Evangelicals in Ukraine drift from pacifist ways in the face of Russian aggression

The war in Ukraine has challenged the unique pacifistic stance held by many Ukrainian evangelicals, writes Jayson Casper in Christianity Today (April 20). Because of the history of oppression in the Soviet Union, a mixture of state compliance and pacifism marked much of the evangelical revival in Ukraine and Russia during the past few decades. Baptists in Ukraine and Russia, making up the world’s second largest Baptist community, took the pacifist route, unlike their North American counterparts, often influenced by Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups that had emigrated to the region from Germany. While other evangelicals were not formally pacifist in their beliefs, they followed a policy of non-participation in their relationship to the communist government in the former Soviet Union that extended to military involvement. But Casper writes that there has been an evangelical shift, at least in Ukraine, on matters of war and peace in the face of Russian aggression, most clearly seen during the recent invasion.

With the national call in Ukraine to restrict men between the ages of 18 and 60 from evacuating the country, sources estimate that the great majority of evangelicals are contributing to the war through humanitarian help rather than through fighting. But while Anabaptist teachings relating to non-resistance and pacifism still have influence among the older generations of evangelicals in Ukraine and Russia, younger seminarians and church leaders in the former country have shown increasing misgivings about the refusal to take up arms. Often chafing under the influence of fellow believers in their “big brother” country to the north, Ukraine’s evangelicals are both more socially involved—as first seen in their participation in the 2004 Orange Revolution—and cooperative toward the military (if not actively fighting) than previous generations, even among the once strictly pacifist Mennonites. Known as the “Bible belt” of Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s evangelical influence in the military can be seen in the fact that there are now more Protestant chaplains than Orthodox ones. One Mennonite Brethren leader says that “Most people in our churches will not pick up a gun, but we will not condemn a soldier.” There have indeed been Mennonite Brethren soldiers and the church now counts many soldiers and veterans among its members, Casper adds. But more pacifistic Mennonites, such as those in the pan-denominational relief and development organization Mennonite Central Committee, have held their ground, advocating for social service and ministry to refugees and others suffering the ravages of the war, and creating a space for peacemaking in the war-torn country.

Saint Catherine Evangelical Lutheran Church in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine (author: Leonid Dzhepko | Wikimedia Commons).