My last three articles for Ansty Road and St. Columba's picked up on talks that Rowan Williams made to a URC Ministers Gathering focusing of the stories of three women who exemplified the costly call of Christian discipleship whilst challenging their traditional church leadership. Each were remarkable, awkward, rebellious, idealistic, radical women who inspired the communities that emerged around them. But each was very much a product of the early 20th Century and even as I retold the stories I wondered who might be a 21st Century example ...
My last three articles for Ansty Road and St. Columba's picked up on talks that Rowan Williams made to a URC Ministers Gathering focusing of the stories of three women who exemplified the costly call of Christian discipleship whilst challenging their traditional church leadership. Each were remarkable, awkward, rebellious, idealistic, radical women who inspired the communities that emerged around them. But each was very much a product of the early 20th Century and even as I retold the stories I wondered who might be a 21st Century example. So, when I listened to Maria Alyokhina tell her incredible story at this years Greenbelt Festival I found myself comparing her to Maria Skobtsova, Dorothy Day and Madeleine Delbrêl and the impact they made in their own times.
Maria Alyokhina came to fame as member of a Russian protest collective called Pussy Riot. They use punk art moments to protest against Putin's regime, to highlight human rights abuse and in their most famous action (at least until the World Cup Final) focused on the Russian Orthodox Church's close alignment with Putin. Maria (or Masha) was one of five women who entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, and attempted to sing a song which began "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Banish Putin" whilst dancing in front of the altar - the Holy Gates - a place where women are only allowed to clean or be married. "In Russia, there are no women priests, In Russia, there is Pussy Riot." It took 40 seconds for the security guards to manage to stop them, whilst others filmed Punk Prayer so that their action could receive world wide publicity.
That 40 second performance would lead to a show trial and 2 years in Russian labour camps. In which she continued to protest - using her notoriety and status as a political prisoner to highlight the brutal conditions in which prisoners were held, the ways in which their human rights are systematically abused. In prison she became more of an embarrassment to the regime than out of it and eventually Putin signed her amnesty - part of a face saving exercise ahead of the Sochi Olympic Games.
At Greenbelt she shared some of her experiences (ignoring a travel ban to do so) in a quiet witty conversational style, and then led a performance that combined punk music, with a chanted re-yelling of her book 'Riot Days' and a background video that created energy,shock and power. That left us in no doubt that here is a woman unbowed by her prison experience, still campaigning against the power of the Russian state, still highlighting the hypocrisy of the church and still prepared to break Russian law to do so.
So, what has this to do with discipleship? Firstly, her Christian faith shines through - she spoke of her love for Jesus. The song in the cathedral was not just a stunt it came from a real desire to highlight the gap between the way of Jesus and the way of the church hierarchy. She was charged with "Disorderly conduct, committed with purpose of inciting religious hatred" on Forgiveness Day but the church showed no forgiveness instead went after the group seeking the most brutal punishments possible. Many at a festival like Greenbelt are activists - we have protested by signing letters, signing petitions, going on marches, but rarely do many of us face the prospect of prison - and at that, a Russian prison system that has continued the Soviet Gulag system. It was a reminder that Jesus calls us to pick up our cross - but that for many of us that cross is not going to lead us to challenge a regime as brutal as the Roman or Russian one. Is our discipleship somehow lessened?
Also at Greenbelt I went to a talk in the Quaker led ResisTent with a panel of activists, three of whom have been arrested for protesting against the British arms industry - but they did not call us all to face such trials - instead they pointed out that their activities are simply the tip of an iceberg that is made up by the many who write, sign, march, pressure and that without that support they could not make the high profile protests that create the publicity so disliked by those in power. So it is for Masha and the other members of Pussy Riot - their fame highlights other injustices and the long path that must be walked for real salvation for all people. As Masha concludes, as her amnesty whisked her away from her final prison camp in a government car, "Freedom doesn't exist unless you fight for it everyday. And I'm riding in a car that's picking up speed.