Author’s Note: This article is based on my presentation at the 2023 CEEAMS conference: https://ceeams.org/upcoming-conferences/ceeams-annual-conference-2023/.
On the morning of February 24, 2022, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces upended the entire nation. Of course, Ukrainian theological education, in which I serve, was no different. Significant disruptions to our work provoked existential questions. For instance, in response to the war, several theological schools have found themselves on the front lines of ministry in ways that have, in turn, redefined our sense of community. These schools had to turn from holding classes to housing and feeding refugees, evacuating the vulnerable from active conflict zones, providing soul-care to the displaced, and so much more, all in coordination with one another as the war’s pressures have changed across the country.
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.
A Problematic Concept of Community
Before attempting to understand the experience of Ukrainian theological schools during the war as communities of reflection, compassion, and hope, we need to address the concept of community. The term “community” implies that we do not exist in this world alone – or, as Thomas Merton reminds us, “No one is an island.” The notion that human life is inherently social has been criticized over the past century, as this view of community, based on the belief that each person is part of one and only one homogeneous unity, in which there is no room for differences, has often had devastating consequences. Two world wars and one Cold War, with all their catastrophes, have convincingly demonstrated the danger of such thinking and its inevitable tendency to violent suppression of dissent, up to and including the physical destruction of those who could not or did not want to become part of the community.
These dangerous attempts to build homogeneous totalitarian communities, on the one hand, and political and technological processes, on the other, gave rise at the end of the last century to the theory that the “end of history” was approaching. The world was beginning an era of peaceful coexistence, humanity in a global village, in which there would be no room for conflict among local communities. In such circumstances, the very idea of belonging to a community would have to apply to the whole of humanity. However, now that almost a quarter of the twenty-first century has passed, these predictions have clearly been seen to be unfounded, as we are witnessing the decline of established norms of international law and cooperation, while tribalism and antagonisms on religious and ethnic grounds are gaining new strength. The most horrific manifestation of this trend is Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which is increasingly taking on the hallmarks of the genocides of the previous century. Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure are being destroyed, and according to Russian leaders, this ruin should lead to even more Ukrainians fleeing.
The main starting point for the critique of the idea of community in recent decades is the denial of its substantive concept, which understands community as a unity or a single whole that arises as a result of joint work, racial or national kinship, mystical experience, or divine determination. Jean-Luc Nancy summarizes the task of redefining community as follows:
From the outset, it is not a question of thinking of community as substance, as its own and autonomous entity. No more is it a question of thinking it according to a natural given (a people or nation understood as a race or lineage), or according to a work to be realized, a monument to itself as suggested by all the national palaces, forbidden cities, capitals, Kremlins, and all the images of an essence of common being (res publica), where the representations and symbols of each “nation” seek to project its assumed identity. It is especially not a question of conceiving a totality—given the ways in which the term “totalitarianism” had come to designate the opprobrium that threatened democracy. (Nancy, Disavowed Community, viii)
The examples given by this French philosopher are based on the idea that a holistic community identity is either naturally given or must be developed by action. In addition to Nancy, authors such as Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Roberto Esposito have emphasized that the concept of community as a unity will always go hand in hand with exclusion, with the forgotten community that is not part of a unified social whole. If we define communities in terms of what their members have in common, some will always be excluded.
Suppose we reject attempts to define community from this perspective but still want community to be more than the presence of an arbitrary set of individuals in a common geographic space. In that case, one of the few ways out of the totalizing definition of community is to examine what brings people together. In other words, in this case, the basis of community should be sought not in what we have in common or in what collaborative processes we enact but in who we are. Why? Because human existence is always already coexistence. People living together do not have a certain common property or function; rather, their existence is inconceivable outside of living together.
In today’s globalized and virtualized world, a relevant notion of community remains, based on the idea that people cannot exist as isolated individuals. From Nietzsche’s reflections on the community of unequals to the messianic communities found in recent references to St. Paul, interpretations of such a community share the following traits: a refusal to think of the community as a closed unity and an emphasis on its characteristics of multiplicity, openness, and non-totality. This view of community sees its essence not in shared identity but in honouring the differences among community members and the otherness of each of them. Along these lines, we can mention Blanchot’s “unavowable community,” Nancy’s “operative community,” or Derrida’s “community without community.” During a roundtable discussion, Derrida said, “Pure unity or pure multiplicity – when there is only totality or unity and when there is only multiplicity or disassociation – is a synonym for death.” Derrida does not reject the idea of unity entirely, because “pure” diversity, if it were possible, would be no less a threat to society than “pure” totalitarian oneness (Derrida, Points, 1995, 13). But he advocates for heterogeneous, porous, unstable identities that do not form a web of self-identity. Elsewhere, he insists, “If by community one implies, as is often the case, a harmonious group, consensus, and fundamental agreement beneath the phenomena of discord or war, then I don’t believe in it very much and I sense in it as much threat as promise. There is doubtless this irrepressible desire for a ‘community’ to form but also for it to know its limit – and for its limit to be its opening” (Derrida, Points, 1995, 355).
Derrida offers perhaps the clearest contemporary continental demonstration of the tension that exists in the concept of community – on the one hand, the need for its openness and on the other hand, the inevitability of boundaries, the existence of both an internal and external side to any community. After all, “com-munio” comes from a combination of two Latin words: com – togetherness, and munis – defence, fortification, or moenia – city walls. In other words, “com-munio” is a joint activity to build fortifications to protect against strangers and enemies. That is why it is so important, while keeping in mind that every community has its boundaries, that community life not become a means of exclusion. We must remember our responsibility for others who are not part of our community. In other words, every community must overcome its opposite, embedded in its etymology.
To use another of Derrida’s favourite concepts, first, our communities should be hospitable. This means that although we preserve our own identity and remain masters of our communities (otherwise, we could not show hospitality; we would have no place to which to invite the Other; we would have nothing to offer the stranger), we must learn to be open to other people, overcoming our inherent self-restrictions and fear. Derrida constantly reminds us that we are not hospitable enough, that we are too closed off, impolite, unwelcoming, too calculating and cautious in our acceptance of the Other. Our hospitality is often guided by unconscious motives, such as the desire to show off what we have, the expectation of a reward in return, or the urge to gain power over the guest, to turn them into a slave, or to take advantage of their vulnerability and dependence on us. It is only the awareness of the internal instability within our relationships with others that helps us to keep hospitality in general, and the hospitality of community in particular, alive and open.
The experience of a year of war and the search for ways to overcome its destructive impact have prompted the communities of Ukrainian evangelical theological schools to move away from the traditional understanding of community as a closed group of fellow believers with a common and binding worldview toward a more open experience of community as a fellowship that is able to accept and serve others. Of course, we are only at the beginning of this journey and face many obstacles along the way, but I hope that the new experience of accepting the other acquired during the war will persist in the long run.
In light of these considerations, I would like to analyse Ukrainian evangelical theological education. First, I would like to outline its main features before the Russian invasion.
An Overview of Ukrainian Theological Education Before 2022
At the beginning of 2022, Ukrainian evangelical theological education was developing. Over fifty evangelical theological educational institutions existed in Ukraine, of which thirty-five were members of the Euro-Asian Accrediting Association, accounting for almost 2/3 of the association. Among all the other countries of Eastern Europe, Ukraine had the most extensive network of evangelical seminaries. Although before the collapse of the Soviet regime, Ukrainian evangelical theological education did not exist as a systemic phenomenon (we can recall various short-term and mostly underground training programs), dozens of educational institutions have been established since Ukraine’s independence.
After a period of initial near-total dependence on foreign missionaries, by the early 2010s, the share of domestic faculty was increasing. A number of legislative initiatives adopted after the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-2014 allowed theological educational institutions to receive state accreditation regardless of their legal status. Theology was included in the list of disciplines in which specialized academic emphases could be created and in which doctoral dissertations could be defended. As a result, a number of evangelical educational institutions had begun preparing for accreditation by improving the quality of their scholarly work. Because seminaries lacked teachers with state-recognized academic degrees, in 2015, in cooperation with EAAA and the Drahomanov National Pedagogical University, the Ukrainian Doctoral Program was launched, which allowed twenty-four faculty to receive PhD degrees and five to receive Dr. Hab. degrees in 2017-2021.
Ukrainian theologians published hundreds of articles in domestic and foreign journals, and several international and interfaith conferences were held. To help students write their dissertations, a methodological seminar was launched, which is still being offered (thirty sessions have been held so far). In 2018, the EAAA Research Centre (now the Eastern European Institute of Theology) established the Contemporary Protestant Theology series in cooperation with the Dukh i Litera publishing house. The journal Theological Reflections: Eastern European Journal of Theology (founded in 2003) is thriving. The editorial board is constantly adjusting the journal’s practices, improving the quality of publications, and preparing the journal for inclusion in scientometric databases.
The Challenges of the War
From the war’s first hours, theological educational institutions faced urgent challenges. They certainly could not continue the educational process as Russian troops rapidly advanced, amid heavy rocket and artillery fire and in an atmosphere of fear, despair, and uncertainty. Institutions in cities under threat of Russian takeover were forced to evacuate to the western parts of the country immediately. In particular, on the first day of the war, Tavriski Christian Institute began evacuating its staff and students to Ivano-Frankivsk, and Odesa Theological Seminary began evacuating to Transcarpathia. Fortunately, Odesa was not under occupation, and six months later, the staff decided to return to their hometown. Unfortunately, TCI’s campus in the recreational area on the banks of the Dnipro River in Kherson was almost completely destroyed during the Russian occupation of Kherson. Even now that the city has been liberated from the Russian invaders, the campus is a dangerous place, as much of its land is still mine-riddled and subject to mortar and sniper fire.
The campus of the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary near Kyiv was also looted. This area was under Russian occupation for over a month in Spring 2022. Several of my colleagues who decided that it would be safer to wait out the Russian invasion, not in a metropolis that was under missile attack, but on a seminary campus remote from the city, survived with their lives by God’s grace alone. While hiding on the campus, they watched Russian tanks on the road past the seminary shooting at civilian cars carrying people trying to escape to western Ukraine across the Zhytomyr highway, which the Russians already held.
Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary’s campus, dining hall, and library in Pushcha-Vodytsia, on the northern outskirts of Kyiv, also sustained severe damage. The front line was just a few kilometres from the seminary, and the neighbouring towns of Gostomel, Moshchun, Bucha, and Irpin became symbols of atrocities committed by the Russian invaders. Most of the seminary staff was evacuated to western Ukraine, miraculously avoiding an encounter with Russian troops trying to surround Kyiv. Families and some staff of the Seminary of Practical Theology (Kremenchuk) were evacuated to Moldova.
Thus, while some institutions were forced to evacuate, others rapidly reoriented their activities to help millions of displaced persons who were fleeing for their lives (I will discuss the humanitarian ministry of Ukrainian seminaries in the next section). Only in Fall 2022 could most institutions resume some form of education. Returning to academic activities required overcoming many problems. Some of the seminaries had to repair buildings damaged by shelling and looting or adapt to teaching in temporary facilities. All institutions faced power outages, as in October-November 2022, the Russians launched a series of large-scale missile strikes and attacks by Iranian drones on Ukraine’s infrastructure, targeting primarily the energy systems. Because of the shelling, several blackouts occurred, the country is still short of electricity, and outages continue. To address this situation, seminaries had to purchase diesel generators and Starlink capabilities to ensure uninterrupted internet access. Because the campuses of most seminaries now partially or completely serve displaced persons, institutions are trying to increase the number of online programs. Yet online education encounters the same difficulties associated with power and internet interruptions.
While material losses and infrastructure challenges can be resolved relatively quickly, the loss of a significant part of the teaching staff cannot so easily be offset. Over forty members of the staff of Ukrainian seminaries have become refugees in Europe and North America. Among them are at least eighteen deans and program directors, as well as nearly twenty doctors of theology or doctors of ministry. An irreplaceable loss was the death of Vitaliy Vinogradov, dean of the Kyiv Slavic Evangelical Seminary, whose body lay on the side of the road in Bucha for over a month. Andriy Shostak, a graduate and lecturer of UETS who defended the Kyiv region from Russian aggression in a volunteer battalion, was brutally tortured and killed. About ten seminary staff members were drafted or volunteered to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine and are still in military service, including the dean of the Kyiv Theological Seminary. And while we have reason to hope that at least some of those who are currently serving in the military will eventually return to theological education, most of those who emigrated and were able to set up lives in new, more prosperous, more secure countries are unlikely to return to Ukraine. In fact, a few such colleagues, after staying in Europe for a while, have attempted to return to Ukraine, but after a short time, they have gone back to the West, worried about the safety of their relatives and unable to adapt to life in wartime.
Furthermore, while we were able to collect data on staff who can no longer participate in education, we do not have aggregate figures on the decline in the number of students. We do know, for example, that from one Kyiv seminary, 35% of Master’s students and 74% of doctoral students have left the country. Two other educational institutions located on the front line report that at least 15% of their students are now living outside Ukraine. One institution in Kyiv also reported that approximately 15% of students are currently abroad. For many displaced students, continuing to study is impossible because they are having significant challenges setting up life in their new communities. Some people lost all their documents while fleeing. Many who were already pastors or ministry leaders now face an incredible workload of care for displaced persons, residents of frontline and liberated territories, the wounded, orphans, and widows – whether as military chaplains or among civilians.
Despite these challenges, by Spring 2023, all evangelical theological schools had resumed education. Depending on each institution’s situation, training is being conducted in onsite, hybrid, or online modes. One relocated institution has reported that the number of students enrolled in online, short-term programs for ministerial training has increased significantly.
Communities of Reflection
As I mentioned in the introduction, in the war’s first days, the leaders of Ukraine’s evangelical seminaries formed a coordination group that is still active. The group has two objectives. First, it cooperates in evacuating and relocating the vulnerable and in providing people with food, medicine, shelter, and other basic necessities. Second, it consolidates and broadcasts Ukrainian theological reflections on the experience of the war. Therefore, one of our group’s first projects, which continues to this day, was the Voices series. This series is a platform through which we organize events to inform the global Christian community about the challenges the war poses to the people of Ukraine and, in particular, to evangelical churches, and about our efforts to respond to these challenges.
On March 17, 2022, we held the first event, The Russia-Ukraine War: Evangelical Voices. At this event, we shared how a new, more brutal phase of the war had smashed Ukrainian life and devastated almost the entire population. We discussed how Russia’s aggression had impacted evangelical churches and educational institutions and how Ukrainian evangelicals were helping victims of the war and the Ukrainian army. This event was our attempt to voice the pain of the Ukrainian people and to cry to world Christianity for help. (Edited versions of these papers can be accessed in the InSights Journal’s Spring 2022 issue for free: https://insightsjournal.org/roundtable-ukrainian-mens-voices/.)
On March 31, 2022, we held a second event, The Russia-Ukraine War: Women Voices. The war in Ukraine affects everyone, without distinguishing between civilians and soldiers, young and old, men and women. Often overlooked, women need even more to share their testimonies. This discussion concentrated on how women – as mothers, wives, volunteers, theologians, and teachers – experience this war. (Edited versions of these papers can be accessed in the InSights Journal’s Spring 2022 issue for free: https://insightsjournal.org/roundtable-ukrainian-womens-voices/.)
On December 22, 2022, the third Voices event took place, The Russia-Ukraine War: Evangelical Voices, 300 Days of War. This event demonstrated how, in 300 days, Russia had turned occupied Ukrainian cities into gigantic cemeteries and had deprived people of their homes, relatives, and futures. In light of these atrocities, we shared the testimonies of those who daily resist the war’s cruelty. We discussed how Ukrainians have become confident in the unity of their nation; how they have strengthened their irresistible will for justice and freedom; and how they have developed a willingness to die to ensure safety for others. We described how Russia’s war has changed the entire European security environment; how it has created the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II; and how it has united the democratic world in a struggle against authoritarian regimes. For 300 days, Ukraine has been paying a high price for freedom and human dignity.
The most important document of the coordination group, which the leaders of twenty-four Ukrainian seminaries later signed, is the “Appeal of the Representatives of Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Educational Institutions to the World Evangelical Community Regarding the War of the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” The appeal, which was read on November 15, 2022, at the ICETE 22 Consultation in Izmir, Turkey, condemns Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which has caused a massive humanitarian crisis, as well as war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces, including violence, cruelty, inhuman treatment of civilians, destruction of cities, executions of civilians, rape, and plundering. In addition, the document expresses the disappointment of Ukrainian theologians with the servility of the vast majority of Russian Christians. On this topic, one passage states:
We are deeply grieved by the fact that many leaders of Russian evangelical church unions, pastors, and community members remain silent. At best, they speak cautiously of prayerful support and help to refugees. We are grateful when they care for others. But they refuse to denounce the “Russian World” ideology and give a biblical and moral assessment of the causes of war and the Russian army’s war crimes. As we witness the atrocities committed in Ukraine, we cannot remain in communion with those church “leaders,” educational institutions, or unions of churches that associate with the perpetrators of aggression by openly supporting or passively complying with it. Consciously or not, they have recognized Caesar as their “lord” and renounced the early Christian confession that “Jesus is the Lord.” They 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. Stand with us in a call for leaders to repent of their explicit or disguised support of Russia’s misanthropic imperial policy, the ideology of the “Russian world” and aggressive war against Ukraine.
The authors of the appeal emphasize that Ukrainian theological institutions continue their mission despite ongoing violence. They call on the global evangelical community to use all means to support Ukrainian institutions, to be proactive in assessing the genocidal acts of the Russian Federation, and to confront the religious mouthpieces of Russian propaganda. The appeal closes with a call for solidarity with the millions of Ukrainian refugees and those in grave danger under Russian occupation or on the front lines. It invites readers to pray to the King of Peace for the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the establishment of just and lasting peace, and guarantees of Ukraine’s protection from future Russian aggression. (For the full statement, see https://eeit-edu.info/en/appeal-2022-breaking-through-the-sound-of-air-raid-sirens/.)
In Fall 2022, the Eastern European Institute of Theology launched a series of seminars on “Theological and Ethical Challenges of Wartime.” The war in Ukraine and the military threats modern humanity faces drive the choice of the theme. Since the church’s inception, Christians have experienced constant tensions due to their dual identity as both followers of Christ and citizens of states entering into military conflicts. Efforts to reconcile these identities and bring together unsettling biblical images of war and Christ’s teaching on non-resistance to evil have provoked theological debates. These tensions have only grown, as our world is threatened with a new redistribution of borders for the first time since the Cold War. Current and potential military conflicts confront every Christian with the need to define their place in the world and to find ways to resolve conflicts, build peace, and prevent violence.
These events are intended not so much for a general audience as for seminary professors, theologians, Christian leaders, and those who have serious intellectual inquiries stemming from the war. Speakers do not limit themselves to superficial answers but try to show the interactions between different biblical narratives and theological traditions, to identify inherent contradictions, and to clarify their relevance to contemporary circumstances.
For example, one of the most complicated issues is the attitude of evangelical Christians to military service, not only as paramedics or chaplains but as members of combat units. Traditionally, Ukrainian evangelical churches took a pacifist position; they even refused to take the pledge of allegiance in Soviet times. Since Ukraine’s independence, Christians have usually done alternative service instead of military service. Attitudes began to change during the Revolution of Dignity and the beginning of Russian aggression in Donbas and Crimea in 2014. The brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators by the Yanukovych regime, followed by Russia’s aggressive moves, provoked a strong reaction from all of Ukrainian society. People opposed both the corrupt pro-Russian Yanukovych government and Russia’s attempts to annex Ukrainian territories. Over subsequent years, evangelical churches discovered the value of civil liberties and the importance of cooperation with volunteer groups that carry out social, educational, and philanthropic projects, fight corruption, and help the army. Gradually, churches’ isolationist and escapist attitudes gave way to a more active social position, a growing sense of responsibility for the fate of the country.
Since 2014, Ukrainian evangelicals have sacrificially supported the Ukrainian armed forces, but until February 2022, their assistance was limited to volunteering and chaplaincy. The full-scale invasion and Russian troops’ incredible brutality caused a sharp shift in the attitude of evangelicals toward the armed forces. If, earlier, churches mostly disapproved of believers’ participation in military service as combatants and in some cases even imposed penalties for this, now, after the war’s full outbreak, churches support any decision to help the armed forces, serve as chaplains, or fight. Here we have an example of how the practice of Christian life in extreme conditions outpaces its theological justification. The spontaneous reactions of individual believers and the whole church to the war still needs to be understood. It is clear that along with traditional pacifism, Ukrainian evangelical churches leave open the possibility for believers to engage in military action. One might even say that, based on this bitter war, our own definition of a just war is being developed – war as a necessary measure aimed at protecting innocent people from violence and protesting an unjust invasion.
In addition to the painful process of reassessing pacifism, we must also discuss the problem of vulnerability from a biblical perspective because in war, as nowhere else, does the ordinary “small man” experience his vulnerability.
Yet another important subject is the analysis of the Russian invaders’ use of the language, imagery, and metaphors of the Bible to justify war. Increasingly, Russian propagandists are framing this invasion as a “holy war” to protect “traditional Christian values” from encroachment by the corrupt and liberal West. This propaganda resorts to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the “last battle” of the holy remnant, surrounded on all sides by diabolical forces. Russia’s war with Ukraine is proclaimed to be the salvation of the “Holy Rus” and the “de-satanization” of our country.
To think through these multifaceted topics from a theological perspective, one of the most important events was the Summer School of Theology, presented by the Eastern European Institute of Theology and entitled “Theology of the Other under Pressure of the Empire.” After the Holocaust, the problem of the Other came to the forefront of the social sciences. Before the Holocaust, the Other was perceived as an object of one’s own power, and this perception is believed to have been the cause of violence, oppression, terror, genocide, colonialism, and war. So after the Holocaust, people sought instead to treat the Other in ways that would foster empathy, hospitality, solidarity, and responsibility. Now, during the Russia-Ukraine war, the question of accepting the Other takes on new relevance: Is the Other always a guest who needs to be welcomed, or is the Other also a threat that needs to be stopped? In search of answers to these questions, the school brought together participants from over ten countries. Speakers included John D. Caputo, Catherine Keller, Myron Penner, Joshua Searle, Cyril Hovorun, and Miroslav Wolf. The school’s materials are published in issue 20:2 (2022) of Theological Reflections: Eastern European Journal of Theology (See http://reflections.eeit-edu.info/.)
We realize that after the war is over, we will face an incredibly painful process of restoring justice, prosecuting criminals, and honouring victims. And yet, at some stage, we should expect the beginning of a dialogue with Russian Christians. Now, for most Ukrainians, such a prospect seems outrageous, but we are still exploring the theology of reconciliation and restorative justice, as well as the potential of the Christian community in building peace. So Ukrainian theologians found it very helpful that the seminar speakers were theologians from countries that have endured similar journeys, such as Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and some African countries. Their presence allowed us to avoid the one-sidedness caused by the situation’s gravity and to place our ethical search in the global context.
In addition to these several programs of the Eastern European Institute of Theology, the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary has run programs as well. Among these is a podcast called Theology for Life. In the episode “War and Challenges in Worship Ministry,” UETS staff discuss whether worship is relevant in times of crisis, what worship should look like when the country is at war, whether our churches have songs of lamentation, and how important they are now. In 2023, UETS also launched a short-term training program, “The Mission of the Church in Times of War.” Because Christian ministers face many complex issues caused by the war, UETS has offered this program for their specific needs. In particular, this program addresses topics such as the church’s mission in war, care for the displaced and families divided by war, the problems of evil and forgiveness, and provision of pastoral care to those who have gone through trauma.
I would like to point out that all these theological issues change depending on the circumstances in which the theological community finds itself. The extended presence in Ukraine of a military conflict, the constant pressure to balance on the edge of being and non-being, hope and despair, elation and exhaustion, takes theological thought out of the realm of the mundane and into the existential. The realization that any encounter, conversation, or discussion may be the last encourages radical honesty with God, oneself, and others and the rejection of worn-out theological clichés that ignore the debilitating reality of pain, loneliness, and despair. And despite the lack of resources, experience, and emotional and intellectual strength, the communities of Ukrainian seminaries still dare to seek answers to life’s most pressing questions in the context of war.
Communities of Compassion
During the war, evangelical educational institutions proved themselves to be not only communities that, in the face of incredible challenges, are capable of deep theological reflection, but also to be communities of radical love. I have already mentioned that the Russian invasion caused a social catastrophe. Our society is still debating whether the government’s decision to reassure the country’s population on the eve of the war was the right one. Perhaps warnings about the real threat of a full-scale invasion would have allowed residents of the border areas to flee? Whatever the hypothetical case, this did not happen. On the morning of February 24, when millions of Ukrainians woke up to the explosions of hundreds of Russian missiles, many fled. Some sought to leave the country altogether, while others waited in safer areas of Ukraine, hoping that the war would end quickly.
On that day, millions of people found themselves on the road, desperately trying to save their lives. Very quickly, the transportation system, hotels, and gas stations could not handle the influx of people. At train stations, in crushing crowds, dozens of people tried to get onto trains. Massive traffic jams stretched for dozens of kilometres at the borders. Adults and children, able-bodied and sick, with pets, hurried to shelter.
In those first terrible days, Ukraine’s evangelical churches and educational institutions launched a ministry of mercy that continues to this day. We had facilities, transportation, and other resources, so we used them. We opened our dormitories to refugees. We provided them with shelter, food, and medical, psychological, and legal assistance. Many seminary staff and students still volunteer. Many endanger their own lives to evacuate the sick, children, and the elderly from combat zones and to deliver basic necessities – food, medicine, generators – to regions under occupation. According to Taras Dyatlik, the primary coordinator of our seminary hubs, in the first six months of the war, seminaries evacuated 10,482 people from combat zones, hosted 4,028 people long-term on their campuses or in homes, hosted 39,465 people short-term as they moved to “safer” destinations, distributed 5,246,000 pounds of food and necessities, and provided 290,616 people with food. (Statistics as of February 18, 2023.)
I will give three examples of the very different – but unified – experiences of Ukrainian theological institutions. In those first days, at the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Ukrainian Bible Society, my colleagues remained alone. Having evacuated their families, students, and most of their employees to western Ukraine, they stayed in the half-empty, cold, dark city despite the threat of encirclement by Russian troops. Under daily rocket fire, often running for their lives to bomb shelters, they continued their ministry. Every day, they delivered bread, groceries, medicines, and other essentials to villages around Kyiv, saving people from starvation. After the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions were liberated, the world learned the truth about what had happened in villages that had literally been wiped off the map. Immediately, UETS opened a volunteer ministry centre on its grounds; it still serves lunch to thousands of people and provides them with psychological assistance.
Tavriski Christian Institute’s experience is unique. Despite being evacuated in the early days of the war to Ivano-Frankivsk, TCI’s volunteers provided enormous assistance to Kherson throughout the ten months of its occupation. Accepting the risk of arrest and torture, TCI’s drivers transported medicine and food to Russian-occupied territories. In addition, using a network of contacts, TCI purchased food from local farmers and distributed it to those in need. Immediately after Kherson’s liberation, TCI’s volunteers joined efforts to rebuild life in the city despite daily fierce shelling.
Finally, I would also like to mention the ministry of seminaries in western Ukraine: Lviv Theological Seminary and Chernivtsi Biblical Seminary. In the war’s first hours, these campuses were transformed into humanitarian centres. Thanks to staff, students, and volunteers, these institutions continue their work. Half of Lviv Theological Seminary’s campus is reserved for displaced persons. Moreover, seminary volunteers help the residents of the modular town that has been set up for displaced persons next door.
Returning to our initial reflections on the need for a new experience of community as fundamentally hospitable, I see the outlines of such a life in the ministry of Ukraine’s evangelical seminaries. In responding to the needs of war victims, we are committed to abandoning all biases. The only thing that matters is that a person in need, an unfortunate traveller, an exile, a fugitive appears at the doorstep of our lives. We serve these people as we would have done Christ Himself.
A final, personal example: In Lviv, the humanitarian ministry of the Institute, which I head, is carried out in collaboration with the local Pentecostal church. On a recent Saturday, we distributed almost a thousand grocery sets. Diverse displaced people came to our church that day for aid. One man refused to take off his hat in the house of prayer, although it is not customary to wear headwear in churches. When asked by a volunteer to show respect for the community he was visiting, the gentleman stated that he was an atheist and would behave as he pleased. Another recipient was a Muslim Iraqi who came to Ukraine to study at a university and, despite the war, decided to stay in Lviv because he was even more afraid to return to his homeland. Yet another of the aid recipients turned out to be my former student, a pastor from Donbas who fled the Russian occupation there. Most tried to speak Ukrainian, but there were also Russian speakers. Regardless of background, language, or religious affiliation, we help these people and are building friendships with them.
In our humanitarian efforts, we adhere to several principles. First, we do not see aid as a means of religious propaganda. People are in distress, in a different city, often without work, family, or friends, and therefore they are very vulnerable. We are convinced that any steps toward God must be taken by a person out of goodwill, not under manipulation. Second, we respect the recipients of our assistance and honour their human dignity. As the internally displaced persons themselves note, they do not feel like beggars when they receive our aid.
In this sacrificial process of serving others, true communities of compassion form. The experience of compassion begins when we pay attention to our neighbour’s situation. We do not simply note the Other’s suffering, but we try to understand their situation and listen to their story. Yet listening is not enough. We must share a person’s journey, build a lasting relationship, and overcome our own prejudices, fears, and expectations. Then we are not just observing another person’s misfortune from a safe distance but experiencing it as our own. This process requires considerable effort because spontaneous acts of help are not enough; genuine compassion involves dedication, developing the ability not only to act but also to be, to stay with people. In this way, by experiencing the pain of the other as our own, grieving over it in prayer, and relieving it as much as possible, we form a community of compassion.
Communities of Hope
The last feature of the experience of Ukrainian seminaries during the war that I would like to consider is hope. Intellectuals of the last century brought hope back into philosophical discourse. But what does it mean to hope? Should one have illusory hopes that things will change for the better, or should one rely on rational calculation? Should one concentrate on human limitations, or should one consider the transcendent?
I want to start with a classic text of Western literature, Dante’s Inferno. In the third Canto, Dante writes of the inscription over the gate of Hell:
Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
My maker was divine authority,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.
According to Dante, once a person has entered hell, there is no more hope for them because there are no rational grounds for delivering them. So we can see that hope is impossible when there is no room for change, when a person is caught in an eternal cycle, whether it is hellish torment or the Nietzschean eternal return. No matter how much those locked in hell dream of salvation, no matter what emotions overwhelm them, they have no hope because there is no possibility that their desires will be fulfilled. God’s justice has passed a final verdict on them.
Perhaps Dante is right, although many theologians, from the Church Fathers to David Bentley Hart, would disagree with him about the immutability of eternal suffering. I myself would like to draw attention to the fact that we can only talk about the absolute immutability of the future in terms of existence on the other side of the eschaton. As long as we live in the reality that we only glimpse the new heaven and the new earth of the Kingdom of God, that the Kingdom illuminates the darkness of our lives but does not eliminate it, we can hope. That is, we can desire change for the better and recognize that such change is achievable. We are not only passive dreamers but active participants who bring the dreamed-for future closer. Thus, hope helps us move from a potential to a new reality.
Ukrainian society today desperately needs hope. Despite the government’s attempts to maintain faith in victory, in future restoration of the country within internationally recognized borders, and in rebuilding, it is difficult to ignore the fact that our country is being destroyed by a mighty totalitarian state. It is difficult to ignore daily news about losses and the expectations of even more extreme hostilities. Even the most ardent optimists are getting weary. It seems as if we are doomed to this war for the rest of our existence. A return to peace sounds like a hopeless utopia, and words of support are perceived as attempts to cheer up those already condemned to death. Our suffering is compounded by constant fear for relatives who are in the armed forces or in temporarily occupied territories.
What can give hope to these broken people? The living Christian community. Today, in the doorway of hell, it embodies the values of the future life in its works of mercy, compassion, justice, acceptance, and solidarity. Our Ukrainian seminaries are examples of such communities of the Kingdom of God. Through their humanitarian work, openness to people of other worldviews, support for the quest for justice, and recognition of the innocence of the victims of this war, our communities are showing what life can and will be like. And although today this way of being is an exception, of which only alternative communities are capable, it nevertheless testifies to the possibility of change, to the approach of another Kingdom in which all criminals will be punished, good deeds will be rewarded, and tears will be wiped away. Our frail loyalty to the ideal of the Christian community reminds us of God’s immeasurable faithfulness. He will surely fulfil all his promises. We believe that a new reality will come, in which, in the words of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, “There will be no enemy, no adversary, but a son and a mother, and people will be on earth.”
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“Breaking Through the Sound of Air Raid Sirens.” Eastern European Institute of Theology. November 2022. https://eeit-edu.info/en/appeal-2022-breaking-through-the-sound-of-air-raid-sirens/.
Derrida, Jacques. Points: Interviews, 1974-1994. Ed. Elizabeth Weber. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1995.
God among the ruins. Bogomyslie 32.1 (2022). https://bogomysliye.com/en.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Disavowed Community. New York City: Fordham University Press, 2016.
“Roundtable: Ukrainian Men’s Voices.” InSights Journal for Global Theological Education 7.2 (Spring 2022): 76-87.
“Roundtable: Ukrainian Women’s Voices.” InSights Journal for Global Theological Education 7.2 (Spring 2022): 60-75.
Theological Reflections: Eastern European Journal of Theology 20.2 (2022). http://reflections.eeit-edu.info/.
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