Today, the world observes a catastrophe in Kyiv. The conflict between the protesters and riot police at Independence Square has escalated irreparably, as at least 25 people are dead and over one-thousand injured. The reports coming from Kyiv are dreadfully frightening: police shooting at protesters, churches are converted into makeshift hospitals, and the city is on fire, the protesters’ attempt to continue the revolution with the hope of a new government displacing President Yanukovych and his cabinet. Media sources have depicted the conflict as a tug-of-war between Russian President Vladimir Putin and a tepid alliance of the USA and European Union. Those without knowledge about Ukraine are subject to gross distortions and emotional assignment of blame: “the protesters are neo-fascists and radicals from Western Ukraine who represent a tiny minority of the country”; “Yanukovych is a criminal and thug who will sacrifice innocent life to hold on to power.” The strategic missives from Moscow and Washington perpetuate the blame game while people are beaten and die on the streets of Kyiv and the city burns.
Recently, Metropolitan Hilarion, first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, called upon Orthodox faithful to pray for peace in Ukraine and especially Kyiv, the “mother of Russian cities.” His appeal followed numerous pleas and prayers for peace in Ukraine issued by numerous bishops, priests, and people. Metropolitan Hilarion’s appeal caused me to wonder, does this revolution have anything to teach Orthodox Christians?
I believe that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes,” but not because Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities.
Ever since this revolution began and the tension escalated, the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic churches in Ukraine have encouraged government officials and the opposition to compromise and find peace. The reader can assess each individual appeal for herself, but I would generally describe the appeals as conciliatory and careful. The largest and presumably most influential Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) even offered to provide a neutral space for the opposing parties to negotiate and end the conflict. Obviously, the scandalous violence and public witness of death on the streets of Kyiv witness to the failure of these appeals.
Why are Church leaders unable to stop the violence?
Church leaders are unable to stop the violence because they have not exercised their moral authority to influence political decisions in Ukraine. To be sure, the ecclesial appeals are fully Christian because they ask everyone to pray, and countless prayers have been offered for peace in Ukraine throughout the world. At some point, prayer should involve hearing and listening on the part of those who offer it, in response to God’s word. Prayer is a primary contributor to decisive action. Surely, in Ukraine, there are many instances of prayer shaping action, manifested by the temporary but necessary transformation of Kyivan churches to hospitals.
This conflict will not be resolved, however, until Church leaders present the government leaders with a more formidable challenge. It is not enough for Church leaders to ask again for restraint from violence, as many world leaders are echoing this refrain. Unfortunately, this appeal is falling on deaf ears. Church leaders must offer a more direct intervention by informing the president that his decision to use force is not only morally reprehensible, but also cause for him to step down. An Orthodox lay woman just issued an appeal in this spirit today, calling upon the Synod of the UOC-MP to anathematize President Yanukovych. A formidable statement will be unpopular in certain circles, but action will be empty if it lacks boldness, a boldness created by God’s response to prayers.
The larger lesson for global Orthodoxy is related. How often do we sit on the sideline and argue about the legitimacy of particular groups and figures while cities burn and people die? Our moliebens should lead to action. No, most of us cannot fly to Kyiv or Cairo or Damascus and take action in the center of a crisis. But we can have an impact from the periphery of catastrophe by speaking out about injustice and naming it, even if such action rankles other Orthodox Christians. We can form a loud, global chorus that invites our bishops to hold President Yanukovych and his government accountable for using force to quell a revolution. The streets of Kyiv are filled with the blood of martyrs; perhaps we are called to a new, related type of martyrdom that requires the courage to cry out about injustice and can contribute to the common good in Ukraine. Lent is about to begin, an occasion for all of us to respond to the call to repentance. This year, let us consider how our prayer might form our actions.