Finding the Road to Take
As I pressed the buzzer to open the door to the apartment bloc, I noticed an announcement with information on where the nearest bomb shelter was. But how could this be? It was Kiev in 2014 in the western Ukraine. People were moving about, living their lives, and yet here was a warning to protect them from what government saw as a possible attack. Ukraine, a land bordering Russia, still plays out its historic intermingling of Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe.
Now twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, those who believed the collapsed Wall of 1989 meant they were set free to become their own land and people, once again hear drumbeats reviving memories of empire.
The day the Ukrainian parliament passed a historic bill voicing determination to work with Europe, I sat with leaders of the Evangelical church, hearing their concerns and hopes. One pointed to a map and noted a large eastern region above the Crimea. “This,” he said, “is what Russia wants to take.” His lament was rooted in fear that the world would ignore this incursion because in world politics, what is denoted as “regional influence,” means that in this area Russia can do as she pleases because it is within her “region.”
Ukraine is very religious. One needs a lexicon to follow their religious tribes and links. There are three Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. The largest with 11,952 churches, is under jurisdiction of the “Moscow Patriarchate,” and the second, the “Kiev Patriarchate” with 4,508 churches. Political dynamics strain allegiances between the two: one under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarch and the other under the Kiev Patriarch. The third is the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), an independent denomination with 190 communities and 9 monasteries. There is also another historic church called the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with 3,646 churches. Estimates put Evangelical churches about 7,500.
The road to independence has been long and rough, and their relationship with Russia blustery, especially as Ukrainians set their sails towards democratic statehood. The two communities are linked in many ways. The very name Russia is derived from Ukraine’s original Kievan Rus. Under Stalin 7 million died in the Holodmor (The Great Famine) of the early 1930s. The Soviets purged 681,692 senior Ukrainian leaders during their occupation. After years of living under strict Soviet control, in 1991 Ukraine declared its independence. With the memory of Soviet harshness and brutality, one can imagine how they felt when Crimea was taken over. Russian presence is everywhere, many speaking Russian as their native language. Their economies have been for decades tied together. And with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church divided into two loyalties, feelings are at times turbulent.
Yet life goes on. The witness of Christ continues to flourish through its many peoples, churches and communities. Meet three whose lives represent so much good in the land.
Oleksandr Babiychuk is general secretary of the Bible Society. We talked about strategy and ministry, but it was only after much conversation did I learned that in 1934 Stalin had his grandfather, a pastor, executed. His father, also a pastor, was imprisoned by Khrushchev for ten years.
In leading the Bible Society, Olexsandr’s obvious interest is in Bible translation and distribution. He knows the power political freedom has in a Gospel witness. For example, in 1982 the government allowed a one-time import of 500 Bibles. In 2013 they distributed 383,000 Bibles, New Testaments and Children’s Bibles, a stunning reminder of the thirst, even among this most “Christianized” of people, for the Scriptures.
Denys Gorenkov heads up the IFES, a ministry to university students. His story is timeless: his father, an intellectual and Communist, filled their home with books. Denys loved to read and while still in high school, he picked up a magazine with a long passage from the New Testament. But there was no context for this reading, which ironically was Jesus’ message of turning the other cheek. The only place Denys could find biblical references were in Russian authors such as Dostoevsky. In time, while at university, he met Christian students, and through a Bible study came to faith.
His Holiness Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) is the kind of wise and courageous player you would want on your side. In his eighty-seventh year, he had just returned from meeting Russian and Ukrainian Christians leaders in Oslo, who together were looking for an understanding of the current political crisis. He was not unaware of the impact his comparing president Putin to Cain would create. A reporter asked him, “Why the reference?” He replied, “Cain killed his brother, then denied it.” A patriot, and a strong leader of his people, his analysis and support for national freedom is classic.
I asked what his daily prayer consists of. “We pray for peace but not any kind. We don’t need peace in slavery, but a just peace which means peace and freedom.”
Knowing the tension that often exists between Evangelicals and the Orthodox, I asked how they got along. He smiled and said, “There is a loving relationship between us. Yes, we get along well.”
The Road Ahead
What does a Christian do when conflict stirs anger and hatred against your own citizens who are ethnic siblings to a border country? Denys Gorenkov told a story of how the Orthodox faced a crisis in trying to discern “what is true?” during the rule of both Hitler and Stalin. They wondered, “Whom do we believe?” The conflicting propaganda out of Moscow about the wonders of Stalin and from Berlin of the aggression of Hitler gave them no objective means of learning what was true. So they configured this response: since we don’t know who to believe, we will help the children, do what is good. When confusion reigns, we will help those in need. When clouds obliterate reality, we will care for the vulnerable.
What will come of the political and military infractions? We know from history that Christian communities, even those of considerable strength, can be strangled. Among the constraining opinions and national distress, I tried to distill from its Christian leaders what we might learn to guide Christians elsewhere as they seek to offer support and prayer.
They admit they missed an enormous opportunity following 1991 to advance their political and economic worlds. But its leaders driven by cronyism and consumed by greed, allowed corruption to suck dry many initiatives, which would have brought a strong uptick in personal standards. Then the political infighting, the intrusion of Russia in its politics and the incompetence of ruling parties set the country back. Citizens in the east complain of being poorly treated.
The divided Orthodox between the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchates does nothing to foster unity of purpose, let alone a commitment of resolve. Evangelicals, while significant in numbers of churches, have not been able to craft together an Alliance, which would provide a vehicle of cooperative voice and action.
Ukraine, with its brilliant culture and landscape dotted by domes and crosses, is a reminder of its historical and ubiquitous Christian witness. Today it is going through another period of political agony.
Through the furtive years of Soviet surveillance, Evangelicals were forced to live in obscurity. Yet they developed a core of leaders and today a new generation is taking the lead. They are resolute. The fear of intrusion in the east, while threatening, is not overwhelming. They are creative and outward looking, seeking ways to affirm their nation and people without allowing nationalism to define their faith.
I asked a student, “In this time of crisis, what do you want to tell the world?” His response…
“Yes we are experiencing pain, fear and hope. These are all big. As Christians we don’t support violence or fascism and we don’t want to view Russians as enemies. We want Ukraine to be a nation where Christ is alive and helping people.”
Keep these leaders in your prayers that good will emerge from this moment of stress.
Brian C. Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance