Churches and Diplomacy after Bucha: Limitations and Opportunities of ecumenical dialogue
Well-known scholars and experts, along with representatives of religious communities, joined together to discuss the difficult issues of the crisis of the traditional ecumenical movement in the context of war, the possibility or impossibility of distancing interchurch associations from the armed conflict, and their role in finding ways to end it and build peace.
The academic forum became a platform not only for raising acute questions but also for unexpected and "uncomfortable" conclusions; the participants managed to analyze not only the main forms and features of contemporary ecumenical relations but also to point out their weaknesses. The practical dimension of building interfaith dialogue in the new conditions was not overlooked. The efforts of the world Christian community, statements and actions of religious leaders, and the activities of ecumenical organizations (such as the World Council of Churches) in response to the challenges of Russian aggression against Ukraine, which has been accompanied and justified by religiously colored rhetoric, were reflected upon at different levels by the conference participants.
Referring to Theodor Adorno's famous quote "To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch.) and drawing a parallel with the tragedy in Bucha and other occupied cities, Fr. Yury Avvakumov, professor at the University of Notre Dame, emphasized that the horrors of war and the meanness of human actions were not only in the past, but are also emerging with all their drama in the present. Culture and barbarism are not only opposed to each other, which is most obvious, but also appear to be paradoxically interconnected. War gave and gives examples of this; horrific barbaric crimes against humanity (both in Auschwitz and Bucha) were committed by those whose culture is called and considered great. The speaker states with confidence: "The war exposes and reveals the true nature of human beings and their actions: it becomes clear who is who and what is what." And I would add that the war exposes the true nature and mechanisms of the functioning of various institutions, including churches and interfaith associations. It raises the question of how to build a dialogue with those who sacralize and justify bloodshed that is inherently criminal, who demonize the Western world and its value base.
One of the ways to react to such events is to withdraw and try to hide behind the phrase that the Church is out of politics. Stefan Kube, editor-in-chief of the journal «Religion und Gesellschaft in Ost und West» (Zurich), discussed whether this is true and what consequences such a position may have. The researcher noted attempts to distance Christian bodies from political issues in statements and speeches by religious leaders. He cited as an example a quotation from an interview with the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Jerry Pillay, in May 2023: "The task of the WCC is not to get involved in politics even though this is necessary for peaceful solutions to real problems. We do not have a political agenda, and we believe that the Bible calls us to peace." Similar guidance can be found in the statements of Pope Francis. For example, in an interview in May 2022, he said: "But I feel that I shouldn’t go there [to Kyiv]. Not yet. First, I must go to Moscow, I want to meet Putin first of all. But in the end I am just a priest, what can I possibly achieve? I’ll do what I can." Thus, Western religious leaders do not want to deal with the political sphere, and the exclusion of political issues from the agenda seems to make their work easier. The extent to which ecumenical efforts to establish dialogue or peacemaking initiatives can be carried out by the churches without taking into account the political context is, however, an open question.
The political aspects of the interpretation of the war in Ukraine by both the World Council of Churches and Pope Francis, the obvious politicization of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the falsifications and manipulations in the ecumenical language of Patriarch Kirill give rise to the unequivocal conclusion voiced by Stefan Kube that ecumenical hermeneutics does not put politics aside and that the development of ecumenical dialogue is based on both theological and non-theological factors. Non-theological factors, including issues of power and identity, play an important role in the formation of theological thought and in practical church activities."The case of the Russian Orthodox Church nowadays, or the acting and positioning of the religious communities during the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, …show that church actors are independent actors with their own interests and aims and not only puppets of politicians. The political and religious legitimizations of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine are intertwined and require an ecumenical hermeneutics which reflects on these connections and avoids a simple model of instrumentalization."
Yury Avvakumov also paid special attention to the weaknesses and problems of contemporary ecumenism, highlighting several key topics. First, he noted the confessionalist foundations of the ecumenical movement and factors of power in the world-wide ecumenical order. In his opinion, "Such a fixation on confessional communities functioning like nation-states goes in the ecumenical movement hand-in-glove with a clear preference for group rights over individual rights. Those in power in the respective confessional churches determine the international ecumenical order." Secondly, he addressed the influence of leftist and pacifist ideology, which is manifested in the spread of the rhetoric of peace and dialogue at any cost. As the speaker aptly pointed out, juggling pacifist slogans in the context of a total war of genocidal nature is a clear sign of the complete failure of "professional" ecumenism. Attempts to call for non-violent resistance in Ukraine under such circumstances are more indicative of dogmatism, lack of basic ethical compassion, and indifference to suffering. Avvakumov identified the third fundamental problem of the contemporary ecumenical movement as susceptibility to imperialist narratives: in this case, the mythologization of Russia and neglect of Ukraine.
Therefore, the answer to the question of whether it is possible to practice the same ecumenism today as before sounds legitimate and sharp: "My answer is certainly no, therefore I called my talk ‘unecumenical reflections.’ The challenge of the historical moment is so high that we need a new beginning. A conversion of heart and renouncing hypocrisy is needed. In order to remain credible, the Christian world of tomorrow has to become post-confessional, and that means also ‘post-ecumenical.’"
Next, the experience of participating in the XI General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (held on August 31-September 8, 2022 in Karlsruhe, Germany) and the practical aspects of the activities of ecumenical organizations were shared by Ukrainian and Belarusian researchers Oleksandra Kovalenko and Natalia Vasilevich.
Oleksandra Kovalenko, a member of the Ukrainian Association of Researchers of Religion, who participated in the WCC Assembly as part of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine delegation, emphasized several positive and encouraging aspects in the ecumenical sphere, including the interest in Ukraine and the expansion of the representation of Ukrainian churches in international ecumenical platforms and dialogue initiatives. On the one hand, this demonstrates an increase in the level of support for Ukrainian Christians and a chance to present their position to the international community; but, on the other hand, it implies an increase in the responsibility of the Churches of Ukraine for the way they interact with the international community and what messages they disseminate. The researcher also noted that in some areas, the voice of the Church can be more expressive and weighty compared to other institutions and organizations (political or public), such as in the case of humanitarian aid. Therefore, representatives of Ukrainian religious communities could take more initiative, not just by joining in meetings or initiatives, but by working more systematically. It is especially important that the role and participation of young people and active lay people in such activities increase.
Speaking about the challenges and risks of working on ecumenical platforms, Oleksandra Kovalenko emphasized that such platforms can also be used to spread the Russian ideology of war. Often, representatives of other churches who are not aware of Russian-Ukrainian relations in general and the current armed conflict in particular can uncritically perceive and repeat the Kremlin's propaganda narratives. Therefore, one of the most important tasks facing Ukrainian participants in the dialogue is to inform the international community about what is really happening in Ukraine. Personal contacts, cooperation, and mutual exchange can most effectively serve this task.
Separately, the Ukrainian researcher focused on the internal problems of ecumenical relations in Ukraine, mentioning the escalation of tension and division in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. She emphasized that in fact there is a readiness for dialogue and cooperation among the faithful and the clergy, but not at the level of the church hierarchy. In practical terms there are many examples of successful interfaith and even interreligious cooperation, in particular in the field of humanitarian aid, pastoral support, aid for refugees and internally displaced persons, and training programs for chaplaincy.
At the end of her presentation, the speaker summarized that many of the challenges of contemporary ecumenism, both in Ukraine and in the international arena can become an impetus for the formation of interfaith relations of a new quality. That Ukrainian churches be involved in these processes is a positive prospect.
Natalia Vasilevich, a theologian from Belarus who is currently working on her dissertation at the University of Bonn, has extensive experience in participating in ecumenical meetings. She continued the topic raised by Oleksandra Kovalenko and focused on the question of how Ukrainian churches can be more effective in the ecumenical arena. As the researcher herself admitted, she has been supporting democratic forces in the Belarusian religious community for many years; at international ecumenical meetings she always tries to counteract the propaganda narratives of the Russian Orthodox Church.
She described the details of the preparation of the World Council of Churches' document “War in Ukraine, Peace and Justice in the European Region,” having been a member of the working group. She found it unexpected that this group also included a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, which made the work on the text challenging. At the same time this gave her a better understanding of how to work in conditions where one has to resist propaganda and manipulation. The researcher drew attention to the tactics and techniques used by the Russian Orthodox Church at international ecumenical forums to shift the focus of the international community's attention from the specific situation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In particular, the Moscow Patriarchate condemns bloodshed in general and presents itself as a peacemaker, absolving itself of responsibility for the war. Also, when describing its efforts to provide humanitarian aid to refugees and those in need, the ROC often emphasizes that it is only a church and stays away from politics. Thus, the researcher cited as an example the congratulatory letter of Patriarch Kirill to the Secretary General of the WCC, Jerry Pillay, of June 25, 2023, that emphasizes the important role of this organization as a platform for dialogue and calls for all possible efforts to de-escalate the conflict and return peace to Ukraine. Although the head of the Russian Orthodox Church has made statements in support of Russia's armed aggression, his speeches increasingly include ideas of peacemaking and even a just peace, diluting the meaning of these concepts.
According to Vasilevich other manipulative techniques are used for the same purpose. In particular, the world's media and interfaith dialogue platforms are spreading the idea that the war is taking place not only in Ukraine but also in other countries, and therefore we must fight for "world peace," which again shifts the focus from Russia's responsibility for criminal aggression. Therefore, there is still much work to be done for Ukrainian churches in the international ecumenical and diplomatic arena.
This is only a small part of the thoughts and reflections that were presented at the conference. The important points and conclusions made by the participants will be available in the collection of materials that the organizers plan to publish as a result of this academic forum.