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Atlantic Monthly

An Orthodox Messiah

Pyotr Kuznetsov has endured crude and unwarranted ridicule — unwarranted not only because he is a troubled man, but also because messiahs do this sort of thing all the time. To entertain self-doubt, to supplicate miserably to the higher power that sent you, to act, in moments of extreme stress, in ways that seem undignified — these are occupational hazards of being the Son or prophet of God. Kuznetsov’s self-battery is a normal stage of religious genesis.

Certainly, failed predictions and erratic behavior should not disqualify him as a prophet or apostle. At least one plausible reading of the New Testament has Christ’s followers incorrectly predicting, and preparing for, an imminent Apocalypse. The Prophet Muhammad may well have experienced auditory and visual hallucinations of the kind that led doctors to commit Kuznetsov. The Donmeh have gone nearly three and a half centuries believing Sabbatai Zevi to be the Jewish Messiah, even after he publicly converted to another religion. None of these stumbling blocks seems to have diminished the capacity of believers to experience transcendence — or, in the case of the True Orthodox Church, shaken their belief that the “Messiah of Siberia” had the right idea when he suggested they barricade themselves in a cave last year to prepare for the end of the world.

To mock Kuznetsov is to misunderstand the nature of religious belief. Thirty-five of his flock (called a “cult” by some) barricaded themselves in; fourteen remain underground and unwilling to leave, even though the cave is starting to collapse. Disconfirmatory evidence — the continued existence of the earth — does not matter to them, and may indeed make them even more avid in their faith. We might condemn Kuznetsov by the standards of normal people, but by the standards of Messiahs, so far so good.


Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

Categories
Atlantic Monthly

The Buddhist Street

“All things,” Lord Buddha reminds us, “are ephemeral.” The two Buddhist autocrats who saw their power eroded this week in South Asia might have kept this advice in mind. From his Dharmasala lair, His Holiness the Dalai Lama lamented helplessly as the violent protests in Lhasa — and the crackdown by Beijing — proceeded apace, not obviously affected by his pleas for calm. And Jigme Khesar Namgyel, son of the Scourge of Thimpu, watched his subjects vote for a national assembly for the first time, in a ballot he himself decreed, but that still diminishes his authority.

There may be something or nothing to learn about democracy from these spectacles. The first suggests that the movement for Tibetan independence does not answer only to the Dalai Lama, and that China may have a bigger problem, with a wider and more distributed base, than it thought. Perhaps Lhasa would prefer to exchange the unquestioned rule of Hu Jintao for something more than the unquestioned rule of Tenzin Gyatso. As for the Bhutanese monarch, all signs point to democracy — except for the often and freely expressed desire of the Bhutanese to keep and revere the monarchy, with or without elections. Whatever else this shows, it should put rest to the notion that democratization of the Buddhist street is any simpler — or more welcome — than democratization of the Arab one.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

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London Review of Books

Letter

Letter to the London Review of Books

Nicholas Guyatt, in his piece on the US Christian right, mentions that at the funeral of the notorious religious huckster Jerry Falwell, one lamb from Pastor Falwell’s flock was caught with homemade bombs in his car, claiming that he’d brought them in case liberal protesters threatened the cortège. In the event, the protesters weren’t ‘liberal’: they were members of an even more extreme religious sect, the Westboro Baptist Church, which denounced Falwell as a ‘corpulent false prophet’. The WBC, whose members believe the Iraq war is God’s way of punishing America for its permissive attitudes towards homosexuality, have weathered years of denunciation by more moderate clerics, such as Falwell. Yet when I interviewed them at one of their demonstrations, WBC members said they regard the US Constitution, including its provision guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion, as one of God’s greatest blessings. It’s a melancholy fact that many US Christians appreciate their Constitution only when their own beliefs are the ones ridiculed and suppressed.

Graeme Wood
Ciudad del Este, Paraguay

Categories
02138

Still Standing in Iraq

02138, May/June 2007

On the day I crossed the Iran-Iraq border in February 2004, you could get through immigration twice as fast if you were a Shiite zealot. Thousands of Iranian pilgrims were surging into Iraq to observe the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in Karbala. Saddam had barred them from Ashura for more than 25 years, but now the dictator was on the lam, and Iranian triumphalists flooded in to inaugurate a new  period of Shiite dominance. On the Iranian side, I glommed onto a pilgrimage group and told the immigration officer I was Karbala-bound. He let me through without a hitch.