By Thomas J. Whitley
In his address on Sunday, Pope Francis spoke of Lent as “a time of combat,” a time of spiritual battle. The Church’s example, Francis said, is Jesus who faced Satan in the wilderness “corpo a corpo,” or in a melee, and was victorious. The battle in America, though, often seems to be waged less against the evil spiritual rulers of this world and more against one’s waistline with soda, chocolate, and sweets being among those most often given up for Lent. (Open Bible has tracked Lent-related tweets for a number of years to see what people say they are giving up. The “food” category was by far the top-ranking category this year, with 3 times as many mentions than the next category, “school/work,” which we can guess is largely said in jest.)
Some in Russia have taken the battle analogy a bit more literally and are infusing their politics into the Lenten celebrations and are combatting evil spirits in a more active way. In their celebration of Maslenitsa, which leads up to Great Lent and during which an effigy of Lady Maslenitsa is usually burned, some in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, chose to burn an effigy of President Obama. This effigy had Obama’s face with “черт,” devil, written on his forehead and pro-Ukrainian “puppets” hanging from his hands. One of the organizers described the situation as a “rite of purification from evil spirits, which, in our opinion, these people are.”
What we see here is the employment of religion as a means of resistance. Evil spirits are not being purged in the abstract sense, but rather specific evil spirits are identified and “burned.” In this we recognize that the coupling of this act with Maslenitsa makes it more than merely a political act, at least to its participants. Burning an effigy of Obama during Maslenitsa infuses it with a divine significance for those doing it. It is then, for them, more than political statement. It is a statement about their understanding of the forces at work in the world and their understanding of what God’s ideal world would look like. It is also an act of resistance against the hegemony of Obama and those he backs in Ukraine. It is a minor act of resistance, to be sure. Though James Scott, in his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, has argued that it is just such minor acts of resistance that can have a significant impact (indeed he actually looks at even more minor acts of resistance such as feet shuffling). Contra Scott, Bruce Lincoln, who spoke at the Florida State University Graduate Student Symposium this past weekend, suggested that minor acts of resistance, that is, acts of resistance that do not rise to the level of rebellion, are almost always unsuccessful and, if anything, may only hope to slow the march of the dominant.
Whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about the impact that minor acts of resistance such as this can have, we can still recognize them as acts of resistance and can recognize the role that religion plays in them. By burning an effigy of Obama during Maslenitsa the act is set apart from other effigy burnings. The act has been sacralized by its inclusion in the traditional Maslenitsa celebrations. In doing so, the act of burning an effigy has been endowed with what Lincoln calls “sacred warrants” (Lincoln, Authority, 104). That is, they are seeking to authorize and legitimate their actions by invoking the divine, a move which presents their actions as transcendent.
Indeed, those who are giving up chocolate, or Twitter, or sex for Lent are doing precisely the same thing. By engaging (or not engaging) in certain acts for Lent, that participation or renunciation is thereby endowed with “sacred warrants.” That the act is explicitly connected with Lent sets it apart from general self-improvement or healthy living. Dieting in general is difficult, to be sure, but giving up chocolate for Lent is nothing short of spiritual warfare.