Article
Culture
Politics
4 min read

Shall the tyrants win?

Understanding Navalny's death.

Michael Bird is Deputy Principal at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. 

Flowers and notes of condolence for Alexander Navalny lie in a pile.
Commemorations of Alexei Navalny, Berlin.
Nikita Pishchugin on Unsplash.

Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was murdered in prison. Precisely how he died, we do not know. But many have wondered whether his death signals the end of organized opposition to Putin’s regime in Moscow. 

Navalny was famous as an anti-corruption and pro-democracy activist. He survived a Novichok poisoning attempt in 2020, then, after recuperating in Germany, decided to return to Russia a short time later. Once back in Russia, he was soon arrested, sentenced to 19 years in a penal colony inside the Arctic Circle, and then – as we now know – murdered. 

The torrid history of Russia as an empire and the violence of Putin’s regime against its own people make one wonder if any democratic and liberal resistance is futile. 

On hearing of the death of Navalny, I watched the documentary about his life’s work, how despite harassment, murder attempts, and imprisonments, he tried to bring freedom and democracy to Russia. This was always going to be an uphill battle since Russia or parts thereof have been a dictatorship since the defeat of the Tatars in 1480. Moscow. Its Russian lands have been ruled by the Tsardom of Russia (1547), the Russian Empire (1721), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922), and the Russian Federation (1991). Despite a brief flirtation with democracy in the 1990s, Russia returned to its de facto state as a military dictatorship when Putin took power in a bloodless coup in 2000. Since then, whether as prime minister or president, Putin has increasingly locked Russia under his iron grip and become increasingly hostile towards the west and western notions of liberalism.  

Putin’s regime is known for its brutality, from the Salisbury poisonings against Sergei and Yulia Skripal back in 2018, to the gunning down of Russian defector Maxim Kuzminov in Spain a few days after Navalny’s death.  

The torrid history of Russia as an empire and the violence of Putin’s regime against its own people make you wonder if any democratic and liberal resistance is futile. 

As King Theoden in the Lord of the Rings says when his people faced annihilation by an army of Orcs, “So much death, what can men do against such reckless hate?” 

God’s promise of the believer’s resurrection is not pious longing, but a political doctrine.

But Navalny had an answer, it was to tell the truth, even if that cost him, even to the point of being willing to lay down his life for others. These things came directly from Navalny's Christian faith. 

Navalny, during his show trial in 2021, stated:  

“The fact is that I am a Christian, which usually sets me up as an example for constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly our people are atheists, and I was once quite a militant atheist myself,” Navalny said, “but now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities because everything becomes much, much easier.” 

Navalny claimed that he was especially motivated by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied”. 

Death is the tyrant’s ultimate weapon to terrorize, to force people to suffer in silence, to make them accept enslavement and despotism as normal and unchangeable. But the promise of resurrection means that God intends to undo whatever the tyrant does. The worst of evil is no match for resurrection. The goodness of God’s power and the power of God’s goodness always defeats death. God’s promise of resurrection is not pious longing, but a political doctrine, the hope for creation to be renewed, powers to be reconciled, and all things to be put to rights. 

Faith in God’s life-giving power is our defiance against evil powers, “against the leaders, against the authorities, against the powers that rule the world in this dark age, against the wicked spiritual elements in the heavenly places”, as St Paul writes. And defiance is contagious. 

When evil men hunger for power, Christians are called to thirst for righteousness, as Navalny did.  

Putin is not the only brutal dictator on the scene. There is the communist leader Xi Jinping (China), the socialist dictator Nicholas Maduro (Venezuela), the military council led by Min Aung Hlaing (Myanmar), the Shia theocrat Ali Khamenei (Iran), or the kleptocracy of Manasseh Sogavare (Solomon Islands). Then there is the danger of Christian Nationalism that also looms in the winds of Hungary and the USA. Yet the Christian faith teaches us that every Caesar, Tsar, King, General, and President who sets themselves up as an invincible and infallible icon of power will see their icon smashed eventually. Like the statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem, irrespective of what depths of horror despots attain, not matter how much they self-aggrandize, their reign will one day be no more than a “shattered visage” at the feet of Jesus. 

This is the truth that Jesus spoke to Pilate, what Paul said to Herod Agrippa II, and what courageous Christians like Navalny say today.

In the face of tyranny and terror, what is to be done? We can cherish Navalny’s memory, pray for his work to continue. But above all, we take solace in the fact that Jesus says, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world”. 

That is not a dream or a distant hope, it’s a promise, a promise we make good with  prayers, protests, energy, and efforts to build for the kingdom of Christ, to prepare the earth for the day when tyrants, terror, and tears are no more. By doing such things, we in effect erect a billboard saying, “The powers will be pacified, the lost will be found, the darkness will be cured by light, the world’s injustices will be undone, and God’s love will reign supreme.” 

In other words, a time is coming, and now is already burgeoning like a breaking dawn, when Navalny’s thirst for righteousness will be more than satisfied. 

  

Michael Bird is Deputy Principal at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. Together with N.T. Wright he is the author of Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracy published by SPCK and Zondervan. 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen