by Fr. Alexander Borisov
Dear friends, our short summer is over. It was, as our poet Alexander Pushkin put it, “a parody of southern winters.” On the whole, the weather wasn’t bad: we had it hot and we had it raining. Now it is getting cold. Fall and winter lie ahead with the liturgical year and the school year starting at the same time. During the summer not only our regular work, but also the church activities slowed down. Now we have to catch up and to get into the rhythm of the congregational and spiritual life.
In fact, the current situation offers us plenty of new—or rather recurring— challenges. The whole situation around the Pussy Riot affair, with all of its absurdity and shame, is telling. It reveals the moral state of our society, both of the church and the world. We are seeing a horrible polarity of viewpoints—from harsh, Soviet-Stalinist mythologies to extreme permissiveness. We have clearly seen who we are. We have seen that religiosity coexists with intolerance, reverencing church sanctuaries while hating those of unpopular views.
But didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ say about Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6)? Then in order to live like Christians don’t we need to reflect which of our Lord’s precepts applies to these particular challenges?
There are many relevant passages in the Gospel. Take the episode where Jesus and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem were not accepted in a Samaritan village. “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them even as Elias did?’ But he turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ And they went on to another village” (Luke 9:54-56).
It seems even his closest disciples were ready to release their “righteous” wrath. They even found a precedent worthy of imitation: “even as Elias did.” But Jesus “rebuked them, and said, ‘You know not what manner of spirit ye are of.’”
We Christians possess a great source of wisdom. Why guess how to act in this or that case if we have a clear word from the Gospel? Follow it, and you will never regret. The Gospel may not give a direct answer to every question important to us, but in this case, there is plenty of advice, more than we will ever need.
But when we yield to our sinful passions, especially when political factors get involved, our reaction becomes inadequate, resulting in absurd and tangled consequences.
It would have been enough to reprimand the girls and to let them go, as Deacon Andrey Kuraev suggested, or at most to sentence them to 15 days of imprisonment. Instead we have a grand trial. The scale of the prosecution and the sentence are clearly out of proportion to the persons and their mis-behavior, with the sentence turning stupid young hooligans into “heroines of our time.”
I recall an episode from the early years of Ivan Bunin, the Nobel Prize laureate in litera-ture. He was eating in a restaurant with some friends. Suddenly Vladimir Mayakovsky, then a young radical poet, appeared. He took Bunin’s glass, started drinking from it and then began eating from his plate. Bunin watched him without saying a word. Finally Mayakovsky asked “Why don’t you react?” Ivan Bunin quietly answered “It would do you too much honor.” This seems to be applicable to the current scandal.
Certainly, every Christian should have his or her own moral stand on these events and on personal moral standards. But obviously we should not be carried away by endless disputes and discussions on the Internet and in the media.
Soon after the Pussy Riot sentencing, there was a scandal in a Moscow café called Mu-Mu. A group of “Orthodox zealots” saw a girl with words from the Pussy Riot “punk prayer” on her T-shirt. They demanded that she remove the shirt. Apparently, the severe condemnation by the state court provided some people with a license to attack anyone who finds the sentence unjust or simply thinks differently.
As a protest against the harsh sentence, some people—fortunately, not many— expressed their intention to leave the Russian Orthodox Church. Yes, in some difficult situations we may have a temptation to leave and “slam the door.” I think, though, that radical decisions such as “I’ll leave the Church” are the result of spiritual immaturity. In such cases, I strongly recommend that parishioners read the book The Church of the Faithful by Sergey Fudel. It has been recently published with an excellent preface by Archpriest Nikolay Balashov.
This book discusses the same issues as we face today, but it gives the answers based on the experience of the Russian Church history of the first half of the twentieth century, specifically of the “renovationist” schism that occurred within the Church in the twenties. Sergey Fudel was the son of Joseph Fudel, a famous Moscow priest who was dean of the Byturka prison church. The views of Sergey Fudel were born in suffering, in far harsher conditions than the present ones. He was arrested several times, exiled, and persecuted. In his book, he argued that even the errors made by the hierarchy cannot be an excuse for a split within a church.
Recently there was yet another reaction to the Pussy Riot trial. In some areas of Russia, some people have cut down Orthodox crosses erected in public places. (The three condemned girls, I must note, have publicly protested against these acts.) Some lawmakers immediately proposed severe punishment for such actions. However I doubt that these legislative proposals, if adopted, would add sympathy to the Church and to us Christians.
Something similar took place in Crimea in the early nineteen-nineties. The authorities in Crimea did not respond to this—Christians just erected new crosses. Soon the malefactors stopped cutting them down and Orthodoxy was only strengthened. Striving to severely punish offenders is completely opposite to St. Paul’s advice in his epistles. As he wrote: “See that none of you repays evil for evil” (I Thess. 5:15), and “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19–21).
I’d like to finish this long epistle on a lyrical note. Our wonderful poet and bard Bulat Okudzhava speaks about dignity as an important aspect of human spirit:
Human dignity is a mysterious instrument:
Created for ages but lost in a moment.
Attacked by the noise of bellows, bombing, or babbling
It’s easily dried out or blasted down at the root.
So don’t waste yourself, brother, damn the vain chase
Or you’ll lose your primeval beauty and forsake your divine face.
Why risk all for nothing? Have you no higher cares?
So get up and go, a servant, climbing only upstairs. IC
In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of Fr. Borisov’s sermon.
Fr. Borisov is the rector of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian at Shubino in Moscow. Fr. Borisov is in the spiritual lineage of Fr. Alexander Men. His church is active in youth work, social services, and ministries to the poor and homeless. He has instituted an encompassing catechetical ministry in the belief that the path out of despair—the chief sin responsible for 98% of Russia’s problems, according to Fr. Borisov—is a firm grounding in the truths of the Church and the Gospel, the only path that will lead the Russian Church away from ignorance, superstition, xenophobia, Nationalism, and fundamentalism.
❖ Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012