The Position of Ukraine’s Protestants is Different
Thoughts regarding a long-term confrontation
G w a r d e y s k – There are similar concerns among the Protestants of Russia and Ukraine. Both express aversions regarding the liberal, Western world and its defence of women’s and gay rights. Together with the Orthodox, both support the retention of traditional family values. Let us therefore list their differences. There are opinions and practices among the Protestants of Ukraine which barely exist in Russia. Most of the differences are located in the slippery realm of politics.
1. The location of guilt
According to the Ukrainians loyal to Kiev, moral guilt is to be found almost exclusively on the side of the adversary. In social media, Russians are frequently called upon to produce a new Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who courageously embarks on a struggle against Vladimir Putin and the state he represents.
On 27 August, the leading Baptist academic Mikhail Cherenkoff (various spellings) quoted the US-American “Radio Liberty” on Facebook: “Because of its treasonous and cowardly fratricide, a genuine ancestral curse will hang over Russia until the time of its complete repentance. No spiritual renewal will be seen before these crimes are confessed.” Meant thereby is the war in eastern Ukraine. Cherenkoff believes only Kiev is leading a consequent, two-front struggle against both communism and fascism. A leading Kiev Baptist assured me in 2015 that Vladimir Putin was indeed the sole authentic fascist in this fray.
The Protestants of Russia view the issue of war and peace in a much wider context; they point more readily to mutuality and reciprocity. They much more quickly recognize guilt on both sides. Following the Maidan uprising of early 2014, I suggested that Protestants, as a sign of their desire for peace, honour the dead on both sides. That proposal got nowhere in Kiev.
Ukrainians are aghast when a Russian church representative attends a government reception in the Kremlin or receives a medal. Despite all anti-Pentecostal digs and jibes in the backwaters of Russia, Sergey Ryakhovsky, head bishop of the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), did receive a medal from Moscow’s diligent mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, on 4 September. Already on 21 March, Pavlo Unguryan, a Baptist member of parliament from Odessa, had received one from Andriy Parubiy, the president of Ukraine’s parliament. In 1991, Parubiy had founded the right-extremist “Social-National Party of Ukraine” jointly with Oleh Tyahnybok. Parubiy’s dubious role in the Maidan battles of February 2014 remains in the dark.
Is Russia’s guilt in the struggles of eastern Ukraine indeed of unique moral gravity? It was neither Vladimir Putin nor Joseph Stalin who ordered 580.000 air strikes against tiny Laos in the years leading up to 1973 (see the piece on emigration). The biggest tragedy of all is the fact that Stalin’s campaign of terror in 1937-39 was not a one-time event. Government crimes keep reoccurring all the time.
2. The Gospel and the nation
It does occur in Ukraine that Christians are denied spiritual fellowship strictly because of their political views. I know of a case in which a leading member of Ukraine’s Evangelical Christians-Baptists broke all ties with a member of the same faith from Russia primarily because of his contention that the conflict in eastern Ukraine was a civil war.
There are pastors in Crimea who do not intend to drop their membership in Kiev-based denominations. In this context, a gathering of pastors was recently visited by their bishop from Russia. His message was clear: We pastors have the same task everywhere: to preach the Gospel and serve people. Regardless of whether we find ourselves in Russia or Ukraine, this calling remains the same. If there are pastors among us who intend to add a political cause to this mandate, then we heartily request they move to (Kiev-run) Ukraine.
More than a few Ukrainians are comfortable which this addition to the Gospel; they are committed to aiding the political struggle against a neighbouring nation. I do not find such eagerness among Russian Protestants. Even adamant defenders of the Russian position – the Pentecostal pastors Oleg Serov and Sergey Kireyev in Pensa, for ex. – are much less radical than their Ukrainian colleagues (see „afmedia.ru“).
3. Camouflage and muskets
I can think of at least three cases in which Ukrainian Protestants show up on Facebook armed and in camouflage. Two of them are Pentecostal pastors: Bishop Gennady Mokhnenko (Mariupol) and Volodymyr Dubovyi (Odessa). The third one is the Baptist journalist Yelena Mokrenchuk (Kiev). (If there are any similar Internet pages from Russian Protestants, then I would want to report accordingly.)
Ms. Mokrenchuk’s Facebook page – she heads the “Alfa Press” news service – celebrates the Ukrainian army and its soldiers. There’s some tough reading here: A racist photo posted on 6 September is directed against the “Moscovites”. Another piece celebrates the death of a “separatist”, stating that his death brings Ukraine closer to victory. Does each corpse indeed bring Kiev closer to victory? Is a war of attrition – see Vietnam – the way to go? Is it too much to expect Christians to mourn the death of all?
A courageous Ukrainian blogger and believer named Anatoly Shary points out that Gennady Mokhnenko celebrated the death of the first 500 “separatists” with photos. Apparently, even Ukrainian Protestants have not laid the dream of a military solution to rest – a dangerous illusion.
Shary also notes that Mokhnenko, a frequent visitor to the USA and organizer of work among orphans, had organized a political hunger strike among children. Shary has accused him also of “sowing ethical hatred” (see „afmedia.ru/zhizn-cerkvi/shariy-snyal-novoe-video-o-bezumii-mohnenko“).
4. Geostrategic concerns are no topic
A piece from Mokrenchuk on 25 August – she apparently receives pay from the Ukrainian military – quotes Ukrainians: „Why did your fathers not kill Putin instead of (our) sons and fathers? The blood of the dead – is on your hands.”
Yet the claim that Russia is the sole aggressor only works out if all geostrategic concerns are discounted. Would Crimea have been taken over if NATO had not previously advanced up to the very gates of Russia? The renown US-diplomat George Kennan (1904-2005) warned already in 1998: „I think this is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever."
At least since the 18th century, Russia has been keen to retain Crimea as a vital military outpost. The annexation in 2014 again made the Kerch Strait an inland piece of water capable of keeping NATO fleets away from the Sea of Azov and Rostov-on-Don. Yes, Russian claims in March 2014 that “little green men” – not Russian soldiers - had taken over Crimea were a blatant untruth. They were also a tactical mistake and unnecessary. Free elections in Crimea would not endanger Russia’s strategic interests – the majority vote is clear. This is also the obvious reason why Kiev does not want internationally-sanctioned elections in Crimea, for they would further legitimize the status quo.
Not batting an eyelash, the Western states bordering on Russia insist that every sovereign state has the right to choose its own international alliances. Of course, that policy is not followed on the two American continents.
So I have once again listed the sins of our Protestant compatriots in Ukraine. Does this hurt more than help? It’s not difficult for me to do so – I understand the sins of others better than my own. But my intention is to point out real differences in approach between the Protestants of Ukraine and Russia.
It is very wrong to search for guilt only on the other side. We will make zero progress until we begin to recognize our own failures. Demanding repentance only from the other side has no promise. Only joint repentance can find a solution. Anything else is a Gospel without salt, a useless and expendable Gospel.
But I am not entirely without hope that God’s spirit might yet return us to the straight-and-narrow. Nikolay Dekhtyarenko, a Pentecostal pastor in Kiev, decries a „syncretism based on the national idea“. Christians are no longer gathering around Christ, but rather around a national ideal which “divides the evangelical brotherhood into ‘ours’ and ‘yours’”. The churches have thereby sunk to the level of "war commissioners”. He bemoans the fact that Ukraine’s formidable churches have forfeited their long-time access to the limitless mission fields of Russia (see „afmedia.ru/zhizn-cerkvi/pastor-iz-kieva-10-porazheniy-evangelskogo-bratstva-na-maydane“).
How can the Russian end contribute to the need of church and international reconciliation? I am very open to the suggestions of others – I want to learn. But simply expecting Russians to jump sides and take on the interpretations stemming from Kiev is no serious proposal. We in Russia too cannot expect that from the Ukrainians.
Let us Christians agree that this war can only be resolved through negotiations. Then we will all have the same, very helpful starting position.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Gvardeysk, 1 October 2017
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #17-12, 1.468 words.