From Russia Without Love?

The Sochi Winter Olympics have offered the viewing world quite a spectacle. The most expensive Olympics ever, at an estimated $50 billion, the Sochi games were supposed to be for the Putin regime a re-launch for brand Russia that spoke of a confident world player, capable of taking its place at the forefront of Asian power.

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To be fair, such a hope is not too far fetched, particularly if historical standing has anything to add to one’s current place in the world. The opening ceremony was a reminder of Russia’s rich legacy to the world in the arts – from Chekov to Kadinsky – as well as in giving us some of the most influential minds of the 19th and 20th centuries in Tolstoy, Marx, and Lenin. It was a beautifully choreographed blend of natural grace and technological marvel. And, inevitably, the athletes on ice and snow remind us mere mortals that certain human feats of physical daring should indeed be left to people who know how to fall from great heights and alarming speeds without leaving the scene a permanent invalid. They are welcome to those medals as far as I am concerned.

This is the Sochi games that Putin ordered, and after $50 billion down, you really do want something to show for it. Yet, if this is the official transcript of events on the Black Sea coast, then another discourse, a counter-discourse is being enunciated slowly and surely, sometimes loudly – particularly if there is a western news agency involved –  and sometimes with more subtlety.

ImageThis is a news feed that is distinctly not from Russia with love if it is Putin’s Russia that we are talking about. This is the story of the country whose dominant narrative has little room for the difference that other ethnicities, sexual orientations, and it would seem any voices of political dissent present as a challenge to the status quo. Such an intolerance for difference is an all too familiar tale. Its protagonists shift but the plot remains more or less the same whether you are in Damascus, Lhasa, or Pyongyang. Yet, in the midst of all of this flagrant abuse of the basic dignity of being human, the strident disregard for international law, and the irony that a country that has expanded the horizons of our species with great art has such a myopic political outlook, there persists what I would call as a theologian looking on at all of this a certain holiness being witnessed.

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Holiness is that quality that one human being, most often unwittingly, displays to another that mystically makes God more visible in the world. The Russian people have lived under the nose of an imperial power for centuries. The 1917 revolution, in the end, merely changed the rhetoric but the architecture of power and subordination remained intact. People who take to the streets to protest in my own corner of the world of California know that the worst they might face is some pepper spray and a little time in a jail cell. People who take to the streets in Russia know that the consequences for crying out for a more just world can be fatal.

Yet, there seems to me to have been scene after scene of men and women, standing up in defiance of the state’s attempt to silence the voice of dissent. Such a refusal is one that speaks powerfully to me as a Christian. I follow a savior who stood before the representatives of an ancient empire, refusing to acquiesce to the Pax Romana that won ‘peace’ by the sword. Such people are not tolerated long, yet something of Christ’s refusal to hope for less than a kingdom of a vulnerable God on Earth has outlasted that empire of Rome, and I dare say that something of the holiness of the refusal to go quietly in the night in Russia and elsewhere will outlast present day iterations of hegemony. The question that remains for those, like me, who live in the relative comfort of this free land, is what we will do to witness to their struggle as we recognize the savior on the streets of the ‘other’ Sochi 2014.

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See, I am making all things new

I was trawling through my Facebook news feed last night and came across this extraordinary picture posted by one of my friends in Virginia who has a love for the natural world, having served for several years on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. My first reaction was that it must have been a photoshop production, but then I read on and found the story that the picture was trying to tell. It happened a good seven years back but its influence remains fresh:

‘Recent headline of the San Francisco Chronicle: Female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spiderweb of crab traps and line weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, tail, torso and a line tugging in her mouth.

A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farallon Islands and radioed an environmental group for help. Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so bad off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her. They worked for hours and eventually freed her.

When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently around as she was thanking them.
Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives. The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.’

What should we make of a story like that? From an animal behaviorist perspective, that humpback whales are intelligent creatures is a consensus view. A 2006 study published in The Anatomical Record compared a humpback whale brain with brains from several other cetacean species and found the presence of a certain type of neuron cell that is also found in humans. Might, though, the intelligence of cetacean species like the humpback include empathy?
The degree to which non-human animal life is capable of empathy and the larger range of emotional intelligence has been a matter of scientific debate for a good couple of decades. However, what might we say about this story and the wider question of our relationship to creation from a theological perspective?

How might we move our awareness as a species toward the experience that those divers had in the San Francisco Bay, communing with a creature many, many times their size? To see nature in such a way is to undergo a change as the diver who freed the humpback’s mouth attests to. At its heart, the Christian life is about such change. It is about an old self dying so that a new one might be raised up. Paul’s letters in particular speak again and again of our need to see God’s new creation in the world around us, most especially in the panoply of human diversity. Galatians 3:28 puts it like this, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ 
What, though, if we were to go on, ‘there is no longer homo sapien and cetacean, no longer human and animal’. What if the new creation, all of which is redeemed in Christ, were to offer us a new identity that saw our belonging and its communion extend into the natural world? What if we all were able to cast a figurative gaze into the eyes of a humpback whale, or a lowland gorilla, or a snow leopard? I imagine that in the end, should such a degree of emotional intelligence ever sink in underneath our own craniums, we might end up even more human, even more true to our own identities. Indeed, the time for such a learning curve to be traveled is not on our side. To rework Jeremiah, ‘Seek the shalom of the city’ and of the sea, for in its welfare we shall all find our own.