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Protestantism in Ukraine in 2014. Events, Trends, Challenges And Prospects

06.01.2015, 14:44


Summing up the year of 2014 in the life and work of Protestant unions, associations and large Churches of Ukraine, it is difficult to find meaningful, but purely internal events such as mergers of fraternities, fundamental changes in leadership (which entailed a paradigm shift) or doctrinal changes. All important events and changes in Protestantism are directly related to the events and changes in Ukrainian society. Most of the individual ordinary Christians, ministers, pastors, bishops, as well as churches and unions have been involved in political and social processes that flooded Ukraine. Baptists, Pentecostals and Adventists and other adherents of Protestant branches of Christianity went through the same changes of consciousness that many Ukrainian experienced, starting with the “Revolution of Dignity”, the loss of Crimea, the war in the east, etc. Apart from the concepts that previously needed rethinking and reassessment, such as “political indifference” and “cosmopolitanism”, a concept of pacifism, unshaken and unequivocally interpreted in the post-Protestant environment, were rethought and reassessed as well.

New time brought new subjects for discussion, sermons, seminars, conferences, books, articles and prayers (the things we pray about indicate by what we live: the main prayer on the Baptists’ website at the beginning of December looked like this: on preparations to winter season in accommodation facilities for temporary IDPs, on the church ministry in the occupied territories, the restoration of life in areas of conflict, the end of hostilities in the conflict zone, etc.).

A dizzying leap in the development of Ukraine as an independent country, and the birth of civil society in it took some Protestants aback (hard to tell the percentage of total composition). But time and place have once again affected the Ukrainian Protestant Church, making corrections as to what they should be like to be fit for this time and this place called Ukraine, not to be in the rear of society, but rather to respond to its requests. This process began at the end of 2013, and lasted all 2014 and no doubt will continue next year.

MAYDAN (Protestants and politics)

But everything began with "Euromaidan", which grew into just “Maidan,” the revolution of dignity. The developments that began in Kyiv, and spread further to all regions of Ukraine, put before Protestants a point of the relationship between Christianity, politics and power. This issue emerged and was discussed before, but not that serious. Speculations on this issue were not abstract any more, they related to life itself. Life is not in the USSR, but in Ukraine. We had to do something – everyone understood it – but what to do and how far you can go in this activity – this question remained open. The traditional “pray” answer did not satisfy any longer, “just pray”was not enough. Earlier the policy boiled down to election of deputies, mayors and presidents, and was a private affair of every Christian, but Maidan forced to join the fight the whole unions and associations of Protestant churches. Speeches and prayers on Sunday “Viche” (Chamber) of leaders (including the first persons) of largest Protestant groups showed that none of them were random people. Maidan served as a major test for the clergy, ofthe leaders’ qualities of people and associations. Everyone followedhis ownway,everyone had time to rethink what was happening. Most Christians were somewhere in the state of two young people who came in late December 2013 at a live broadcast of Hromadske TV (Public television). They just came from Maidan, to which they were participants, but could not answer clearlyto any questions by host DanyloYanevsky. Intuitively, they understood that participation in the resistance must be active, but were unsure as to how justify this in biblical perspective. The majority of responses came down to the fact that we needed to pray, pray and pray again. The answers seemed right and Christian, but made aware that in the current circumstances, this response is incomplete (by the way, for many Christians “I will pray”–as “Corban” for Jews once – allowed doing nothing and still look spiritual Christians). Effective love was always stereotypically perceived as good works associated with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and love with a wooden stick and shield in hand went beyond stereotypes,referring to the Crusaders’ era, so much liked by Gilbert Chesterton, but highly condemned by modern Protestants. The denounced Crusaders given the remoteness of their times and customs (though a small twist of history, for example, war, urges people practice the same customs). More recently, in an interview with American Christians our brothers asked them a “correct” question “How can your president, who calls himself a Christian, could give the order to start war (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia ...)? It looks like his Christianity is nominal in nature.” Today, most Christians in Ukraine are nominal believers as well...

Correct answers helped develop and articulate an understanding that it was not a struggle between political factions for short-term interests, but the struggle between the Soviet mentality, a godless one, in fact, that makes all effort to cling to life, and the new one... That is, after all, the struggle between good and evil.First it was Viktor Yanukovych who acted as personified evil, and later the baton was overtaken by Russian President Putin. In this scenario, political indifference became a sort of sin. The fundamentals were remembered from which "Protestantism" actually emerged. The protest.The struggle,including political struggle (between the Vatican and German princes), which could not possibly be avoided because of religious and political cohesion in society in general and in individuals in particular. This cohesion was not only for the Middle Ages reality. Spiritual warfare of darkness and light is always projected onto all areas of life, and sometimes it aggravates in the political sphere. In those times and now, prayer, pen and sword become the means (particular weapon for particular area). Here the great Protestant Ulrich Zwingli comes to mind, who did not die in bed, but in the Battle of Kappel, where he was a chaplain in the army of his canton.

When Maidan won, and Yanukovych and his associatesfled the country, it was Protestant Alexander Turchynov who wasappointed bythe Head of Parliament, became acting President of Ukraine. At other times it would be honorable and glorious, but at the very moment of anarchy in the country and its helplessness in the face of the external enemy Turchynov and his new team at the helm succeeded to– with all the ambiguity of estimates of their efforts – to bring the country out of political collapse with minimal losses…

Crimea (Protestants and patriotism)

If Maidan, although started due to the factors that were external to Ukraine (pressure by Moscow to make refuse from European integration), was an internal matter and related to internal problems: social standards, fair courts, corruption, reform,reloading of power and other, the annexation of Crimea was something else by its nature. Here the patriotism was tested, awakened or born.

The Protestants of Ukraine are mostly the Christians born in the USSR (those who had not moved overseas in 90 because “patriotism” was not simply a word for them), partially –those born there, who came to the church in the early 90’s (they lost their Homeland with the collapse of the “powerful and great Union”, and Ukraine did not become one for many of them), partly they were born in independent Ukraine. Unlike the latterfor whom patriotism was natural, it was difficult to feel Ukrainiansfor those who felt nostalgiafor something soviet. And “Crimea is ours” was the force that triggered the mass patriotism in Ukraine. So much the morewe felt the slap, given by the “brother” and guarantor of the inviolability of borders of Ukraine. It entailed the mixed feelings of resentment, pain and insult at first. And eventuallycame the desire to fight back.

So, first of all you are a Christian. Then you’re a man, someone’s friend, father, citizen. But all the above, including what kind of citizen you are depends on what kind of Christian you are. Not by chance you were born at this time on this land and feel being a part of mankind as a whole and of thisnation in particular. Apostle Paul made three missionary journeys across Roman Empire to tell about Christ to as many people of different nationalities as possible, but he said that only for his fellow Jews he was ready to be separated from Christ. It is impossible to love the world without loving yourcompatriots, it is impossible to love all mankind without loving an individual. Thoughts of this kind allowed forming opinions and formulating the idea of patriotism which is not contrary to the letter and spirit of the Bible. Especially in situations where your country is not attacking, but defending itself and, when it is not your country thatcaptures a piece of someone else's territory, but it’s territory was occupied, making use of trouble, turmoil and wound.

ATO (Protestants and pacifism)

If Crimea was literally lost without blood, further developments in the two eastern regions of Ukraine entailed thousands of deaths on all sides, including among Christians, including Protestants, including ministers. For example, on June 14 in Mariupol, pastor SerhiySkorobohach of Renovation Church whom I knew personally (he was also chairman of the Council of Churches of Mariupol) was killed by a shell that hit in his car. This was already the war. The war raised a number of other serious issues that could be summed up as attitude to arms (with all that it implies). Previously, having rejectedpolitical indifference and having movedto a patriotic camp and having received a bonus in the form of defensive and just war, it was logical to come to the idea of an active role in defending the country. Now it was not a wooden board and stick one needs to get equipped, but body armor and machine. So one transformed into another in a smooth and painless way ...

The decision regarding howa Christian should treat arms was left to consideration of this Christian to his conscience, his decision, his responsibility. This decision was made by all Protestant brotherhood Ukraine. Among the Baptists this idea was voiced bySerhiySannikov at the conference “Church in war,” held on November 20-21 in Kyiv. What should be the attitude to arms?To click on a hook or not to click? But digging trenches, building bunkers, supplying the army with products and clothing and even just paying 5 UAH to one’s cellular phone are you doing “everything for the front, everything for victory.” I do not click on a hook, but I approve of the action of who does it (who does it in your place), who fights for you and your family. I do not shoot, but help in every possible way and pray for those who do it. Thus, it is logical to say that pacifism is not just rejection of the use of weapons, but is also a complete withdrawal from participation in the country’s life, when the country is at war. It turns out that pacifism and social activism are incompatible concepts. Pure pacifism is more in line with Tolstoi’s doctrine and Buddhism than with Christianity, which implies activity in all areas of society from the standpoint of the light and salt of the world that have a positive impact on people. Incidentally, during the Great Patriotic War, the Protestants of the Soviet Union, including Baptists, took an active part in that war. After the victory the leadership of the Baptist Union greeted their brothers and sisters with a victory on pages of their periodicals. This greeting has the following lines: “At the beginning of this terrible war, we addressed you our first message, which called all of you to courageously perform your civic duty in the ranks of the army at the front,at the battlefield, and in rear, on your working sites. Now we can say, praise God! Our brothers and sisters performed their duty as Christians ought to fulfill it. Our brothers and sisters have invested a considerable contribution to the cause of our country’s victory. Many of our brothers will not return to their families, they gave their lives for the good and happiness of their native land.” (BratskyiVisnyk№2, 1945)

Unfortunately (poor our language) the warin Ukraine continues, and it imposed certain limits on Cristians. You either fit in this linits, or pretend that nothing is happening. The choice is not great. But there is an important thing in all this. All of this makes sense and is justified when your country is not an aggressor or invader,but fights the aggressor and occupier. In what kind of war the Church exists? Is it a defensive or aggressive war? And here we come to the most painful issue.

International relations (Protestants and Protestants)

However, church functionaries did not try to claim elevation and spirituality of the church as a structure, the Church (I mean its structure, institution, not the mystical body of Christ) has always been an integral part of society and therehas always been mutual impact. During the Cold War theChurchesof the West and the Soviet Union differed from one another as the political systems were different from one another. The structure and governance of the churches (in general, in most cases) corresponded the governance systems of most states as if they were made with tracing paper. Pastors in the USSR resembled dictators and the communal councils resembled the Politburo of the Communist Party. If there was not barrier at the conscious level, the influence of the secular power on the spiritual one was perceptible and visible, but not visible for all ...

History knows many cases where church (as the structure and organization) proved to be too weak to show resistance to external pressure. The people who took responsibility for the church also turned weak. The legendary pastor Richard Vurmbrand in the book “Christ in Jewish Streets” tells us that in those dark times when Romania was occupied by Germany, the Lutheran Church was headed by the person, who declared that mankind has three examples of excellence: Jesus, Beethoven and Hitler. Instead of greeting “Glory to Jesus,” he introduced another church greeting “Heil Hitler!”In his tenure the churches started despising Jews ...

It happenedsomeday, it happened to someone. It will never happen to us... (there should be a question mark).

The most painful, sore and incomprehensible issue for Baptists and Pentecostals in Ukraine was the attitude towards the events, attitudes of most of the Baptist and Pentecostal Unions of Russia. One could understand Putin (as possible) and Russian politicians. To some extent one could understand artists and ordinary Russian citizens who believed the propaganda, and therefore supported the policies of their president, but how may one understand Russian brothers in Christ who did it? And hardly the reason was fear and self-preservation, as one could remain silent or speak in general terms about peace all over the world. As the moderate wing tried to play this game at the beginning of cataclysms as opposed to the “hawks” (Dr. Michael Cherenkov et al.) who insist on a specific and clear position.

When you read the official statements or listen to interviews with Russian fraternities, you may think of deja vu ... The 5th issue of Brotherly Herald magazine of the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists as of 1946 begins with the greeting to the Premier of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin. “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists congratulates you, beloved leader of our glorious socialist Motherland, the Soviet government on the 29th anniversary of the Great October Revolution. Evangelical Christians-Baptists pray fervently for the welfare and prosperity of our country and, being inspired by love of country, are giving all their strength to carry out ambitious objectives of the postwar five-year plan. May God grant complete victory on all fronts of our peace-building!”There are signatures of Zhidkov, Chairman and Secretary General Karev.

Here is an excerpt from an appeal to the President of the Russian Federation by delegates of the 34th Congress (May 2014): “I express my special thanks that the protection and strengthening of spiritual and moral values, which include traditional family values, are defined by you as a priority”(addressing the divorced Putin). “We highly appreciate your contribution to the strengthening of civil peace and harmony in Russian society. We pray that the Lord give you strength and courage to remain unfailing in yourcombat  withxenophobia and maintaining interfaith peace in Russia.”

It is not worth commenting the appeal to Stalin, as the officialdom of all Christian churches addressed him in this manner, but beside the officialdom there was strong oppressed underground churchin the Soviet Union. And what about today?

Here’s the passage of greeting to Putin on his birthday from the head of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists Alexei Smirnov (10/07/2014): “I congratulate you on your birthday! I pray the Lord to give you wisdom and strength to fulfill your duties of the President of the Russian Federation – a country which plays a key role on the world stage. You take important strategic decisions on which the future of humanity largely depends.

Evangelical Christians-Baptists constantlypray for you, lift prayers and requests for earthly homeland, in which God determined to live, work and tell good news. This imperialist rhetoric of greeting is worth commenting upon.

Compare this style with the other message written in a different era (a great era, by Putin’s definition). “President of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR Joseph Stalin.On the great and solemn day of the final glorious victory over Nazi Germany and its accomplices,on May 9, 1945, the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians and Baptists, uniting millions of believers who always prayed for a long-awaited victory, sends its sincere and heartfelt congratulations to great leader Joseph Stalin and all our Soviet Government and prays to God for peace, consolidation and the establishment of life in our beloved country, the USSR, and all over the world, and express their full readiness to take an active part in healing wounds heavy native Russian people caused a terrible war. Signed by chairmanZhidkov, vice-chairmen Holyaev, Orlov, Council Secretary Karev (BratskyiVisnyk№2, 1945).

It is normal to send greetingsto the President of the country, on condition that your president is, say, Nelson Mandela. But how one could write such things after Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014)?! The Soviet Union was isolated from the world area, with its ideology and propaganda, when the world said one thing, the USSR told different things. The whole world said: “the believers suffer oppression in the USSR.” The USSR answered: “nothing of the kind”. And this was confirmed officially by the churches. Today the whole world says: “Russia is the aggressor,”“it annexed Crimea.” Russia says: “nothing of the kind, there is a civil war in Ukraine and Crimea came to us in order not to become Banderovite’s. And again, these are official statements of Christian churches...

 In the same ‘BratskyiVisnyk’ as of 1945, in the statement of gratitude to the Moscow community meeting in honor of the great victory, brother Mikhail Orlov said one interesting thing: “When we meditate on those who attacked us, we cannot but shudder. If we were attacked by African savages, people who are unfamiliar with the teachings of Christ, it would be in a hundred times easier.” It does not need commentary because a clear analogy between the state of events Russia and Ukraine state.

Among other things, the vocabulary used by Russian brothers is amazing. The same set from the Russian media: a coup, the southeast (since I live in Kherson region, I am particularly surprised to hear it), “Crimea is ours” and so on. Is the TV the reason for that? If so, the brothers were right forbidding watch TV under penalty of excommunication. Speaking of television and information:in an interview with a US television channel Impact-TV (May 2014) SerhiyRyakhovskiy, Chairman of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians, answering the host’s questions whether the Bishop believes that Banderovites occupied Ukraine, began giving too lengthy answer. Like, Russian television gives a subjective picture of what is happening,just like the Ukrainian and European and American media do, and then, after repeated requests to give a specific answer, said that he must see everything like St Thomas, and now he could not say anything exactly, because he has not been in Ukraine. The words were quite reasonable for an intelligent, thoughtful man who does not want to be captured by state propaganda, but not for him. The Bishop, unlike others, has a privilege (among others) to turn to his brothers and sisters living in Ukraine,starting from the bishops, whose telephone numbers he definitely has - to learn objective situation from them. That’s what our Brotherhood is meant for (among other things) – just call and find out,if you trust, at least trust more than the state media, if you feel the overall integration into one body.

And there was also an attempt of bishops and church leaders of Russia and Ukraine to get together to figure out each other's positions, to talk personally with a prayer to the Father. On 9-11 April, the brothers gathered on neutral territory in Jerusalem, talked, and that was all ... Joint Statement did not appear. The first bishop of the All-Ukrainian Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith MykhailoPanochko, upon arrival from the capital of Israel, reacted very emotionally to the mood of Russian brothers,saying, there was not even a smell of fraternal spirit. He did not like that the Russian brothersavoided such wods as“aggression”, “annexation” and the like. Maybe Brother Mykhailo overreacted, maybe he should speak in a more diplomatic way, but one can fully understand him. It is awful when aggression and occupation come from the closest brother by blood, culture and everything else, but it is even worse when a brother in Christ takes the side of such “brother”. To be fair it should be noted that not all Russian Protestants believe Vladimir Vladimirovichthe benefactor of the nation, and among them a few dare openly expresstis assessment. One of the few is the pastor and former chairman of the Russian Council of Evangelical Christians- Baptists Yuri Sypko, who has more than once spoken out in support of Ukraine, using not just common phrases,but calling a spade a spade: “God forbid that my brothers in Russia thought that I support capture of Crimea and the war in Ukraine”; “Anti-Ukrainian propaganda unleashed by the Russian media is a sin against the people, against the truth, against God” (“Bybleyka.blog”, June 5, 2014). It is a pity that such respected pastors in Ukraine become the opposition not only to the government, but also the church authorities. And they become opposition due to the political issue ...

Conclusion (Protestants and future)

However much we wanted to wave it away, the process of changes in Ukraine is irreversible. Apart from death, ruin, misery and tears, the warrevealed best qualities in people - heroism and selflessness. The war has generated a huge surge of patriotism, volunteering, serving chaplains. But this cannot be a goal in itself but only a means. The goal is peace and prosperity for us and our children,for all Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars, Jews ... Protestants throughout Ukraine are uniting to achieve these short-term goals, the objectives related to mortality. We have faith and hope does not leave us that peace will soon be reached. But every man should contribute to the common causeaccording to his strength, skills and capabilities. And so may the Lord help all of us!

Victor Manzhul