A Church within BRICS
Conclusions from the crisis in Ukraine
M o s c o w -- Two resolutions released by the "Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists" (RUECB) on 30 May at its major
congress in St. Petersburg have led to a storm of protest. The first letter called the Maidan uprising into question: “We proclaim commitment to
Biblical teaching, which does not accept the violent overthrow of legitimate authority, nor nationalism, nor the resolution of socio-political differences through means other than political
negotiation. ‘Do not join with rebellious officials.’” (Proverbs 24:21
The second letter, addressed to President Vladimir Putin, begins: “We express to you our special gratitude for defining the protection and strengthening of the spiritual and moral values, to which the traditional family belongs, as a task of primary importance.” It closes with the assurance: „We highly value your contribution to the strengthening of civil peace and harmony in Russian society. We pray that the Lord might give you the strength and courage to remain true in the struggle against manifestations of xenophobia and in the preservation of interconfessional peace in Russia.”
Ukrainian Baptists justified their “rebellion” by explaining that they could do nothing other than to support their nation. In an interview with the RUECB news service, Valery Antoniuk (Kiev), President of the “All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” since mid-June, explained: “The church find its strength in standing on the side of truth. If a people speaks the truth, seeks justice, wishes freedom from corruption and desires honest living, then Christians are always called to support that.” He continued: “We can never serve the people adequately if we do not love the land in which God has ordained us to be born and to serve.” Antoniuk further condoned the violent coup of February 2014 by citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s borderline justification for the murder of a tyrant (Hitler): “Obedience to tyrants is equal to disobedience towards God”.
In a long article on the Ukrainian Union’s website, Yuri Simonenko, a pastor in Lugansk region, warns Russians that during the Third Reich, German Christians had chanted their psalms ever louder in hopes of drowning out the cries of millions of Jews being sent to their humiliation and death in concentration camps.
Ukrainian Baptists rarely if ever mention the fact that the Poroshenko-led government still has three members of the far-right Svoboda party in its cabinet (Sych, Shvaika and Mokhnyk). Other, more prominent members of the extreme right remain in parliament.
Traditional, non-political Baptists have criticised the Baptist elder and lay preacher Oleksander Turchynov for serving as the country’s acting president from February until June 2014. Yet Antoniuk defended him in the RUECB interview: „When Martin Luther King held his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (in 1963), not all American Christians applauded him. . . . Only in retrospect, after the passing of time, did they realise that it was the Lord who had been leading him.”
Antoniuk also accused the Russian Union of having written its statements of 30 May under duress. “I have the impression that these were not completely genuine document(s). Somebody simply needed to have those. I cannot agree with a number of highly-controversial statements. It is necessary to pray for those who show poor judgement.”
Some Ukrainian protests could be attributed to careless reading. Anatoly Kalyuzhny (Kiev), the highly-independent bishop of Kiev’s “Union of Independent Evangelical Churches of Ukraine”, stated in an interview: “We know of the well-known statement, in which Russian Baptists thanked Putin for the moral values he cultivates in society. I think this is the highest form of blasphemy. We know how he lives.” Yet the Petersburg statement does not claim that Putin leads a moral life; it only thanks the President for making the propagation of traditional morality part of his political agenda.
In his article, the Eastern Ukrainian Simonenko asks the Russian Baptists: „Who gave your Caesar the right to decide my fate with the aid of weaponry on the territory of a foreign country? And yet you are thanking him for strengthening peace and security. Military vehicles and heavy armaments are coming to us from Russian territory, and you are thanking the ‘peacemaker’ for this.”
According to Zurich’s journal “Religion und Gesellschaft in Ost und West”, Ukrainian Baptists decry the letter to Putin as „cynical and the summit of theological ignorance. Putin, who has abandoned his wife, is described in it as a defender of traditional values and peacemaker - despite his warmongering.” But the Baptist letter commends Putin solely for an internal peacemaking role within Russian society; it says nothing about foreign policy.
Top Moscow Baptist leadership is stressing its positive relationship with President Antoniuk; they also are not backing off from the statements made in these two letters.
Caution: Political commentary
Until the onset of the latest Maidan movement in 2013, post-Soviet politics had always been marked by a seesaw 50-50 battle between East and West Ukraine. Maidan “solved” that by robbing the Eastern half of its political parity. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was one response to the destruction of that delicate balance.
Those who remember pre-2013 Ukraine are therefore astonished to have what was once a civil war remade into a global confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Antoniuk’s deputy, Pastor Igor Bandura of Odessa, admitted as much in an interview on the RUECB’s website: “The situation has changed. It is often said that we are involved in an internal, civil conflict, in a fratricidal war. But in our view, that is not entirely correct – this is aggression from outside.”
Apparently, the Ukrainians within the eastern half of the political equation no longer exist. Yet according to recent UNHCR statistics, 110.000 refugees from Ukraine are camping out in Western Russia – twice the number of those who have fled westward within Ukraine. To Russians, the disappearance of eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian populace smacks heavily of ideology. Pastor Bandura stated: “The church supports the people.” In view of Ukrainian Protestant statements on Maidan, this sounds to Russians like: “We support the West Ukrainian people against the East Ukrainian one.”
If it is indeed true that Russia is heavily supporting the struggle of East Ukraine’s separatists, then the entire conflict can only be understood as a - most unfortunate - proxy war between Russia and the USA. Massive Western support for the Kiev government is a given. On 13 December 2013, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland made the famous admission at Washington’s National Press Club that her government had spent five billion dollars since 1991 to “develop democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society and a good form of government” in Ukraine. I would not venture a guess as to what percentage of US aid before and since December 2013 has been lethal in nature.
I am a much less an advocate for the Russian takeover of Crimea than, say, Mikhail Gorbachev. But one needs to concede that, had it not occurred, the current war zone would probably be extending all the way down to southern Crimea. Why could Ukraine not have been split down the middle, or say, 2/3 West and 1/3 East? Then Crimea would now be part of an independent, Russian-allied state. “Territorial integrity” was not the highest common good when Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were divided. Nor is it the ultimate good in the upcoming referendum of September 18 on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.
Ukrainians routinely explain away the pro-government comments of Russian Protestants as the remarks of persons victimised by the propaganda efforts of their own state. Pro-Western Ukrainians supposedly remain unscathed by the temptation of propaganda and untruth. In the aforementioned Russian interview, Igor Bandura explained: “In a free country (such as Ukraine) one has a choice of mass media and the chances of arriving at the truth are consequently greater.” But Russians fortunately also have media choices and more than a few choose to detour around the efforts of a TV propagandist such as Dmitry Kiselyov.
Curious persons knowing English should compare the websites of “Russia Today” (RT) and “Kyiv Post”. Which site seems more
vengeful or extremist? You decide.
On 18 July, only hours after the ghastly downing of the Malaysian airliner near Donetsk, London’s “Sun” tabloid appeared with the screaming headline: “Putin’s Missile”.
Ukrainian Protestants retain the hope that the ultimate, objective truth will yet be found. Bandura stated in his interview: “We (believers) possess the light of Christ.” If we Christians in Russia and Ukraine watch the flow of information very closely and sift out the false, we will in the end arrive at the objective "truth". That will unite us anew; “blessing and unity” will be the final outcome.
Sadly, the objective "truth" will never become known or accepted by all. Even the divorce of a single married couple can lead to dozens of interpretations and “truths”. When the divorce of any entire nation is involved, the number of interpretations becomes infinite. The best we can do as believers is to love one another despite our differing political convictions. Our unity cannot be found in politics.
In an atmosphere of tension and war, the probability of hypocritical statements increases geometrically. Pastor Simonenko accuses Russian believers of “placing greater trust in your Caesar than in the Ukrainian brotherhood of faith. You have expressed more love to Russia than to our common inheritance in heaven.” Using the same argument, Ukrainian Baptists have trusted Nuland and US-Senator John McCain more than their next-door relatives in Russia.
The church in BRICS
During the last 10 years of the German Democratic Republic, many of the country’s Christians pushed the slogan for becoming “a church within socialism”. That did not imply being FOR socialism, but it did imply accepting one’s place of residence as a given while expressing basic respect for the government and a willingness to improve general conditions.
This may be the choice now facing the Protestants of Russia and – perhaps – eastern Ukraine. Reports from the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk state that Protestants are on the receiving end of major persecution. Those remaining are definitely in need of our prayers. Baptists above all are seen as the pro-Western agents of Kiev’s dubious ex-president Oleksander Turchynov.
The separatists are not completely wrong on that point: Protestantism (including this author) is a profoundly Western entity. But the world is not just Western: It includes an East and a South. Referring to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Brazil, Alexey Pushkov from Russia’s Duma claimed: “When it is said in the West that there is a kind of world community which condemns us, they mean 28 NATO member states and the EU. However, this is not the world, but the West, the Euro-Atlantic community. And it is, with all its weight, not all of the world community, but only part of it.” He concluded: “The West’s monopoly on setting the global agenda is over.” One can debate the exact numbers, but the earth does consist of approximately 195 countries.
BRICS is no pushover: It includes the world’s two most populous countries, the largest single economy as well as the world’s geographically largest country. Those millions of Protestants and Catholics within BRICS unwilling or incapable of emigrating have every reason to begin consultations. An initial Chinese religious delegation was hosted by the Moscow patriarchy only a few days ago.
Ukrainian theologians such as Anatoly Kalyuzhny clearly express their fear of future dominance by China and BRICS. The Baltics and Poland are seeking their fortunes in the West. Kiev has also chosen to pile onto the already-overloaded Euro-Atlantic arche. But that arche and its social model that may already be sinking, for the globe is too small to guarantee high consumption and conspicuous wealth to more than a handful of its inhabitants.
Russian believers will be needing to locate new allies in the East and South. The churches of the BRICS region will be called to develop models for their personal survival and growth on their own steam. Only then will Protestants better mirror the international nature of the Gospel.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 24 July 2014
Journalistic release #14-09, 1.997 words