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Ukrainian nationalism and Ukrainian evangelicals

What can evangelical voices offer to supplement or correct what ordinary Ukrainians think about their national identity? What special contribution can they make?

VISTA JOURNAL AUTOR 440/Mykhailo_Cherenkov 18 DE JUNIO DE 2024 13:30 h
A house in Kiev, Ukraine with the colors of the country. / Photo: [link]Marjan Blanl[/link], Unsplash, CC0.

For Ukraine and Ukrainians, the theme of nationalism is a matter of surviving in the shadow of an aggressive empire.



For Putin and his supporters, every Ukrainian who is not ready to recognise themselves as “Russian” or “little Russian” (“maloros”) is a nationalist. A Ukrainian who wants to remain a Ukrainian, live in a free Ukraine, speak his native language, and love his ancient history and culture, is a nationalist.



Therefore, Ukrainian evangelical believers, who are one with their people and who suffer together with them, cannot but be nationalists. Another question is how they understand nationalism.



During the war years, the national identity of Ukrainians has grown and significantly changed. The same can be said about evangelical churches.



What can evangelical voices offer to supplement or correct what ordinary Ukrainians think about their national identity? What special contribution can they make?



Understanding the topic of Ukrainian nationalism in the context of ongoing aggression from Russia, I will pay attention to changes in public opinion, and then to the reflections of representatives of the evangelical community regarding these changes.



In other words, we will be interested in the development of society in understanding its national traits, but even more so in the development of evangelical theology in understanding these national transformations.



First of all, it must be stated that Ukrainian nationalism is not characterised by a sense of national superiority. Yes, this involves identification with one's nation and its interests, but not at the expense of excluding or humiliating others.



This is not about the rise of a nation, but about the struggle for its independence and sovereignty, for the right to be itself without external interference and intrusive influences.



In this sense, nationalism is addressed not to others, but to oneself - to clarify, affirm, and protect one’s national identity in language, culture, religion, and statecraft.



It should also be noted that modern Ukrainian nationalism is rather civic, then ethnic. In other words, it finds its foundation not in blood and soil, but in shared values. A society based on this idea sees itself as open, free, and democratic.



In Ukraine, people of different ethnic origins, cultures, languages, and religions feel like they do belong here. This peaceful and rich diversity is entirely compatible with the natural desire of a titular ethnic group to preserve itself.



[destacate] Ukrainian nationalism is not characterised by a sense of national superiority,  but about the struggle for its independence and sovereignty, for the right to be itself without external interference and intrusive influences [/destacate] It is Ukrainian Ukraine, not Russified to the point of merging with “fraternal” Belarusians and Russians, and not Europeanised to the point of facelessness, that creates opportunities for thriving political, cultural, and religious pluralism.


Moreover, in the context of constant aggression from Russia, Ukrainian nationalism can partly be considered post-colonial, or post-imperial. This nationalism is not expansive, not aggressive, but self-protective.



Under the onslaught of the empire, Ukraine asserts its identity and defends it at all costs. It would be strange to demand that Ukraine abandons “nationalism” just because this word sounds bad to over-tolerant Europeans.



To demand this from Ukrainians means to take the side of Putin, who justifies the outbreak of war by the need to “denazify” Ukraine.



The struggle of Ukrainians for the right to be themselves is a serious challenge to the propaganda schemes developed in the Kremlin. Putin wants to present the Soviet Union as a happy unified brotherhood of nations and, exploiting this false memory, restore the Soviet empire.



In Soviet times, they taught that nationality, history, culture, and family traditions were losing importance, that the future belonged to a new species of man - homo soveticus.



Today, this communist supranational idea has been replaced by the idea of the “Russian world”. The desperate resistance of the Ukrainians thwarts the plans of the empire and looks like a humiliation for its ambitious leader.



At the same time, it shows that Ukrainians are different, that they are ready to pay in blood for their God given right to live in their own way.



According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Razumkov Centre Sociological Service, in 2017 “about a quarter (27%) of respondents agreed with the statement ‘Ukrainians and Russians have always been and remain fraternal nations’”, whereas in 2023, this had dropped to only 4%. In contrast the share of those who hold the opinion that Ukrainians and Russians had never been fraternal nations increased significantly” - from 16% to 43%. [1]



One can see that the share of Ukrainians who identify themselves with the Soviet past and Russia as the heir of this past has radically decreased. At the same time, the understanding of Ukrainians as Europeans has strengthened.



This can be seen from the set of typical qualities noted by the residents of Ukraine most often: love for freedom, laboriousness, patriotism, hospitality, national pride, peacefulness, kindness, zest for life, sincerity, religiosity, independence in thoughts and views, honesty, public activism, individualism, and militancy.



The growth of national self-awareness is also evident in respect for national symbols: “Compared to the previous years, the share of those who are proud of the state symbols of Ukraine has increased: the Flag of Ukraine (from 26% in 2011 to 75% in 2023) , the Coat of Arms of Ukraine (from 25% to 74%), the National Anthem (from 22.5% to 69%).



Also, the share of those who are proud of the official language of Ukraine increased from 32% to 74%.” [1]



These figures evidence that Russian military aggression has only strengthened Ukrainians’ understanding of their national identity as freedom-loving people who share European values.



 



Contribution of evangelical churches to the understanding of Ukrainian identity



Next, we will pay attention to the contribution that evangelical churches make to the understanding of Ukrainian identity.



Firstly, Ukrainian evangelical believers appeal not so much to national values as to universal human and Christian values. They emphasise that the genocide in Ukraine is a challenge not only to their nation, but also to humanity.



On the one hand, this is the genocide of Ukrainians, aggression aimed at destroying a specific ethnic group. On the other hand, this is a crime against humanity, and therefore cannot but affect everyone.



Here I want to draw attention to some important statements made on behalf of the majority of Ukrainian Christians.



The first of them expresses the general position of the Ukrainian churches and calls the war in Ukraine “genocide”:



“The whole world should realize that this is not a ‘Ukrainian crisis’, it is not even a ‘war of Russia against Ukraine’ – it is a war of humanity, moral values, virtue with concentrated evil that has a satanic fascist nature.” [2]



The second document is addressed to the global Christian community on behalf of Ukrainian theologians and calls the support of the war by Russian believers a betrayal of Christ and the Church:



“They [Russian evangelicals] have traded compassionate unity with the crucified Body of Christ in Ukraine for personal security and proximity to the political elite of the empire. Therefore, we ask the worldwide evangelical community to condemn the silence, detachment, and open support of the war with Ukraine exhibited by the Russian Christians.” [3]



Both express the same important idea - the “denazification” of Ukrainians carried out by Russia is a challenge to the entire civilized world and the unity of the universal Church.



[destacate] The churches say that a true understanding of freedom must be rooted not only in national culture, but also in Christian teaching  [/destacate] I cannot forget the words of one of those naïve American theologians: “These are your local disputes between Russians and Ukrainians, don’t involve us in this.” The Ukrainian churches say that this is not a local dispute, this is a challenge that everyone will have to respond to - by participating in genocide or stopping it.



Secondly, evangelical voices emphasise the fundamental value of religious freedom and diversity. Ukrainian national identity is characterised by a love of freedom.



The churches say that a true understanding of freedom must be rooted not only in national culture, but also in Christian teaching.



Pastor Igor Bandura, the main international speaker of the Baptists of Ukraine, emphasises the peculiarity of Ukraine as a civilization of freedom and diversity in contrast to the slave mentality of the inhabitants of the “Russian world”:



“Ukraine is known in the world for its high level of religious freedom and religious pluralism. The only places where the problems with religious freedom have occurred are the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. The situation also looked depressing since almost all the leaders of main religious denominations in Russia directly or indirectly supported Russia's war against Ukraine and thereby agreed to the suffering of their fellow believers in Ukraine.” [4]



It is noteworthy that Russian occupation military units often burn libraries and warehouses of religious literature, especially in Ukrainian and English, as Russians consider it propaganda literature.



This was the case at Donetsk Christian University, Tavriski Christian Institute, Mission Eurasia Irpin Office and many other places.



So, Evangelical churches firmly declare: maintaining Ukraine sovereign and free is a necessary condition for preserving the entire religious diversity of this largest European country.



Thirdly, evangelical churches see Ukraine as part of Europe, but understand the process of European integration from a Christian, non-secular perspective. They accept the secular age as a historical and cultural reality, but do not capitulate to secularism.



They do not give up their Christian identity for the sake of a European identity. They do not see Europe as anti-Christian, and Russia as Christian. Moreover, they see much more opportunity for Christian revival in modern post-Christian Europe than in pseudo-Christian Russia.



[destacate] By supporting their people in the struggle for freedom and the right to be themselves, Ukrainian evangelical believers make a significant contribution to the understanding of national identity [/destacate]  As the British theologian Joshua Searle rightly points out, “The history of Russian Orthodoxy and ancient Rus' right up to the present time teaches clearly that the political dominance of the Christian religion over national life leads not to spiritual revival, but merely creates a thin veneer of nationalistic religion among a people whose adherence to Christianity signifies little more than a nominal attachment to a blasphemous abstraction of so-called Holy Russia.



“Against this notion of forced imposition of religious values through the territorial expansion of ‘Holy Russia’, Europe stands for the principle of freedom of religion. The ‘principle of Europe’ is the principle of coexistence, plurality and unity-in-diversity. A new generation of Ukrainians is emerging which cherishes these values.” [5]



Lastly, nationalism from an evangelical perspective is seen as open, peaceful, and inclusive. Arguing about what Ukrainian society should be like in the light of the Gospel,



Roman Soloviy sees in the life and ministry of Ukrainian evangelical seminaries a model of the future for the entire nation:



“As Ukrainian evangelical seminaries have responded missionally to the war’s horrors, we have rethought what community means. We have come to see community as an inclusive, shared mission to serve others.



In doing so, our seminaries have formed a reflective community that is seeking to address pressing issues facing the church and Ukrainian society from biblical perspectives; a compassionate community that meets people’s immediate needs as they suffer violence and displacement; and a hopeful community that refuses to succumb to the darkness around us.” [6]



If one asks how evangelicals understand Ukrainian nationalism, one doesn’t have to read their books and statements to find the answer, they just need to visit their communities.



The war brought the Christian community into the spotlight. If there is hope for the best anywhere, it is here.



So, Ukrainians see themselves as a separate nation in the family of other European nations. The “Russian World” seems to them to be the reincarnation of the Soviet “evil empire”.



By supporting their people in the struggle for freedom and the right to be themselves, Ukrainian evangelical believers make a significant contribution to the understanding of national identity.



They appeal to universal human and Christian values, emphasise the importance of religious freedom and diversity, recall the Christian legacy and its relevance for the future of Europe, and also demonstrate the special role of the Christian community in modeling the future of Ukraine.



Who is afraid of Ukrainian nationalism? Only enemies of Ukraine, Europe and the world should be afraid of it. No one else.



Rev. Mykhailo Cherenkov, pastor, independent scholar.



Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission.



Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the June 2024 edition of Vista Journal.



 



Endnotes



1. Identity of Ukrainian citizens: trends of change (May, 2023)



2. Statement regarding the facts of the genocide of the Ukrainian people, committed by russian troops in the Kyiv region. Adopted on April 6, 2022 at a meeting of the UCCRO.



3. Appeal of the Representatives of Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Educational Institutions to the World Evangelical Community Regarding the War of the Russian Federation against Ukraine



4. Testimony of Rev. Dr. Igor Bandura. Church, State and Russia’s war on Ukraine. U.S. Government Publishing Office. Washington: 2023. P. 7.



5. Joshua Searle. A Theological Case for Ukraine’s European Integration: Deconstructing the Myth of “Holy Russia” vs. “Decadent Europe



6. Roman Soloviy. Theological Education in Wartime: Ukrainian Evangelical Seminaries as Communities of Compassion, Reflection, and Hope. InSights Journal, Vol. 8, N. 1. 2023.



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