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The Church’s social activism in post-Maidan Ukraine

During the times of crisis of Ukrainian statehood and Russian aggression, churches proved to be trusted leaders who promoted the consolidation of the emerging civil society.

April 17, 2018 - Mykhailo Cherenkov - Stories and ideas

Mansion of Pastor Kirkha in Poltava, Ukraine Photo: Nataliya Shestakova (cc) wikimedia.org

The Maidan events and the subsequent war became catalysts for the revitalisation of Orthodox churches and the revival of a volunteer movement, as well leading to a demarcation between a pro-Ukrainian minority and a passive majority. Despite the ongoing disputes about canonicity and church status, civilly active and patriotic church groups began taking more initiative. Not surprisingly, it was the Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church that spearheaded the national liberation movement. The Protestant Church also became engaged, as they had a well-developed network of communities in the east of the country and used their resources for social work during the ongoing war. That activism changed the religious map of the country. The churches that gained recognition and influence were not always the canonical ones, but rather those that were socially responsible. The social ministry of the church during the post-Maidan period became the main sign of its presence and the main criterion of its value as assessed by civil society. The church activism in the wider community helped the nation during a very difficult moment in its history, and also helped churches take the initiative to be a responsible part of civil society.

For the last eight years churches have had the highest level of trust (compared to other groups) from the public. However it was only under the conditions of the Maidan and later during wartime that this trust was tested in practice. For the first time churches claimed an active role, not just a declarative one, and were able to fully realise their social potential within that relationship. Volunteers and churches compete for having the highest level of public trust.  Some surveys show that churches are ahead and some state the volunteers are, but in all cases churches and volunteers are very close. According to Irina Bekeshkina, “Among non-governmental groups, volunteers are trusted the most. They are followed by churches and community organizations”.

This proximity is very significant. It is only in direct relationship with community organizations and volunteer movements that the churches can fully develop their potential in carrying out their social ministry. Moreover, it is the churches that are the biggest movers and shakers in this sphere. Jose Casanova, a scholar in the sociology of religion, predicted the inevitable losses that came after the revolution and the disappointments to the Ukrainian society. He expressed certainty in strong support from churches however: “Religious communities will be ready to accompany and support a mobilised population”

The difficulty of a sociological assessment is that the churches not only direct the activists and the volunteers supporting them, but also include themselves in that number. Many of those volunteers are also parishioners of those same churches.

We can understand how volunteers evaluate themselves: “The most significant result of the Revolution of Dignity – apart from the one where Ukrainians are recognizing the need to build a national state – has been the emergence of a volunteer movement which is an important component of civil society and a main driving force in the reformation of the country”.

It should be added that the most significant result was not an emergence of a volunteer movement as such, but rather the integration of different civil and church initiatives. Since then it has been impossible to distinguish between civil and church volunteers.

Moreover, it would be devastating to divide the volunteer movement. After all, it is the spiritual foundation that ensures unity, a sense of purpose, and consistency of civil initiatives, especially in times of fatigue and decline.

Western researchers note that the civil protest on Maidan that grew into the national volunteer movement was inspired and guided by the Christian idea of the dignity of persons created in God’s image. As Catherine Wanner, an anthropologist, observes, “Dignity plays a central role in the myriad of ways in which the Maidan is now commemorated as a ‘Revolution of Dignity’(…), and paved the way for an alternative vision for uniting the people of Ukraine”.

Due to the spiritual leadership of churches and a corresponding Christian “design,” the spontaneous protest that formed the Euromaidan, developed into a non-violent Revolution of Dignity. This theological explanation of those events gives us a framework within which we can understand the Maidan and the war that followed as a road to national consolidation based on Christian values.

Consequently, the present-day socio-political understanding of key ideas and values of Christian social teaching allowed the volunteer movement to gain a solid spiritual foundation and a nationwide perspective. Since the Maidan, the development of civil society has gone hand in hand with the motivating and leading role of churches. Mistrust and tensions between the civil society and church community will cause mutual damage. Attempts of either side to control autonomous initiatives would both be damaging (as would control by the government, a third party). And the question is whether these different churches are able to coexist and co-serve society without attempting to suppress religious and cultural diversity. The logic is simple: The majority of the population of Ukraine consider themselves part of some type of a Christian church. If these churches are able to agree and demonstrate to society a model of peaceful Christian diversity, it would become the basis for national reconciliation and a way to find unity in diversity.

The main question of post-Maidan Ukraine is not whether the country will have enough strength to protect itself from Russian aggression, but whether it is generous enough to embrace diversity, accept it, and activate the potential of each church tradition for serving the common good. While many Ukrainian patriots continue to strive for a unified local church, Jose Casanova, who has the perspective of an outsider, advises Ukrainians to protect this diversity and appreciate our privilege and wealth: “The question is whether we can accept not only multiplicity as an inevitable social fact but also pluralism – religious and political – as worthy and good … Although the lack of unity contradicts religious and nationalistic traditions that have been rooted in religion, it can, in fact, be a benefit that will facilitate the formation of a religiously tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic Ukraine.”

The Protestant case

Ukrainian Protestants are a religious minority that is rather consolidated and active. Most of them belong to the “second wave” of Reformation (second half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century); so the mainstream of Ukrainian Protestantism is being formed not by Lutherans or Reformers but by Baptists and Pentecostals. All of them call themselves “evangelical,” and this way of presenting themselves says a lot. They believe the church has to go back to evangelical truths; it has to reform and renew itself before changing society.  Cited above, Casanova sees them as a catalyst for cultivating religious and cultural diversity: “Although Ukrainian Catholics and Protestants make up no more than 10 per cent of the Ukrainian population. Their number in churches on Sundays is no less than that of the Orthodox, noting that the number of the Orthodox in Ukraine is approximately 6 times more.” Because of their social activism, the “difference between ‘churches’ and ‘sects’, ‘national confession’ and ‘religious minority’ has been disappearing.” This interreligious recognition and mutual respect was enhanced by the Maidan experience when priests, pastors, rabbis, and representatives of almost all Ukrainian communities served others side by side over the course of a couple of months”. At the same time, Protestantism (as much as it can be “evangelical”) serves not only as a driving force for diversity but also encourages unity as it appeals to broadly Christian origins.

In all fairness we have to recognize that Protestantism is not thoroughly patriotic and civilly active. The Maidan protest attracted active minorities, including Protestant minorities. Generally speaking, Protestant communities were divided and not very unified prior to the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbass. This eastern region of Ukraine was their “canonical” territory; as it was the most Protestant region. Hence it is natural that when the conflict spilled over to their territory, it raised questions of how Ukrainian they really were and how they could serve the Ukrainian nation.

The war changed many Protestant leaders of that region. A well-known pastor from Mariupol stated at the beginning of war that: “It does not matter in which soil the potatoes are planted – Ukrainian or Russian,” but in a matter of a few days he was digging trenches defending his hometown.

A pastor of a Baptist church from Pervomaisk (Lugansk region) said that the war was almost like “being born again” to him: “When I came face to face with war, I realised it had made me different” Their church building was ruined, but the church community carried on with their ministry saving the wounded and feeding the hungry, evacuating people from the front lines to safety, and taking care of scattered refugees. The church reached beyond its burnt walls to be with the people and serve them. That was creating a new community: “Now our people have a chance to build a new society – a country everyone would want to live in, and a country that we would not be ashamed to pass on to our children. But it is impossible to start building it without having knelt before God first, and without being heartbroken”.

These ministers perceived that the war had become an opportunity for the nation to spiritually renew itself and consolidate basing on Christian values, and also an opportunity for the church to go beyond its walls and get closer to people. The British theologian Joshua Searle wrote about a “Church Without Walls” as a vision that Ukrainian Protestants follow. He has a separate chapter on this under the title Church Without Walls: Reimagining Church and Post-Soviet Society. “A church that wants to work in tandem with the humanising forces of civil society will not be concerned to consolidate a religious institution based on order and hierarchy, but instead be much more involved in building authentic communities of grace. The success of this kind of mission is expressed not in triumph of Christianity over society, but in compassion for and involvement in society”.

Church Without Walls is more than just a metaphor; it is a reality of frontline territories where churches with similar names are appearing. Protestants go to these abandoned and half-dead places with practical help and a message of bringing “bread for life” and “bread of life,” gathering frightened people into communities of faith. They see the battlefield as the mission field. In their mission strategy, outreach and social ministry always go hand in hand. Due to this holistic approach to ministry, Protestant churches have not lost their influence. Moreover, they have strengthened it. As analysts confirm, “It was they who have become the most active social groups during the turbulent events in the east of Ukraine. The Protestants managed to collect entire convoys of food and humanitarian aid, evacuate over 55,000 people from a war zone, take care of and resettle more than 30,000 refugees from Donbass throughout Ukraine”.

Social activity was not limited to traditional humanitarian aid but evolved into other forms as well: Soup kitchens were opened, social bakeries were established, and shelters were started. The Protestants had to learn the ministry of chaplaincy, which was unfamiliar to them. Modest estimates indicate that two hundred ministers of evangelical churches work as chaplains today.

Diverse social activity has changed the image of Protestant churches in the region and in the entire country, and has also changed the churches’ self-image. The Protestants were used to their marginal status, and now they are getting used to their status of full-fledged members of an inter-church Christian community. The Protestants were used to being the “citizens of heaven” and now they have to discover Ukrainianness. As a pastor from a frontline area gave testimony – “Now the church gives more than it receives. The church is quite active; it takes part in people’s needs and works very closely with volunteers. The first thing that we did was painting the bridges into a yellow and blue colour…. We say that we are citizens of heaven … but the country awaits you…”.

But patriotism has not been (and will not be) the last way Protestants view themselves and their place in society. Even the most patriotic leaders of Protestant churches talk about reconciliation as church ministry: “We believe that the process of reconciliation should start with the churches. This is our challenge and our responsibility…. Are we looking for security and a peaceful life simply by building a wall between our wrongdoers and us? This is not the mission of the church”. This means that the church does not only see the war as an opportunity to take on a role in order to gain public recognition. As the church looks past the war, it sees its mission from the perspective of reconciliation.

Obviously, the ministry of reconciliation is not as popular in Ukrainian society as chaplain or volunteer ministries are, but it is these less popular ministries that distinguish the church from the more current civil initiatives. They offer a prospect of universalism to the society – one that does not abolish patriotism but corrects regional, political, and ethnic particularities.

Unlike the more ancient and influential “historical” church, “mother church,” and “national” churches, Ukrainian Protestants are not building on history, tradition, and canon law, and do not claim an exclusive influence from the post-Maidan community. They remain a religious minority and accept this status. They are building upon the Gospel and evangelical values, and by doing so they are outlining the most inclusive and social religious vision for Christianity in Ukraine and for the Christian Ukraine. While references to history divide churches and society, the Protestant appeal to a broadly Christian and evangelical foundation that is in the words of C. S. Lewis, “mere Christianity”, showing the way to consolidation.


 Ukrainian churches turned out to be a key factor in encouraging civil society during the Maidan events and the following Russian-Ukrainian war. The trust that society has placed in churches is demanding and carries with it high expectations. There is still the risk that in the strife over canonicity, the churches may lose society’s trust and become a “weak link” in civil society. At the same time, a clearly pro-Ukrainian inter-church consensus has emerged. It was approved by the decision of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations and joint ministry in the war zone. In caring for the country and for the common good, the churches can set an example of reconciliation and consolidation. As the civil society follows this example, it will be able to grow stronger and open up. One way or another, it was the Ukrainian churches that were the backbone of civil society in the post-Maidan period of Ukrainian history. But the question remains open whether they will continue to show initiative, use all their potential for the good of society, and show a model of unity. All the while, there is every opportunity to do so.

Mykhailo Cherenkov is a Professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. He also serves as the executive field director of Mission Eurasia Field Ministries (formerly the Association for Spiritual Renewal or ASR), Mission Eurasia’s national affiliate in Ukraine

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