Olena Panych's column


12.09.2014, 09:43

Olena Panych, historian of religion

panych.jpgSome two years ago, a pastor of a small immigrant church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the United States told me about a believer woman who moved from Lviv to the state of Illinois in the late 1980s. She was noticeable because in her prayers she asked God that Tymoshenko was released from prison, and on the contrary, that Viktor Yanukovych was convicted. The pastor (originally from Kirovohrad) commented on this as follows: “I told her: why do you need that? You are already living in America, your home is here ...” As you can see, God did answer the prayer of this woman. At least in part. Although sometimes prayers really seem too controversial.

During the Euromaidan and further evolvement of Russian-Ukrainian conflict it was evident that many evangelical immigrants in the United States were critical towards pro-European aspirations of Ukrainian, as well as our efforts to resist Russian expansion. This is attested by statements of some church leaders, including Pastor Shevchenko, and the general attitudes in this environment. It is unlikely that this can be interpreted as results of Russian propaganda, though no doubt they occur. There is something else. This “something” explains also the accented neutrality of evangelical leaders in Ukraine who are struggling to be “above” the conflict and make statements from time to time such as “it's not our war.”

Emigrant community is a kind of “continuation” of our gospel fraternity abroad. It provides the lion’s share of resources for social projects of our evangelical churches to make Ukrainian Protestantism global. At the same time it is quite heterogeneous. Inside it there are Ukrainian churches and unions, as well as Ukrainian patriots. But in general this community can rather be called post-Soviet.

Experience shows that immigrants continue living the problems of their former homeland for a long time after they left. For most believers, who emigrated from eastern Slavonic lands in the late 1980s – early 1990s the USSR remains the homeland, towards which they have kept a warm feeling. Of course, the Soviet state was hostile to Christianity and Evangelicals. But their religious activities, having assumed the character of struggle, were heroic and purpose-driven. Emigrated they write memoirs, analyze their traversed path, dramatic and full of sense. They remember the Soviet times as times of ‘real life’, when they were in the focus of attention of those in power, KGB agents, officials, that they were pursued and considered dangerous, and therefore strong and influential. Further, these people are nostalgic for those times, and for the great power within which they first felt their involvement in global politics. Sacralization of the Soviet Union came unnoticed in their minds as they struggled with this state. The collective experience of religious dissent, opposition to state atheism, which ultimately led to their mass emigration to the United States, also contributed to this conception of the state as something necessarily complete and great. As a religious minority, they felt themselves greater in a large empire. The empire ensured their mobility, the language of “international communication” and even a kind of great pride. As in Soviet and post-Soviet period, they sought to evangelize the country. This made them interested in its existence as a single geopolitical space, towards which their missionary efforts could be directed.


Of course, there is no “old” homeland anymore. It is remains only in memory. But today Russia personifies it, seeming a natural extension of the Soviet state. Russian language in immigrants’ churches is used as a lingua franca, and most of these communities, despite their multinational character, call themselves “Slavic” or “Russian”. 

Judging by the realities of life in this community, the imperial nature of Russia is perceived by them as a natural phenomenon, familiar, and even approved by God (for God, after all, creates states). Evidence of this is the senses of historical memory that this community seeks to keep. About a year ago, at the initiative of the already mentioned pastor A. Shevchenko, the shooting of the film titled “God-searching of Slavic peoples” began, being dedicated to the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus. This educational film is about the origin and development of Christianity in the East Slavic lands. As shown in the first two series, its plot is the main line of the Russian state history, as it was established by imperial (and, by inheritance, Soviet) historians. Such a narrative complies with the spirit of Karamzin, Kliuchevska, Soloviev, but not of Hrushevsky, Krypyakevych or Braychevsky. The filmmakers were not sensitive to national planes of the history of Christianity.

There are reasons to believe that the evangelical movement that formed in the USSR became the imperial church. Therefore, the heirs of this tradition, post-Soviet Evangelicals in the United States (as well as in Russia and even in Ukraine), unwittingly became hostages of the ‘Russian world’ in the sense in which the ‘world’ can be considered a project of Russian cultural imperialism. Ukrainian National competitions, their desire to go beyond control of the Imperial Russia in this environment are seen as a revolt against the usual generally legitimate order. The desire to save at least symbolically the ‘great country’ not to destroy it with claim to national or economic isolation, is expressed in calls for ‘peace’ and ‘non-interference’ of believers in politics.

Another important factor concerns the fact that in the Ukrainian environment and in post-soviet evangelical community on the whole visible anti-Western attitude has persisted for a long time. In the early 2000s researcher Esther Long, the daughter of an American missionary, was struck by the negative attitude of Ukrainian believers towards the United States, the existence of myths about the immorality of Americans in their midst, that “all the evils come from America and Europe” (Long, Esther Grace. Identity in Evangelical Ukraine: Negotiating Regionalism, Nationalism, and Transnationalism. PhD Thesis. University of Kentucky, 2005.). The West, despite the fact that financial investment come from there, is perceived as a source of problems and moral challenges. It’s no secret that evangelical Protestants in Ukraine (not all, but a large part) were among the biggest opponents of the European integration. I have been in churches where people prayed for ensuring that the Association Agreement with the EU was not signed. Euromaidan become their surprise and forced them to think. But the tradition to oppose themselves to ‘immoral West’ has not disappeared. To date the same refers to immigrants who often experience difficulties in cultural and economic adaptation, which stokes the negative attitude of our believers to the world of Western values.

It is also important that, despite all claims of the Church to be a prophet in this sinful world, its ability to foresee specific political events or vectors is rather limited. For example, only a few prominent figures such as G. Komendant dared publicly to suggest that “Russia will not let go Ukraine that easy”. In most cases people did not expect overt Russian aggression against Ukraine. They were in captivity of public perceptions and stereotypes of their own, like most “ordinary” people, and are just as easily subjected to propaganda. Failure to comprehensively and competently analyze political events prevents to adequately assess the situation even during the war, to understand where the aggressor is and where the victim is.

Today it seems that any calls for reconciliation that have originated and that are originating from the post-Soviet evangelical community, are actually calls for the conquest of Russian aggression. Behind them is a conscious or unconscious recognition of Russia's right to seize the territory of the former republics, and the rule of force giving right to commit violence. This is the same as to assert the illegality of divorce even if a man commits violence against a woman (which, incidentally, also complies with the rules of the community). The weaker should forgive the stronger, even if the stronger tends to destroy him. After all, is not it a Christian stance? But somehow it seems that the development and the actual scale of violence will be a challenge for people with such views. Already now the evangelical community, including the immigrant one, develops the programs of humanitarian assistance to eastern Ukraine and accepts refugees from Donbas. Hopefully, the spread of reliable information on the circumstances of the conflict gradually lead to a reasonable reassessment of its factors.

As a result, it must be said that the phenomenon of evangelical immigrant community is an interesting example for analysis. It proves once again that religion is an integral part of culture and expresses itself through symbols and meanings shared in a given society. It uses the language understandable to people based on their life experience to explain them God’s truth in simple terms. But it enculturates so discreetly that even cannot be distinguished from society. Obviously, this way there are national churches in which national meanings are interwoven with spiritual meanings and are perceived as one. But the same can be said about the church, which appears as a phenomenon of imperial culture and becomes a carrier of cultural imperialism. She plays and promotes imperial values ​​on which she is based to articulate her spiritual meaning. At that it does not necessarily directly serve the imperial authorities and be a public “spiritual agency” (as is the case with the Russian Orthodox Church). It can be a persecuted minority, but imagine itself inseparable from geopolitical and cultural space empire, interpret itself in terms of ‘unity’, ‘integrity’, ‘brotherhood’, common language, etc. And any attempt to destroy this space will be seen as sacrilege, violation of the sacramental union, which became the ecclesial unity.