“After this, nothing happened”—What Vladislav Surkov’s dark arts can teach us about Black, or Holy Saturday

READINGS:

Holy Saturday, the Saturday of Holy Week, also known as Holy and Great Saturday, the Great Sabbath, Black Saturday, or Easter Even, and called Joyous Saturday or the Saturday of Light among Coptic Christians, is the day after Good Friday. It is the day before Easter and the last day of Holy Week in which Christians prepare for Easter. It commemorates the day that Jesus' body lay in the tomb and the Harrowing of Hell (source).

The Harrowing of Hell is referred to in the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed which state that Jesus Christ “descended into Hell”. Christ having descended to the underworld is alluded to in the New Testament only in 1 Peter 3:19–20, which speaks of Jesus preaching to “the imprisoned spirits”. This near-absence in Scripture of this has given rise to controversy and differing interpretations (source).

Apart from the previous, clearly mythological, text the only mention in the New Testament of any event taking place on Holy or Black Saturday itself is found at Matthew 27:62-66 (trans. David Bentley Hart):

And on the next day [following the crucifixion], which is after the Preparation [for the Sabbath], the chief priests and the Pharisees were assembled before Pilate, saying, “Lord, we have remembered that the deceiver [i. e. Jesus], when he was still living, said, ‘After three days I am raised.’ Therefore command that the tomb be secured until the third day, so that the disciples might not come and steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the final deception will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go make it as secure as you know how.” And going away, along with the guard, they made the tomb secure, sealing up the stone.

[NB. As a friend of mine pointed out after the service and in the light of my words below, the above passage is itself a perfect, early example of perception manipulation]

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ADDRESS
After this, nothing happened—What Vladislav Surkov’s dark arts can teach us about Black, or Holy Saturday

Today is Palm Sunday and I usually take this as the theme for the day’s address but this year I want to look at another day in Holy Week, namely, Holy Saturday or, as it is more rarely but surely more accurately called, Black Saturday.  

As most of you know, in this liberal church we take the Easter story seriously but without feeling forced to take it in anything like a wholly literalistic fashion. On Good Friday we will, as usual, hold an evening communion service in which we recall the events of Jesus’ final week that led-up to his crucifixion. Then, on Sunday, we will celebrate the resurrection — not the literal resurrection of Jesus of course whom we know died upon the cross and whose body, as the poet A. E. Housman put it, to this day lies “ages slain” in some quiet “Syrian garden” — but, instead, the metaphorical, poetical resurrection of the spirit which inspired the creation of a new religious community seeking to embody the human Jesus’ teachings and example.

But the one day we don’t generally consider during the coming week is the aforementioned Black Saturday. I suspect that this is because within liberal religion we have had a tendency to be a little bit too naively hopeful and optimistic for our own, long-term good and so Black Saturday, naturally presents a unique challenge to us, one that isn’t present on either Good Friday or Easter Sunday.

Think about it. Good Friday, for all the horror the day brought to both Jesus and his disciples, was a day whose dreadful, violent momentum brutally swept them (and still sweeps us in our age of 24/7 rolling news) through all the bloody events without any opportunity to stop to think and reflect on what was (or is) happening. Likewise Easter Sunday had (and has) its own unstoppable momentum, but this day — which coincides with the rebirth of spring — is one epitomised by the joyous, future orientated cry (howsoever interpreted) “He is risen; He is risen, indeed!” (cf. Luke 24:34).

But on Black Saturday there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the way of hopeful, forward-looking momentum and so everything stops; all that the first disciples had hoped for was utterly lost and they had absolutely no inkling at all of the joy to come.

It’s no wonder this theme is rarely explored but, fortunately for us, something it has been explored by the philosopher Jonathan Lear in his book, “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation” (Harvard University Press, 2006) which reflects on lessons we might learn from the life of Chief Plenty Coups (1848–1932) from the Crow Tribe who lived in Montana and North Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to being a warrior Plenty Coups’ whole form of life was centred on the hunting of the buffalo but when the buffalo had gone (a catastrophic event caused, of course, by the white settlers) and the tribe were confined to a reservation, his form of life was finished. Here’s how Plenty Coups expressed this to his friend and biographer Frank B. Linderman (1869-1938):

“I have not told you half of what happened when I was young. . . . I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened (p. 2).

Lear notes that we could simply interpret Plenty Coups to be saying something like the tribe was depressed and things seemed as though nothing happened. But what Lear wants to stress, rightly in my opinion, is something deeper, namely that the loss of the buffalo destroyed Crow subjectivity; what it was to be a member of the Crow tribe was to hunt buffalo and if there were no longer any buffalo to hunt then there could no longer be, in any meaningful sense, a Crow person. It would to be somewhat like a captain and crew of an ocean-going liner on a planet that has lost all its seas. To be sure Plenty Coups was still alive, still getting up in the morning and doing certain kinds of everyday things, but he could no longer truly be a Crow Indian and so we may take his words to be a declaration that the ideas around which he has shaped his whole life were no longer livable. What was required, and which amazingly Plenty Coups achieved, was to find a way poetically to take elements of his own past and make of it something capable of generating for the Crow a new field of possibility for authentic living as the Crow.

Anyway, I have a strong sense that something similar must have occurred in the community that had gathered around Jesus. Following his execution the old ways were gone — they also found themselves to be a ship’s crew on a ship without a sea to sail upon — but somehow they, too, managed poetically to re-envision their own subjectivity and, miracle or miracles, brought about both a new sea and a new boat to sail upon it.

That poetic re-envisioning began during their Black Saturday (when “nothing happened”) but we can’t easily put ourselves back into that actual day two-millennia ago because our own modern democracies are late-flowering fruits of the first disciples’ poetic resurrection re-envisioning, albeit one significantly modified by the insights and discoveries of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science.

So, to get something of real spiritual/philosophical value out of “Black Saturday” we need to think ourselves into what might be the end of our own tradition — but that’s a very difficult and challenging thing to do. Perhaps, under what we are tempted to call “normal” conditions, there is little point in attempting to undertake this. But we all now know we are no longer in times we consider “normal” — things are no longer going along in a tickety-boo fashion and it seems to me that the solemn run-up to Easter is a good time to acknowledge and reflect upon this. As Lear observed in his book published in 2006:

We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilisations are themselves vulnerable. Events around the world — terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes — have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name. I suspect that this feeling has provoked the widespread intolerance that we see around us today — from all points of the political spectrum. It is as though, without our insistence that our outlook is correct, the outlook itself may collapse. Perhaps if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, we could find better ways to live with it (p. 7).  

It seems to me that the vulnerability which today is threatening to pitch us into our own “Black Saturday” is the fear that we seem rapidly to be losing a coherent (enough) shared understanding of in what consists “truth” — a central, if always complex, pillar of democracy.

To help me bring the vulnerability most forcibly before you I want now to turn to a shadowy but hugely influential figure called Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov (b. 1964). Here’s how the film-maker Adam Curtis’ introduces Surkov and his work to us in his recent BBC documentary “HyperNormalization”:

Surkov is one of President Putin's advisers, and has helped him maintain his power for 15 years, but he has done it in a very new way. He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career, say that what Surkov has done, is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics. His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening. Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin. But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.” A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable. It is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine this year. In typical fashion, as the war began, Surkov published a short story about something he called non-linear war. A war where you never know what the enemy are really up to, or even who they are. The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control. 

[The full documentary can still be found on the BBC iPlayer at this link]

As Peter Pomerantsev writing for “The Atlantic” in 2014 put it:

The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime

But don’t for one single moment let yourself be seduced into thinking this is just an isolated Russian phenomenon because increasing numbers of our own British, European and American politicians, financiers, digital-tech and social-media moguls (such as those running Cambridge Analytica and Facebook et. al.) are daily applying Surkov’s methods all around us. The result is that truth, the central pillar of all genuinely democratic traditions, is in danger of disappearing completely from our lives as did the buffalo from the lives of the Crow and Jesus from the lives of the first disciples. It is this loss that may, if not stopped, pitch us into our own deep and dark Black Saturday. It could threaten to deliver us up into a situation that Plenty Coups faced, namely, suddenly finding ourselves in a world where the ideas of truth which shaped our lives are no longer livable.

To be sure the first disciples and Chief Plenty Coups show us that a radical hope can emerge from dreadful Black Saturdays and from this we can, and should, take some comfort, cold though it necessarily is.

But, on balance, it’s surely far better to find ways so as not to fall or be pushed into any kind of Black Saturday especially since, thankfully, we are not quite there yet. Given this, may I gently but firmly encourage you this week seriously to meditate on how truth, like Jesus and the buffalo, is today being forced by Surkov and his ilk to walk a via dolorosa towards its death. As best we can, let’s together stop being merely passive bystanders in this awful spectacle and try to ensure that truth’s crucifixion does not come to pass.

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