Monday, May 20, 2013

The Pharisees of the Caucasus

Since independence, all three South Caucasus states have seen a revival in religious practice.  The Georgian and Armenian ‘national’ churches were quickly restored in their central roles within the identities of their respective ethnic groups; the Islamic denominations in Azerbaijan likewise saw the faithful return to their mosques in large numbers.  Meanwhile, as in the rest of the former Soviet Union, a large number of cults – including the Jehova’s Witnesses, and the Hare Krishnas – started infringing on what the established religions saw as ‘their’ rightful spheres of influence as ordinary Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians embraced the spiritualism they had been denied under Soviet, scientific-socialist rule, with gusto.

This religious revival tied in perfectly with the national (re)awakenings that  occurred in parallel at that time.  Church and mosque provided a value-system that could act as a complement to the more secular post-Soviet mythologies of nationalism; as victims of Communist repression, Armenia’s and Georgia’s churches could, in particular, be portrayed as repositories of a long-lost, pre-Soviet ethnic authenticity and authority, an insight also seized upon, within the Russian context, by Vladimir Putin.  In both of the South Caucasus’ majority Christian republics, post-Soviet elites took great care to maintain good relations with their respective church hierarchies.  Former Communist party members – including Eduard Shevardnadze – had themselves baptised after quite sudden Pauline conversions; large cathedrals were built at great public expense in both Yerevan and Tbilisi, in the middle of economic crisis and stagnation.  And as the walls between secular and religious authority crumbled, a shady ideological alliance emerged between religious, political and business elites. 

As a result, the South Caucasus’ Church hierarchies make sure their injunctions do not entail any criticism of the corruption and moral degeneracy that have become a hallmark of their countries social elites; and in return, political leaders grant ‘their’ churches carte blanche, place them above legal scrutiny, based on a faux reverence towards an institution they are all too willing to manipulate towards their ends.  In effect, significant portions of the region’s clergy and its politicians have developed a symbiotic relationship that is not quite unlike the one between Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees - as depicted in the New Testament - with the latter moralising over the behaviour of their ‘little people’ while failing to ever challenge the decadent ways of the powerful, including themselves.  While these  churchmen aim their arrows of damnation on the weak in their societies, they remain deafeningly silent on the much greater and immoral transgressions of the wealthy; in return, they are embraced by oligarchs and politicians as their own, sometimes unashamedly flaunting the wealth gathered from their interaction with the worldly, unholy games of commerce and corruption.

In both Armenia and Georgia, clerics have had a lot to say about the weakest among their ‘little people’.  They have expressed definite views on the place of unmarried women in society (obedient and virginal), of married women (equally obedient, but constantly pregnant and in the kitchen), unmarried mothers (hell-bound), homosexuals (hell-bound in this world and the next), and religious minorities (equally hell-bound).  And yet, they have failed at every turn to challenge the strong, the powerful in society, and their far more destructive immorality.  Clergymen in Tbilisi are prepared to lead lynch mobs against peaceful LGBT activists; their Armenian counterparts are equally active in spewing hatred against people engaging in entirely consensual sexual behaviour.    But I have yet to see one single priest lead a furious mob or even fulminate against, say, the men engaging in quite non-consensual rape, or domestic violence against women; or preach against the materialist greed, the corruption, the dishonesty, the lack of selfless charity of the oligarchs in their societies.  While the powerful destroy lives and ruin whole countries, blaspheme through almost each and every one of their actions, their Pharisees point their fingers at women, gays and Jehova’s Witnesses, anywhere except towards the rotten sources of power.  No wonder: upholding the sexual mores of the least powerful is much easier than follow the example of the founder of the Christian faith: challenging the powers that be where it matters, at great cost.  

When watching the scenes of hateful, religious fanaticism coming out of Tbilisi last week, or hearing about Armenian bishops driving around in Bentleys and toting handguns, I always ask myself whether these ‘guardians of the faith’ have read the same New Testament I have? What does this behaviour have to do with the example set two thousand years ago by an ordinary carpenter from Nazareth who preached love as he challenged power, and willingly paid for it with his life? Have they even understood why Jesus saved a prostitute from stoning by challenging those who are without sin to cast the first stone (John 8:7)? Are they followers of the same Jesus behind the Sermon on the Mount, where He stated how salvation would be reserved, in the first place, for the weak, the poor, the wretched of this earth? Do those Bentley-driving, business-owning, gun-swinging clerics believe in the same man who said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter Kingdom of God (Mark 10:25)? The same person who smashed the tables and scales of the money-changers in front of the temple, in a clear admonition not to mix the godly with the worldly, faith with commerce (Matthew 21:12)? 

All one hears from the clergy in the Caucasus are the noisy, formulaic incantations of dogma that hide their pale-faced unwillingness to challenge those who are not meek, their failure to condemn the greed of the powerful in their societies, and, in some cases, their own participation in the dubious ways of their world.  A lot of noise is needed to drown out that silence, that unwillingness to speak spiritual truth to material power, that corruption. Last week, on the streets of Tbilisi, that diversionary noise transformed itself into acts of physical aggression against people who happen to be different, in just the latest indication of just how morally inept and power-drunk today’s Pharisees have become.

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