Missionary John Calhoun offers insight into how United Methodists are responding to the political crisis in Ukraine.
As we begin a new year, the people of Ukraine are living through an extraordinary holiday season. Normally, this period is a time of great joy and celebration. In accordance with Orthodox tradition, each year the festivities begin with the commemoration of St. Nicholas Day on December 19, and culminate with the observance of Christmas Day on January 7.
This year, however, a political crisis has cast a pall over the festive spirit. In 2012, the government of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych began preparations to sign a series of agreements with the European Union. In exchange for much-needed financial support, the government would undertake significant political and economic reforms that would bring the country more in line with European governing standards.
However, in late November, the Yanukovych government abruptly decided to not sign these agreements. As the November 29 signing deadline passed, tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in Kyiv and cities across the country in protest against their government. The crisis was further enflamed in the early morning of November 30, when Ukrainian riot police stormed Independence Square in central Kyiv, dispersing hundreds of peaceful protesters, injuring many, and indiscriminately detaining dozens.
Since that night, Independence Square and several government buildings in Kyiv have remained under occupation. Protestors have streamed into the city from across the country, setting up tent camps on the square. Thousands gather in the city center each day to listen to speeches and rally support; many hundreds sleep in the square and at nearby barricades each night in hopes of preventing another incursion by the riot police. Smaller demonstrations are regularly held in other cities across the country, especially in the western regions, where closer integration with the European Union is favored by the majority.
However, not all Ukrainians agree with those protesting against the government’s recent tack. Many in Ukraine’s eastern regions are suspicious of so-called “western values,” and believe their social and economic security depends on closer relations with Russia. Much of Ukraine’s heavy industry is located in the east of the country, and thousands of jobs rely on maintaining strong trade links with Russia. The Russian government’s recent decision to provide Ukraine with emergency loans, just after talks with the European Union collapsed, further increased the growing rift within Ukrainian society.
As in the country as a whole, there is also division within the United Methodist Church in Ukraine over the future orientation of the country. For example, the majority of members of a United Methodist-related student ministry in the western city of L’viv supports the anti-government movement, and has participated in demonstrations in central L’viv. Many of these students have travelled in Western Europe, or have studied its society, and are deeply committed to such principles as democracy, transparency in government, and freedom of speech and assembly. On the other hand, there are Ukrainian Methodists who disapprove of many of the liberal social norms that are commonplace in Western Europe, and are indifferent to the economic arguments offered in favor of closer ties with the European Union.
Looking at the present political landscape, one might fear that the current stalemate could calcify into a permanent division: young, Ukrainian-speaking Westerners yearning to unite with Europe; older, Russian-speaking Easterners seeking to maintain social and economic ties with Russia.
However, there exists a commonality across the divide that unites the majority of Ukrainians today. Whether they support closer ties with the European Union or with Russia, many Ukrainians despair over the corrupted nature of their country’s political process, and the social unraveling that has resulted. The laments are many and widespread: politicians serve only their own interests, and those of the wealthy elite; laws are only selectively applied and enforced; local government is corrupt and inefficient; the social safety net is in tatters. As one Ukrainian Methodist pastor recently remarked, “I’m all in favor of closer ties with the European Union, but that won’t fix the many problems we face in our country.”
The Role of the United Methodist Church in Ukraine
Recently, Ukrainian Methodist leaders have been gathering to discuss the impact of these events on the life and ministry of the church, and how United Methodists should respond to this crisis. Although these conversations shall continue even after the current stalemate is resolved, a couple of priorities have already been articulated, and may serve as future guideposts for the church.
One, the church must stand with those who speak out against corruption, injustice, and illegality. Those in our congregations and communities who risk persecution for speaking prophetically shall know that the church supports their sacred witness. Individuals who are persecuted for truth telling, victimized unjustly, or subject to discrimination shall be granted sanctuary and shown mercy in our congregations. To all those on the margins of society, the United Methodist Church in Ukraine shall proudly offer “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
And two, the church ought to play a significant role in preparing the next generation of Ukrainian leaders. Young people in our congregations should be introduced to the history of the Methodist movement, and learn how its leaders through the centuries labored to create more just and compassionate societies. Those members with evident gifts for ministry should be provided theological education and placed in leadership positions in local congregations, with a mandate to strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of the larger society.
Inspiration for the Journey Ahead
With the recent death of Nelson Mandela, Ukrainians joined with others around the world to again marvel at South Africa’s remarkable transformation from an apartheid state into a true democracy.
The words of the late Nelson Mandela can serve as a clarion call for the leaders and members of the United Methodist Church in Ukraine. At a time when society is divided and many are wearied by political corruption and stagnation, our church has an opportunity to be a moral force: to stand with the oppressed and marginalized, to raise up a new generation of spiritual leaders, and to contribute to the building of a renewed society based on justice and the well-being of all.
Rev. John Calhoun is a General Board of Global Ministries missionary serving in ministry with the United Methodist Church in Ukraine. This article was originally published in the United Methodist Reporter. You can read it in its original form here.