disappear. The nation is being steadily returned to the old days of rule by fear and manipulation. The government advances in every area of life, controlling and regulating all of life, including religion and economy and education. True, Marxism is not the official ideology anymore for supporting the new statism. As Milovan Djilas predicted many years ago, before it actually happened, Communism, when its survival is threatened, will desperately try to embrace nationalism. We saw it in Yugoslavia where the old Communists became nationalists and fervent Eastern Orthodox. In Russia, the process has been under way now for a decade. Just like in the worst years of Communism, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church today is a former KGB agent, friend of Putin. And the government and the Church act in one accord – but not to enforce the Law of God, but to enforce the arbitrary will of the rulers and to keep the populace obedient and compliant.

For the young people in Russia, for those who want to see their nation free and prosperous and civilized, this is an unbearable situation. But no hope can be seen. While in the US we still have a long history of resistance to the central government, both individual and on state and county level, Russia has no such history. Hopelessness can drive young people to desperation. And the young women took a desperate step, hoping that by their martyrdom they would be able to awaken the Russian people.

Whether they will be successful, remains to be seen.

But what can be seen right away is that their act was not a desecration, and not disrespect to religion. If it was, it was directed not against the Christian religion – certainly not the true Christian religion which can not be found in a building full of images and idols – but against the religion of the state as god walking on earth. A Reformed Christian should know better, from his own history and his own faith, and should not hurry to join the statist chorus of idolaters who were quick to condemn the women. A true Reformed Christian should acknowledge that a revolt against an immoral and illegitimate authority is moral and legitimate in God’s eyes, even when conducted by unbelievers. (The Great Revolt in the Netherlands was started and organized by the Sea-Beggars and the forces of William of Orange. Neither of them was Reformed nor had any Christian motives. The Reformed Church in the Netherlands profited from the Revolt.) The Pussy Riot act was a courageous, if foolish, act of desperation, and probably of self-conscious martyrdom.

And it is an evangelistic opportunity. Something is brewing in Russia, among the young people, those who are tired of the state controlling their lives. They don’t have the Reformed theology, and therefore they do not have the only ideological tool that can create and has created, in the past, truly free societies. They want liberty, and that is commendable. A true Reformed missionary will recognize their thirst for liberty as a God-given thirst which prepares a nation for His Gospel. (God’s spirit is the only source of desire for liberty; evil spirits lead people into more slavery.) He will point to that quest for liberty – and even to the most foolish expressions of it – as legitimate actions of desperate men who want to turn to God but don’t know where to look. And then will give them the solution. The three young women were not being disrespectful to Christ; they are stumbling in the dark, trying to find the unknown God. Our job is not to condemn them, for they have done nothing against Christ deliberately. Our job is to show them the Way.

That’s how a truly Reformed Christian should approach that issue.

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