When the Church is Strong, God is Weak

Today, half a world apart, a trial is beginning and a chicken shack is coping with unprecedented crowds. These events are connected, if only by misplaced umbrage.

The trial is that of Russian feminist-punk band Pussy Riot, whose protest art has them facing seven years in prison – and conviction seems likely, given the open hostility of the presiding judge and the uncomfortably close association of the courts and Vladimir Putin’s machinery. The charge stems from an incident on February 21st, in which the band crashed a Moscow cathedral and played an impromptu concert featuring their flagship anti-Putin protest song, “Virgin Mary, Chase Away Putin.” They were arrested and charged with “hooliganism” (which Slate explains as “the flagrant violation of social order”) and religious hatred.

Witnesses of this act of protest testified in a somewhat shocking manner. One witness claimed that “[his] soul hurt” and that the psychological pain of seeing feminists perform in church would haunt him forever. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has openly called for retribution against the band.

The chicken shack in question is, of course, Chick-fil-a, which is currently flooded with gay-rights opponents after Jim Hensen Productions broke with the company following CEO Dan Cathy’s statements supporting traditional marriage (only). This has been interpreted by opponents of marriage equality as an upswelling of free speech and American patriotism. Others see it as a celebration of successful deprivation of rights to a minority group. At any rate, the massive surge of customers came not after Cathy’s speech, but after opponents began to organize a boycott. Afraid of losing a deeply conservative chain of fast-food restaurants, Chick-fil-a supporters organized a counter-rally to avoid being made victims of by liberal forces.

The connection, here, is not so much religion as it is the effect that strong but non-dominant churches have on their communities. In days gone by, it could be assumed that everyone in a given area belonged to a certain church. Lords often forced the conversion of serfs, and slow transportation and communication meant that an idea or concept of the good life could be reasonably expected to be dominant in a geographic region. Today, people move and ideas spread, and localized codes of behavior have diffused.

This means that believers and non-believers now live side by side, and they see each other and observe one anothers’ lives. People get to see how the other side lives, and not merely through the lens of official propaganda. The actions of the Russian Orthodox church and the Chick-fil-a supporters do not bode well for the believers, because they are the actions of those who do not trust their own beliefs.

God, to deep believers, doesn’t require a lot of defense. His will is truth – is manifestly true. And His power is limitless. That, if truly believed, should be pretty inspiring, and believers should have a lot of confidence in the self-evident truth of their beliefs and the eventual vindication of their positions. When believers act in the political realm to punish or humiliate ideological opponents, it’s important to look and see if this confidence and surety is being expressed. In the case of the Orthodox Church and the pro-Chick-fil-a activists, that confidence is missing. The reasons given for action do not vary much: “offense,” “sacrilege,” “victimhood.”

The fact is, anyone who believes anything different from someone else will find their beliefs opposed. No evangelist has ever found their words universally accepted by an ecstatic crowd. Once outspoken believers start seeing themselves as victims and feel the need to flex political or economic muscle to feel strong once again, they’ve lost sight of the ultimate truth of their beliefs in the pursuit of short-term vindication. (After all, Christianity teaches that believers should accept and even love the fact that others will make them victims.) The “God” defended and espoused by angry, hurt believers is one who cannot defend Himself, one who needs and takes pleasure in the infliction of pain and humiliation on nonbelievers.

I have nothing against belief – and the kind of true belief I’m describing here can be a source of deep inspiration and lasting good. Once that belief is weakened, though, or the God believed in needs mass political action to be justified, then it’s no longer God acting in the world. It’s hurt, and frustration, and fear. Hatred, fear, and victimhood is no way to run a judicial system, or a company. It’s certainly no way to run two countries.

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