MYKHAILO CHERENKOV: RELIGION WAS A PEACEMAKER DURING MAIDAN AND BECAME A MOBILIZER IN WAR TIME
Interviewed by Tetiana KALENYCHENKO
On November 21, 2013, the first Euromaidan broke out and nobody could predict further developments. Churches and religious organizations became part of social change. According to experts, the population sis still living in a nineteenth-century paradigm, and we cannot assert that ecumenism has reigned after the revolution in Ukraine. Professor of Ukrainian Catholic University, Protestant theologian Ph.D. Mykhailo Cherenkov shared his vision of these years’ dynamics and the way that can give a new impetus to the religious environment.
— In what way had the religious environment changed after Maidan and before the war?
— In this case, the qualitative changes that are scarcely distinguishable shall be identified. One can focus on speeches of the church spokespersons and their official statements or one can grasp the popular sentiment. I will rely on the latter. If we take a look at the polls, their representativeness remains mostly questionable. I think that the religious environment is now in a state of extraordinary confusion. Even in the early days of Maidan, as it turned out, the churches were unprepared to meet the challenges but were confused. Neither today they have definite answers, but hope that the “war action will show.”
The religious environment lacks a developed capacity for reflection. If the Churches are not ready to systematically respond to all challenges even now, during the revolution it was even more difficult: they were not ready to respond quickly even to current issues. This includes working with the flock and interacting with society. That is, there is no mechanism which would allow the churches to respond with their integral body, collegially, and only then involve powerful intellectual, spiritual, social forces to solve problems. This collegial dimension does not exist. In the stead of it, there are bishops whose mostly personal positions hardly conform with the sentiment of religious communities.
Accordingly, there are positions of church primates, separate speakers, who were delegated, or people who were simply thrown to the surface of publicity by a twist of history. The latter seems more interesting. It is worth mentioning Father George Kovalenko (UOC), who is currently not authorized to represent the Church, but is respected in the public space as a worthy representative of the denomination. The religious communities have no shared coherent position.
Therefore, there is a growing dissatisfaction of the laity and clergy with the fact that no one asks how they evaluate the changes, what the Church should be like now and how to respond to the social challenges of war, what the conflict mean s for Christian unity. Instead, there are bishops, who usurped the main levers of ecclesiastical authority, and overall community, who are living on their own. Ordinary believers participate in the community life as volunteers, pray, collect assistance and do not know how their church perceives it. The blessing of a bishop, too respectable to be accessible, is of little value now. People get organized by themselves, almost spontaneously.
I am mostly talking about the UOC (MP), for it is now at the crossroads of complex issues and responsible decisions, but the same refers to the UOC-KP. There is an exemplary position of the Patriarch, but there is an abyss between him and the community life. How one can possibly overcome it, how to engage people in active life or shared activities? Therefore the main criticisms towards the Kyiv Patriarchate is that it is a personal Church of Filaret, and if he is excluded, no one knows what the Church will be like and where it will move. Indeed, the developments have shown the lack of church collegiality. The challenges are so serious and radical that the Church cannot meet them relying solely on the employees of several offices. The Church has to rely on his entire church body, use its hands and head, and tongue, and heart. Therefore today it is disoriented and individual voices – either worthy or not – are uncoordinated. And this, I think, poses the greatest danger for the Church. If the pipe produces a weird sound, no one will know what to get ready for. Incomprehensible sounds, uncoordinated actions, lack of collegial mechanisms.
— During Maidan very often the rhetoric of true ecumenism was heard. Can we observe it now? What are the prospects of dynamics of this gap between leaders and laity?
— The gap or mismatched positions, parallel lives of the bishops and community may result in prospective emergence of dual power. There are authorized spokespersons or representatives, and there are people whom community or church life has pushed to the microphone. And they will work, and their opinions will become more influential. When people are disappointed in the senior hierarchs, then they say, “what is sacred in this body?” They will start building alternative structures. And they have been already formed in a network-type horizontal structure.
There is a better perspective when the church leadership openly admits lack of collegiality. If they understand that the Church will die without it, then they will find the mechanisms of activation or even resuscitation of the collective life. They do not need to invent anything, just replicate it from history. They can be found in the early church history, on the pages of the Acts. Then the reformation may take place in the Church, and it will become a collective entity. We will not repeat some not very smart sayings that there is no church without the bishop. But we will say that there is no bishop without the church, without its sound and active life there will be no sound spiritual leadership. Then the mutual appeal of the church as a community can foster activation of the church life. This is what the UOC and ROC are afraid of. If social life grows active, then people will say — who is Kirill? If he infringes the Gospel commandments, whether we have to honor him? Then all these structures will be shaken. This is a chance to revive the authentic church network. The church is primarily a community, the community of the people faithful to Christ and not to the bishop. The intertwined relations between Christians are crucial as this is the way the Church is being built.
Maidan showed that there is no ideological core, and now the Churches are thinking how and around what they rally.
I think that today we have to look at Maidan as there are hidden impulses whose effect persists. If people have already united, they are difficult to separate. They have had a genuine experience, and they will focus on it. Another thing is whether it remains somewhere in reserve, or the church will intensify it, as it is a powerful mechanism for influencing society and, at the same time, for church renewal.
Today, in a sense, ecumenism is not topical for churches because they take care of its internal situation. Maidan showed that there is no ideological core, and now the Church start how and around what they rally. This is the issue of unification and identity. And when it escalates, then ecumenism weakens. Instead, we have a common purpose and common action, a common challenge that we can respond to. At present, the practical ecumenism has moved to the East, while in the center, which is far from the reality of war, it cannot be actually felt. It cannot be called a pause or denial, but rather a time for home exercises over the ecumenical experience acquired during Maidan, which potentially has much to give to each separate denomination and to all of them together.
All denominations should think what makes us Christians, and only then how to be Orthodox, Greek Catholics or Protestants.
Will the Church be able to develop “at home” (each of them from inside) a strong identity, invulnerable to outside influences? But I worry that these “home” activities will be fruitless. Gone are the days when the identity was produced by a church in a closed mode. Now it is being formed in an open environment of ecumenism. And those who understand these things say that we should work together. All denominations should think what makes us Christians, and only then how to be Orthodox, Greek Catholics or Protestants. And the sooner they become aware of it, the sooner they solve their internal issues in ecumenical mode. In modern world it is impossible to dissociate oneself from others. But we still partially live in a nineteenth-century paradigm. We adhere to the ideas of a unified local church or a nation state, which are based on immediate and permanent dependence on ethnicity, language, religion.
Therefore, the Church continues to fight, measuring swords for title, while the world lives in the mode of instability, diversity, openness, where entirely different mechanisms of synergy operate.
— You have mentioned the new horizontal network structures – can you give any examples?
— A network structure is an association of people not on the basis of their status in the overall hierarchy, but through informal, ideological relations. Such structures are formed spontaneously, and not in administrative manner, for example, on personal ties through social networks or through volunteering. These are joint projects, in particular, theological groups, publishing houses, media resources. They unite people one the basis of their outlook that is much more relevant than the ecclesial and structural ties.
I know “our people” in every church — these are the people I consider “our” church, because I feel unity with them and authenticity of this kind of Christianity. These are people from the RCC, UGCC, UOC, UOC-KP and Protestant communities. We do not need to wait until our bishops bless the common cause. If the pressure from their side will increase, we will have recourse to some other formats of ecclesial life. No one fears anything. This creates a new system of orientation — not based on the church leadership positions but the values and principles. Thus, informal leaders live and serve within the system, but are still seeking for and creating alternatives. One can formally belong to the hierarchical system, but the lives by other things, i.e. the informal community of like-minded persons. These quiet intersections offer church people a breath of fresh air, open opportunities of a different and diverse Christianity. Without these network communities, without dialogue and cooperation with neighbors, the churches will turn into the relics of the administrative-command past.
— What are the key changes you see in the Protestant environment? The pastors divided opinion as early as during the Maidan not to mention the war and the attitude towards it. What has changed since the revolution?
— Now the things that divided us previously became common. Churches have to be socially and nationally patriotic, engaged, and responsible. There is a real war and all Christians should be at war. Someone shall serve with arms, others shall support them. But the greatest sin is indifference. And it became common for Protestants. A year ago there was a debate was whether a Christian may go to war. We have already passed a point of no return. There is also regional specificity. In the East, many people do not believe that this war is just. They find themselves hostage to the fight between Kyiv and Moscow. But the amount of these people decreases, they either deliberately stay in the area ATO or scattered and do not constitute a homogeneous mass and are subject to assimilation.
Given this experience, people look differently at Maidan. In fact, a big mistake of Donetsk churches was that they prayed for peace and unity in the church walls and not out at their own Maidan. We are responsible for what happened.
I think that the Church and with society are passing a difficult period. If there were still some hesitation during Maidan, the subsequent processes of annexation and war were became a response for the Church and a sign that it definitely has to be with people, live through this experience together with the community, live through despair and disorientation. What next? Where does our government lead us? Has everything changes? Why corruption is flourishing again? Will the war end and why they gain profit from it? The Church goes this way with no illusions together with society, including through negative emotions — confusion, anger, shame.
— If we look at the religious component of the three key events — Maidan, Crimea, ATO – how is it manifested? Was such a component present and whether it had affected the course of events?
— Speaking of the Ukrainian side, the religion was clearly and unexpectedly became the very factor a strong one, which helped. At Maidan religion allowed to keep people back from radicalization, to ensure a peaceful course of events. As for the Crimea — we have seen on Turchinov’s example that religion played a somewhat moderating role, when he did not dare to take decisive action, but moved quietly and consistently according to a plan. One might think that this plan was wrong, but I think that in other circumstances there would have been much more blood. Those beliefs that influenced Turchynov’s position prompted him such answers.
In the ATO zone, religion played a mobilizing role. In a positive sense, it “radicalized” the people. There was much panic in the corridors of power, but we saw how faith and religious affiliation mobilized the leaders, they felt responsible. That is true for Turchinov, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk. In other words, «religious affiliation», Christian faith said that we must fight, defend, not to give up. No matter how many enemies there were, we have to trust God and know that the truth is on our side. And this has motivated and united us. Faith was the cement that united, strengthened and motivated Ukrainians. This is just one factor that the Russians could not calculate. Why people do not dissolve on Maidan? Who are the chaplains and what are they for? People from the temples – what are they doing? Only believers can understand. It is not clear for nominal believers because they know that God is on the side of power. But He is on the side of truth, because truly believing people sacrificed themselves for others.
Therefore, religion has played a moderating and peacekeeping role in a certain sense, but at the same time a motivating one. To be on Maidan, to defend our values, but not by violent means. It has contributed to a relaxed attitude to the events. I think that we could lose the whole country, not just Crimea, if panic had spread. Religion became a stabilizer, so that country has not slipped into chaos. It was the factor that empowered people. If this were not the case, everything would die out in a few months – defeat under Ilovaisk, betrayal, silencing – there would be nothing to hold people back.
On the Russian side, the religion in the ROC’s version played a provoking role and legitimized aggression. It blessed a fratricidal war.
Here we can see a manifestation of aggressive religiosity. The two types, or modes of religion collided, the aggressive imperial and the national liberation type. If religion is working on the side of oppressed people, it gives power to mobilize and defend.
This will be the next step, when the faith will enable to forgive and forget something from our past. When painful memories haunt us, only faith will help us live. Faith gives strength to fight not only for the present but also to move forward. Currently there is no vision of the future, and it can be felt. Religious leaders do not see the full picture. But one day religion will become an inspirational force. Expecting this from our politicians would be too naive. There is nothing left for us but faith.