By Rev. Charles Harrell
These past days, watching from a distance the awful events engulfing Ukraine, the psalmist’s lament has often come to mind: “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalm 120:7)
Like many people, my own reactions to the “special military operation” launched by Russian forces into Ukraine has gyrated between shock, outrage, and really deep sorrow. Yes, there was an obvious buildup of troops for months under the guise of “scheduled maneuvers.” But that such an aggressive action would be so cynically taken at this point in history, after repeated denials – and by the country currently holding the presidency of the United Nations Security Council! – is appalling, and tragic in its implications. Even if every invading soldier were to stand down and go home tomorrow, Ukraine – and the world – would be a very long time recovering from the violence of these days. This is not to mention the risks of a wider and far more catastrophic war which could be touched off in these circumstances by what in calmer times might seem small and manageable events.
United Methodist, pan-Methodist, and ecumenical leaders have issued timely and important statements. Our Book of Discipline, we are rightly reminded, deplores war “as incompatible with teachings and example of Christ,” including as “an instrument of national foreign policy” (Disc. 2016, ¶165C). In his response statement, Bishop Christian Alsted (Nordic and Baltic Area) has pointed forcefully to the human cost of war, which goes far beyond combatants and the countries immediately involved. The World Methodist Council has called for de-escalation and negotiation, though it is hard to see how a return to the former Minsk framework for this is possible any longer. Our prayers are especially with Bishop Eduard Khegay, who, as leader of the Eurasia Area is leader of United Methodists across a vast region which includes both Ukraine and Russia, has such an important, difficult, and delicate role. The wisdom and courage of his responses already have been inspiring.
We “people called Methodists” are a people of faith, lifted by hope, and who show love – by action. Permit me a story that reflects this in the past, and then some thoughts looking beyond the present crisis – because there will be a “beyond” in God’s good providence.
About five years ago, I was with a team of others from our area at the United Methodist retreat and conference center called “Camp Kristall,” in southern Russia. The setting was a “Youth Mission Conference,” which brought together young people from around Russia and Ukraine, and with them a number of international students from various African nations who were studying nearby, as well as a few of us Americans. The days of that week we labored hard and side by side at various work projects in the camp, and ate, laughed, and played together. Evenings we spent worshiping, meeting in discipleship groups, and going deeper together in our fellowship and discipleship in Christ.
To say the time was “rich” would be a pale descriptor. We, a mix of nationalities, colors, languages, and cultures, sang familiar worship songs in a blend of Russian, Ukrainian, and English. Leading us was a praise team of young adults who had made a long trip from western Ukraine. When I ask their leader about the journey, I was amazed to learn that they had driven more than 20 hours by minibus, just to be there. Even at that time, separatist groups in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine made the trek a risky proposition. There had been reports of occasional violence. But this group transited the area anyway, to be at the camp. Their leader said with wry irony, “It was not an easy trip.” (Some of us wondered aloud how many Americans would have done the same?) But the Ukrainians insisted that they come, despite the hassle and hazard, to participate fully in this work together. It was a great witness of our unity in Christ -- with a lesson on the cost of discipleship thrown in, too. And the same God who parted the Red Sea waters and stilled the storm on Galilee’s lake brought them safely through as well.
In the years since that mission conference, some things have changed. A tough decision to sell the camp became necessary. There have been calls to separate the churches in Ukraine from the Eurasia Area of the UMC. These and other matters have been difficult and painful in their own way. Yet they pale before the events of this past week.
So what happens now? Though we cannot know the full outcome of this war and its aftermath, there are some things we can say clearly, and claim in faith.
To begin, we support our siblings in Christ in prayer, and through the relationships of love and mutual encouragement that have been nurtured over the years. In the present crisis, we will offer other life-giving resources and supports as we are able. (As I have been working on this article, a Russian brother has connected me, an American, with a Ukrainian sister and brother who are caring for people fleeing the areas of fighting, both believers and not, using our UM church facilities in the western part of their country.)
Meanwhile, our commitment to the ongoing work of Christ’s mission in all parts of Eurasia continues undiminished. Our efforts include ministry to the Roma (a people marginalized around the world); the training and equipping of leaders including through the Moscow Seminary; and partnerships with congregations and their outreaches, such as ministry with international students and camps for the physically and intellectually challenged. Though we make every effort to be informed and clear-eyed about the world context and are not naive about the effects of global realities, our works of ministry did not start in geopolitics, but in the Lord. So they continue in the same Spirit. The Baltimore-Washington Conference has been, and will continue to be, a reliable covenant partner in ministry. Though the focus of our partnership is in southern Russia, the reach of it extends into Ukraine and Europe to the west, and to Central Asia and the Far East toward the sunrise. There are no geographical boundaries in the heart of God, nor in the works that stem from God’s grace.
When the fighting finally ends, there will be much work in the twin tasks of reckoning and reconciliation to be done. God’s people will be involved in this as always, and we will have a role in supporting these efforts. Though our United Methodist denominational conflicts may burden our efforts, my prayer and sincere belief is that we will find ways to bridge the gaps and come together in the works that make for peace. Some connections may need to be rebuilt. And doubtless new needs and opportunities will emerge as well.
To sum up: I deplore in the clearest terms what has happened in Ukraine. But I am confident also of the bonds of our relationships in Christ, the strength of our partnership in ministry and the urgency of it, and that the God who “began a good work” in this way will “bring it to complete fruition.”
The world crossed a tragic threshold this past week, as borders were violated with hostile intent. Many pleasant illusions about the stability and safety of the world order have been shattered. But history has witnessed many such crossings and violations; it is sadly not new. This fact should not make us cynical or harden our hearts; instead it makes the more obvious the imperatives of mission and ministry, and of witnessing to the justice and grace of God, which have not changed.
Five years ago, a minibus full of young people made a safe return journey after twice crossing dangerous terrain, in order to model unity in Christ and to fulfill a call to discipleship through service. Today we all find ourselves on a journey through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. Today we all lament the cries of war in the world around us. But we can know that God will move us surely where we need to be, unity of the Holy Spirit and in response to the call of God who “is able to keep us from falling” and can bring us together in the works that make for fruitful peace.
Sovereign of the nations, you show yourself to be the Prince of Peace, calling us to do the things which make for peace. Hear the heart-cries of your people as we plead for those in harm’s way, we pray. Soften and turn the heart of the aggressor toward the way of peace, and let a just and lasting shalom be established in Europe and throughout the world. Keep true in us the love with which we hold one another, and in all our ways let us trust you as we make our pilgrim journey through this time of crisis. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Charles L. Harrell is convener of the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s In Mission Together Eurasia Committee.