Issues between Ukrainian and Russian Baptists

Not Getting Over My Fears
The Protestants of Ukraine and Russia have a spiritual problem


M o s c o w – The Mennonite Harley Wagler, a US-American who has spent the last 21 years in Nizhny Novgorod/Russia, describes the difference between Ukrainian and Russian Baptists as a theological one. He writes: “Many Russian evangelicals are now being pilloried by the Ukrainian ones, who say they are 'stooges' of Putin. But the difference is theological. The Russians, generally speaking, say the church should honour the government, even if it is imperfect, since the church represents another kingdom. Even in the worst Stalin years, Baptist leaders never directly criticized the government, simply asserting that they followed a higher calling. One should recall the Baptist Alyosha in Solzhenitsyn's 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'. That remains the Baptist position.”

In Ukraine however, many evangelicals have taken the opposite position. They now say they must support the new government, that this is their patriotic duty. Even the president of Ukraine, for several months, was a Baptist lay minister (Oleksandr Turchynov). He has gained notoriety as the 'bloody pastor' because of his thundering and militaristic, anti-Russian pronouncements. Which position is closer to the Biblical one?


This Russian assessment of Turchynov is harsh, and the Russian Baptist Union did briefly stick its head above the trenches and into politics when its statement from 30 May 2014 questioned the theological justification for support of the Maidan revolt. (See our article from 24 July.)


Mikhail (or Mykhailo) Cherenkov from “Mission Eurasia” in Irpen near Kiev stands on the opposite end of the scale. He describes Russian Baptists in particular as backward-looking, Soviet-minded, authoritarian, Asia-oriented and sectarian. Ukrainian Protestants are modern, forward-looking, innovative, Western, democratic and committed to making a positive contribution in the political realm. (See for ex. Zurich's “Religion und Gesellschaft in Ost und West”, issue 2/2015.)


The demand from Kiev that the Ukrainian conflict not be labelled a civil war is impossible for Russians to accept. That expectation struck Pope Francis with full force after he described the Ukrainian war as a fraternal one – a war between brothers – on 4 February. We dare not speak of “victory” and “defeat”, he added. “Think of it: This is a war between Christians. All of you have one and the same baptism! Just imagine the disgrace. Let us all pray, for prayer is our protest before God against this war."


Fearing the Pope had been influenced by Russian propaganda, a delegation of Ukrainian bishops sped to the Vatican two weeks later with the intention of enlightening him. According to the “Catholic Herald”, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the Ukrainian Archbishop of Kiev-Halych, denied in the Vatican that the matter was a civil war, assuring that the Ukrainians are facing “the direct aggression of our neighbour. We, the Ukrainian people, are the victims.”

Yet families are woefully split. During the week of this visit in the Vatican, Oleg Lyashko admitted on a Kiev talk show that his sister, Victoria, is fighting in the ranks of the Lugansk militia. Lyashko, known as an extreme nationalist, heads the small “Radical Party”. Soldiers from western Ukraine assure that they are fighting for the motherland even in Donbas. Ukraine citizens on the other side believe they are doing the same. Indeed, in contrast to Kiev's soldiers, the majority of the Ukrainian separatists were born in Donbas. Or as I have written: Kiev Ukrainians have admitted that up to 90% of those dying are citizens of Ukraine.

I believe that all of us – not just Popes - are susceptible to the lure of propaganda, of convenient half-truths. We must always be on guard. I am very hesitant to accuse Ukrainians of this sin if I too am endangered. And if you happen to believe that only the political adversary is endangered, then you have already fallen victim to this temptation. I only see through a glass darkly on politics, and if you are a human being, you will have the same problem. Mainstream Russian electronic media are pushing propaganda in a major fashion – but they are not alone in doing so. Thankfully, the Internet still supplies all those reading English or Russian with plenty of variety


Minsk II
I very much appreciate the effort Germany and France put into the Minsk agreements of 12 February. François Hollande and Angela Merkel have refused to relinquish the hope for peace even after separatists kept fighting at Debaltsevo beyond the 15 February deadline. I was reminded of happier times 20 years ago when Merkel spoke now of security being possible only jointly with Russia.

Others have been much less patient than the Germans. On Canada's “CBC Radio” on 21 February, Ukraine's Deputy Foreign Minister, Vadym Prystaiko, predicted full-scale warfare with Russia. “The world must not be afraid of joining Ukraine in the fight against a nuclear power. . . . What to do in the face of such a threat? For starters, get over your fears.” I must confess that I am nowhere near liberating myself from such fears


On 17 February, only two days after the Minsk agreements had come into force, Vadym Denisenko, a member of parliament for Poroshenko's party, complained on Kiev's “Channel 5” that NATO has been “very slow in acting. Recall the situation six months ago; nobody even spoke about the provision of weapons. Now, in the near future, weapons will be sent to Ukraine. Everything is being set up for their delivery. And then, after that, the next step will obviously be air strikes, but this will take an additional three to four months. Unfortunately, they (NATO) are very slow in their decision-making."


The Western powers are bringing foreign troops into Ukraine – a flagrant violation of the ceasefire brokered by Minsk II. The Pope reportedly intends to visit Ukraine soon. Hopefully, his visit will have the makings of a new “Minsk III”. I dare not believe that this will be our last chance for peace.

Unfinished business
In my commentary of 31 January I stated clearly that I do not regard the Protestants of Ukraine as fascist - but their politicians do have scary connections. Security Minister Turchynov heads the “People’s Front” party jointly with Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk. As previously described, Yatsenyuk expressed regret on German television on 7 January that the Soviet Union had defeated Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe 70 years ago. Apparently, Turchynov helps to command the fascist Azov Battalion and was involved in its attack on separatist forces at Shirokino east of Mariupol on the eve of the Minsk negotiations. (See “fortruss.blogspot.de/2015/02/poroshenko-moves-to-limit-turchinovs.html”.)


More than a few pro-Russians believe the long-defeated fascist-Nazi danger has returned. The war of Western Ukraine against the Red Army, which took place between roughly 1942 and 1952, has been hauled back out of the fridge. That may be a half-truth, but it is not a total untruth. Fascism has again become a danger for numerous European nations. What is fascism? Hatred of other races and nations, anti-Semitism, eugenics (only the fittest deserve survival), nationalism, imperialism, militarism, disregard for the value of human life. That danger is also apparent among extremist, national-chauvinist circles in Russia.


I was criticised last summer for suggesting that Ukraine be split between East and West. I remain no friend of splits, but I would much rather see a country divided before a potential war than after a real one. The latter occurred in Yugoslavia and Ukraine is on the same course. Common wisdom in Europe since 1990 maintains that chopping up a country is perfectly acceptable, enlarging one is not. A new, third country including the provinces of Lugansk, Donetsk and Crimea could possibly have spared us much bloodshed and major East-West tensions. The Czechs and Slovaks have survived the division of their country with bravura and the UK would have done the same in 2014. If only the same political maturity would also be present in Ukraine! The afore-mentioned Denisenko claimed on 17 February that "there is no possibility for a political compromise on the matter of solving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In light of the circumstances, all that's left to do is to formally declare war."


This madness needs to be stopped now. See for ex. the appeal of the retired Harvard professor and US-diplomat William Polk (consortiumnews.com/2015/02/24/ukraine-war-a-reverse-cuban-missile-crisis). The writings of Jack Matlock, the Reagan-appointed US-ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991, are also very helpful.

It pains me that I too am accused of warmongering. Though I continue to appeal passionately for a negotiated settlement, I have stressed the validity of both Russian and Ukrainian security interests. I believe those who insist on retaining a single, centralized Ukrainian state are truly in danger of condoning war. One cannot attain national unity by warring against that part of the country represented by the 48.95% which voted for Viktor Yanukovich as President on 7 February 2010.


Another matter: In my commentary of 31 January, I reported on the solar-powered players with inspirational recordings found on fallen West Ukrainian soldiers at Donetsk airport. According to reports, the US mission involved, the Atlanta-based “In Touch Ministries”, protested. Yet I am not privy to such correspondence. I was at least informed directly that this mission has been active on satellite radio in Russia. The respondent reported that “reams of listener responses from Russia” express gratitude for the existence of the mission. I am happy to hear that this mission has also been a blessing here. But a credibility problem remains: When a big nation supplies both sides of a conflict with Bibles, but only one side with bullets, the Christian witness is compromised. This has been a problem for more than a millennium; it's not the fault of “In Touch Ministries”. Of course, we don't want the credibility problem “solved” by supplying bullets to both sides


A recommendation once again
In an article in Germany's “Christ und Welt” (Nr. 9/2015), Baptist pastor Hermann Hartfeld (he emigrated to Germany from the USSR in 1974) described a young, misguided Baptist father who recently died in eastern Ukraine fighting against a decadent Europe he liked to call “Gayropa”. Hartfeld concluded: “Hate of the West unifies Russian politics, the Orthodox majority church and the Baptists.” (Baptists) “have adopted the moral convictions of a society shaped by Orthodoxy. . . . So much pent-up hatred.” One of the titles of a much-published article by retired Kentucky professor Mark Elliott is: “Why Russian Evangelicals Thank God for Putin”.


Generally, Russian Baptists respond to such claims with astonishment. They do not see Russia as full of West-hating Protestants by a long shot. A much more prominent reaction is one of deep sadness regarding broken ties with their spiritual and biological sisters and brothers in Ukraine. A statement issued by the Russian Baptist Union's “Department for External Church Relations” on 5 February questioned the US penchant for solving problems by military means. That led to protests in Russian Baptist circles. They may express quiet sympathy for their government's positions on foreign policy, but they do not want to be quoted in public.


And let's stop accusing each other of hatred. The accusation itself is already interpreted as an expression of hate by the other side.


I and a friend within the Baptist Union are occasionally accused by observers outside Russia of being FSB (secret-service) agents. That is one of the oldest and least-creative of methods for silencing dissidents. A joker in Russia puts us both in the same camp as Turchynov, who served as head of Ukraine's secret service for eight months during 2005. I personally believe spying is an extremely questionable profession for any follower of Christ. Lying and cheating reach far beyond the boundaries of Christian morality.

Ukrainian Baptist leadership in Kiev is refusing to speak with a part of Moscow's leadership. And Pastor Hartfeld claims that Moscow leadership is refusing to receive all Western guests. One Baptist leader in Moscow describes the issue as a spiritual one best solved through time spent on one's knees, which sounds again like the Pope.

Obviously, one cannot take the isolated example of a lowly Baptist soldier in eastern Ukraine – I also know of a Mormon one – and apply it to the entire church of Russia. Differences in calibre cannot be overlooked. The Baptist, Oleksandr Turchynov, is Number 3 in Ukraine's political hierarchy, while not a single Russian Protestant has attained a seat in the country's 450-member Duma.


We must strive to judge both sides with the same measuring stick. One is incapable of doing so when believing that one side is morally far superior to the other; that a struggle between good and evil is occurring between – and not within - countries. Belief in clear moral superiority of one country certainly is not the position of the Russian Baptist Union. If a church community is truly multi-partisan, then it would have been capable of honouring the dead on both sides following the violence on Maidan a year ago. Over a dozen policemen were also killed. All states fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Problems arise when we think there are exceptions. Let us pray for serious dialogue and understanding.


As I've written before: Let's assume that people truly believe what they say they believe – that their statements are not due to mental instability, propaganda or the political preferences of their employer. (I've been accused of all three.) This is the only way to start a meaningful and helpful discourse. Only such an assumption can keep the blows above the belt line and give Christian dialogue a chance. Let's regard all believers as brothers and sisters, address them accordingly and seek to dialogue with them, even if one is initially rejected.


Please remember that I generally write only in my own name. If anything I write is more official than that, then it will state so accordingly at the bottom.

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A New Activity for the RUECB
On 18 February, Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of External Church Relations for the „Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“ (RUECB), attended a session of the „Commission for Improvement of Legislation and Law-Enforcement Practice in Relations with Religious Organisations at the Seat of the President of the Russian Federation“ for the first time. This committee is a part of Russia's „Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations”. The RUECB has not possessed a seat on this relatively powerful Council since businessman Alexander Semchenko transferred his membership to a small Evangelical-Christian denomination in 2008. That absence is no more.

One long-term member of the Council is Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of the heavily-Charismatic “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE).


William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 9 March 2015

A journalistic release expressing the author's opinion. It is informational in character and does not express the sole, official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #15-03.