You can now read 10 articles each month for free on BostonGlobe.com.

The Boston Globe

Opinion

Harvey Cox

Of Ezekiel, Gandhi, and Pussy Riot

 Mahatma Gandhi led followers into banned Hindu temple precincts.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/file 1947

Mahatma Gandhi led followers into banned Hindu temple precincts.

We belong to different generations and different genders, but I have something in common with three female members of the punk band Pussy Riot, who were recently sentenced to jail in Moscow for performing a protest song in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their protest took the form of a prayer to the Mother of God to rid the country of Vladimir Putin. I too was once incarcerated for a similar reason. It was during the Vietnam War when a few peace advocates, including four novice nuns, tried to distribute St. Francis’s famous prayer for peace at the chapel of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. In our case, however, we did not get two years. We were merely detained for a few hours in the academy’s brig, then escorted off the grounds and warned never to come back.

Were the young women who were packed off to jail last week really guilty of inciting religious hatred, as the court held? Or were they continuing the tradition of using shocking gestures in holy places to get across a serious message, a practice that goes back to the Hebrew prophets and to Christ himself? The prophet Isaiah walked through the streets naked and barefoot for three years to warn his people of their impending captivity. Hosea married a prostitute to shame people into recognizing their infidelity to God. Ezekiel baked and ate bread he made of cow dung.

Continue reading below

These prophets often chose the temple area in which to act out their warnings and denunciations. Jesus followed suit. He overturned the tables of the profiteers in the temple courtyard itself. The practice of protesting corruption and misrule in or near the sanctuary lived on in St. Francis. His simple dress and his refusal to accept his family’s money constituted a constant nagging dissent against the wealth and earthly power of the church. His more conventional contemporaries looked upon him and his raggedy, sandal-wearing followers as ne’er-do-wells or hippies. But he has become everyone’s favorite saint.

Protests and reforms often begin in religious venues. When an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted his complaints against the papacy and the indulgence system in Wittenberg, he tacked them up on the door of the cathedral itself. The Scottish Reformation started in Edinburgh when an angry woman hurled a stool at the head of a preacher who was “praying out of a book.” The early New England Quakers interrupted church services to make known their peacemaking message. The colonial authorities treated them harshly, but today they are universally admired for their efforts to advance reconciliation.

Such forms of protest are not restricted to a single religion.The irrepressible Bal Shem Tov, founder of Jewish Hasidism, used to bring together high-spirited followers to sing and dance, loudly, just outside the doors of orthodox synagogues where prayers he believed were dry and lifeless were being intoned. Years later in India, Gandhi led nonviolent bands of “untouchables” into the Hindu temple precincts from which the higher castes banned them. Then in 1960s America hundreds of young black Christians staged “pray-ins” in segregated churches.

The young women of Pussy Riot, however, also represent a cherished spiritual tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church itself, resurrecting the heritage of the yurodivy, the “holy fools.” Orthodox theologians for centuries have recognized this as an authentic from of asceticism. Holy fools are not dismissed as crazy or criminal, but as people who, in using annoying or provocative acts, are saying something people need to hear. In a more subdued tone, Dostoyevsky celebrated this figure idea in the character of Prince Myshkin in his novel “The Idiot.”

But there is an even more recent example in St. Petersburg. In a staging at the Mariinsky Theatre of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Gudunov” this year, the actors wore contemporary clothes. But one central character stands out. The “holy fool” who insists on confronting Boris with the truth of his crimes is dressed like a bohemian hipster, similar to the clothes worn by some young people in the recent street protests. His courtiers want to dispatch the fool, but instead of sending him off to prison, Boris listens. But it is too late. In the opera, as in history, Boris dies in disgrace. Maybe instead of putting Pussy Riot behind bars, Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the Orthodox Church should listen. It may not be too late yet.

Harvey Cox is a professor at Harvard Divinity School and author of “The Future of Faith.’’

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than $1 a week