By William Yoder, Special to the ASSIST News Service
SMOLENSK, RUSSIA (ANS – Dec. 29, 2015) — One indeed can speak of a new spirit of inter-confessional relations between the Christian denominations within Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainian thinkers such as the Baptist Mikhail Cherenkov have long celebrated this development. But that “spirit” is driven at least in part by the presence of a common enemy – not necessarily by the Holy Spirit. Recent examples:
On December 7, 2015, Gennady Mokhnenko, a well-known Pentecostal-Charismatic pastor in the frontline city of Mariupol, belonged to the group of military chaplains awarded a medal by Filaret, patriarch of the internationally still un-recognized “Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate”. Mokhnenko, who frequently appears in military camouflage, has approved a possible murder of Putin, etc. (See his Facebook page and our report from July 2, 2015.) At the same time, relations between (West) Ukrainian Protestants and the country’s largest denomination, the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate”, remain rock-bottom.
Officially Orthodox, Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia until 2013 and currently governor of Ukraine’s Odessa province, was a celebrated speaker at Willow Creek’s “Global Leadership Summit” in Kiev on December 10, 2015. (Four days later, Saakashvili was involved in a bitter verbal – and watery – slugfest with Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.) Ukraine’s Protestants are supporting Saakashvili and Poroshenko in their struggle against Avakov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk.
Mokhnenko also belonged to the speakers at this summit. In this context, Yuri Sipko of Moscow, one-time president of Russia’s Baptist Union, sent him a hearty greeting. (See Mokhnenko’s Facebook page of December 9, 2015.) Sipko toured Ukraine recently and made many appearances.
In Russia, the Moscow Patriarchate tended to side with the Baptists after their split with the country’s Pentecostals and Charismatics in late September. (See our report from October, 7, 2015.) Nevertheless, the Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion hosted Sergey Ryakhovsky, head bishop of the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), for a lengthy television interview on “Russia 24” on December 19, 2015). A session of the Moscow Patriarchate-led “Christian Inter-Confessional Advisory Committee for the CIS-Countries and Baltics” (CIAC) scheduled for March 1, 2015, in Minsk still reckons with Russian Baptist and Pentecostal participation.
Gratefully, the unexpected and humorous still occur. A pre-war (2013) film by the US-American Steve Hoover on Gennady Mokhnenko’s remarkable efforts to salvage the lives of Ukraine’s orphans was shown in Moscow and St. Petersburg theatres from December 12-14, 2015. The award-winning documentary is entitled “Crocodile Gennadiy”.
On another note, Pavel Shidlovsky. Belarus’ ambassador to the USA, named the Russian Mikhail Morgulis, a Pentecostal who immigrated to the USA in 1977, honorary Belarusian consul for Florida. The ceremonies took place on December 12, 2015, in Sarasota and North Port/Florida, home of Morgulis’ centre for “Spiritual Diplomacy”. His centre’s self-description sounds grandiose: “Spiritual Diplomacy – a New Road to World Peace”. But this 1941-born globe-trotter must be a prime example of the Charismatic movement’s agility and ability to build bridges. In recent years, Minsk’s Charismatic “New Life” congregation has attempted the exact opposite: a highly confrontational policy vis-à-vis the Belarusian state.
Back to the daily grind
Not infrequently, well-meaning Ukrainian evangelicals express pity for their Russian sisters and brothers falling prey to the onslaughts of Russian state media. One of numerous Ukrainian letters written in this vein states: “How do we dialogue with the Christians of Russia who either acquiesce to Russia’s aggression or even contribute to the propaganda that accompanies this aggression?” Why have we allowed our brothers and sisters “to succumb to the influence of aggressive propaganda?”
But is it correct that “propaganda” is emanating strictly from the Russian corner? In his address before Kiev’s “Rada” on December 8, 2015, US Vice-President Joe Biden assured: “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. Sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances. Period.” The listeners responded with applause – though a gasp would have been a more appropriate response. At least since the war against Spain of 1898, the USA has spent billions of dollars creating and defending a sphere of influence reaching from Mexico and Chile to the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Europe and the Middle East. Apparently, the leading politicians of the country into which I was born have no antenna for the dangers of a double standard.
I am worried that (West) Ukrainian Protestants do not recognise a fascist danger within their own country. On December 20, 2015, Right Sector and the Azov Battalion held a rally with 5.000 participants in Mariupol featuring a torchlight parade and fascist, Nazi-era symbols. Yet a leading Ukrainian Baptist assured me last April that Putin was the only fascist in the entire Ukrainian-Russian debate. And what do these dangers within Russia look like? We need to begin by defining precisely what fascism is. I am profoundly weary of the propagandist usage of terms like “fascist” and “terrorist” on all sides. Is the Russian Alexander Dugin a “fascist”? Choose a definition, then read his texts and decide for yourself.
Avowed Christians on both sides of the Ukraine conflict have proclaimed their war to be a holy one. Orthodox on both sides of the barricades have literally blessed weaponry. Sadly, the Old Testament paradigm of the holy war leaves plenty of space for the glorification of war. See for example the Facebook page of this Ukrainian Pentecostal lay minister: “https://www.facebook.com/vladimir.dubovoy?fref=ts”. Dubovoy’s entry from December 22, 2015, has Santa looking for goodies in a weapons shop.
We are all endangered by propaganda and the temptation to hate. I too belong to the endangered.
We must also be wary of false terminology. I have heard or read numerous examples of Russian Protestants going to “West”-Ukraine to visit their brothers and sisters in the faith – in Slaviansk for ex. According to the reports, these meetings ended with the Russians apologising for the misdeeds of their government, their tearful pleas for forgiveness being granted by the Ukrainian side. This change of opinion needs to be respected, if it is sincere. But labelling such steps “reconciliation” is a misuse of terminology. Forsaking the flag, crossing the barricades and joining the other side, is not “reconciliation”. We would all agree that forsaking the Red Army and joining the German army during WW II – or vice versa – was not a statement of reconciliation.
In the Ukrainian context, tough love is needed. Alexey Smirnov, president of Russia’s Baptist Union, alluded to this in an interview published on March 17, 2015. He stated: “We may judge and assess issues differently, but it does not stop us from being brothers in Christ.” Smirnov pointed repeatedly to the subjectivity of political discourse and quoted an old Russian saying: “Each person possesses his own truths (pravda), but only God possesses ultimate truth (istina).” (See our release from May 31, 2015.)
One can accept as legitimate the concerns of one’s own country while simultaneously reaching the hand of friendship to believers on the other side. Here one accepts without demonization the fact that evangelical Christians will never be of one mind on most major political issues. But this should never stop anyone from striving passionately for peace.
Wishing you a more peaceful 2016.
Photo captions: 1) Mikhail Cherenkov. 2) Gennady Mokhnenko preaching. 3) Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia until 2013. 4) Mikhail Morgulis. 5) Alexey Smirnov, president of Russia’s Baptist Union. 6) William Yoder.
Dr. William Yoder is a US-born American from Germany who lives in Belarus and works in Moscow, Russia. He grew up in the Mennonite church in Sarasota, Florida, but has spent most of his time since 1971 in Germany, largely in Berlin. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in 1973 and received a Ph.D. in political science from the Free University of Berlin (West) in 1991. His dissertation was on the role of the Evangelical Church in East Germany between 1945 and 1961. After a stint with the Lutherans in Russia’s Kaliningrad/Königsberg enclave, Yoder has been active since late 2006 as media spokesperson for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and the Russian Evangelical Alliance in Moscow. One of his primary activities involves the composition of press releases in English and German. He is married to Galina, who hails from Barnaul in Siberia. He can be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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