Bp-Jana-Jeruma-GinbergaJāna Jēruma-Grīnberga

It is perfectly possible that – as you read this – the situation in the Ukraine will be very different to the one in which this post is written. Prime Minister Harold Wilson is supposed to have observed that a week is a long time in politics. If that was true in the 1970’s, it is even more true in the 2010’s, when geo-political realities are overturned in weeks, and when 24-hour rolling ‘news’ coverage both reflects and drives rapid changes in our knowledge and understanding of events, both important and deeply trivial. As William Gay expresses it in his poetic Advent hymn:

[T]he verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.
When race and class cry out for treason,
When sirens call for war,
They overshout the voice of reason
And scream till we ignore
All we held dear before.”

With that caveat expressed, some thoughts about the war in eastern Ukraine, and how that has affected those of us living under its shadow and influence.

For 70 years now, most of Europe has known a period of relative peace and stability, disturbed by occasional (sometimes astonishingly brutal) conflicts, as in the Balkans in the 1990’s. Even the breakup of the USSR, and the shattering of the Iron Curtain, were mostly peaceful processes. Most of us have lived in conditions of more or less stable government, with more or less continuous growth in prosperity, increased life expectancy and food security.

That now seems threatened on various fronts – migration is challenging our open borders policies, the newly-elected anti-austerity government in Greece has increased the possibility of the breakdown of the eurozone; and in Ukraine, on the borders of NATO and the European Union, a vicious war is being fought. In addition, the Cold War Mark II is picking up strength, and notions like ‘hybrid warfare’ are entering our vocabulary.1

For people living in Latvia, these are unsettling times. It is not so very long since the country gained its independence from the Soviet Union; memories of long years of oppression have not faded from the minds of those over 30 years of age, who remember what it was like when the churches here were closed, or – as in the case of the Anglican Church in Rīga – used for entirely inappropriate purposes. St Saviour’s building was a Social Club for students at the Rīga Polytechnic Institute; and the lovely Methodist Church here was used for boxing matches.

There are two aspects of the current situation in particular which are interesting from a theological and ecclesiological point of view, and which will surely bear more objective analysis, probably from a safe distance of time and place.

Firstly, to use another political cliché, in war truth is the first casualty. This is even more true in the situation of hybrid war, where deliberate manipulation of thought processes forms an essential part of the tactics employed. According to Marcin Zaborowski, Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, „I think the Russians have been very smart. Frankly, I think they have outsmarted us.
They use commandoes and they pretend they are not Russian. In terms of information warfare, they have been extremely good. You know, we have here a debate in the West: Provocative, not provocative; presence here, presence there. The Russians have Russia Today, which responds to Putin’s orders, having one message, and it reverberates.”2 As further proof, it has recently been ackowledged by the Russian government that their previous denials of Russian involvement in the Crimea were false. According to Reuters: „In the months since, Putin has adjusted his account of what happened. He initially denied Russian troops were providing security for the referendum, but later acknowledged special forces had been deployed.Russian soldiers who took part have been given state medals with the citation ‘For returning Crimea’, which give the starting date of the operation as Feb. 20, before Yanukovich was ousted.”3

How is the church to react to this? Can we respond with Pilate – „what is truth?”, on the assumption that we cannot hope to find an objective truth in a situation of conflict? How do we defend the whole notion of truth telling, of not bearing false witness, in a situation where deliberate manipulation of facts, as well as outright lies, have become common currency (note that Zaborowski regards Russian behaviour as being ‘smart’)? Of course, in this world of smoke and mirrors, of cyberwarfare and internet trolling, it is actually difficult to keep any overview of where the truth actually lies in a very complex situation. However, Jesus says „to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”” (John 8:31f, NIV). Clearly, then, the association between acceptance of God’s word as our true pattern of faith and life, sustaining us in our discipleship, and the liberating effect of a knowledge of truth, sourced in God’s word, is of fundamental importance. Conversely, accepting falsehood and lies as a legitimate tool of warfare, and a ‘smart’ thing to do, surely undermines the basis of our faith. The Church, the Body of Christ (whatever particular extremity we might belong to, and in whichever country we happen to be) is called to hold up a mirror to the behaviour of those in government and in positions of responsibility, and to call them out for being dishonest and untruthful. We are called to speak truth to power; and if we don’t, we may find ourselves echoing the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany in the words of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt on October 19, 1945: „With great pain we say: By us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole Church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”4

Where, ultimately, do we find security in these troubled and troubling times? Here in the Baltic States much air-time and press space is taken up with discussions of the future, and fears of possible Russian intervention. Since I began this article, Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian Deputy Prime Minister and vocal oppositionista, has been murdered; and NATO heavy artillery has begun to arrive in Latvia – both of these events occasioning social media storms. At times, it really does seem as though the voice of reason is being ‘overshouted’, and that our assumed verities are being shaken, and indeed demolished. It is only natural that we should feel that we stand on quaking ground. Here again, the Church Universal has a role to play. In the words of another hymn, „On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand”. A strong faith in the love, grace and guidance of God will not take away the quakiness of the ground around us; but it will give us a solid place to be, one where we may be able to defend our calling courageously, believe joyously and love ardently, knowing ourselves to be ultimately held safe in God’s hands.

+Jana Jeruma-Grinberga
Riga, March 2015

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_warfare retrieved 12/3/2015
[2] http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2014/russia-ukraine-nato-crisis/Russia-Ukraine-crisis-war/EN/index.htm, accessed 18 February 2015.
[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/09/us-ukraine-crisis-putin-crimea-idUSKBN0M51DG20150309, accessed 12 March 2015
[4] http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/projects/niem/StuttgartDeclaration.htm – accessed 12 March 2015

Bishop Jāna Jēruma-Grīnberga was born in London to Latvian parents. She studied biochemistry at University College London and trained to become a nurse before feeling called to the priesthood, studying at North Thames Ministerial Training Course at Oak Hill Theological College and being ordained in 1997. She was Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Great Britain from 2009-13,  has also been a Trustee of the Council of Lutheran Churches,  one of the six Presidents of Churches Together in England, and Co-Moderator of the Anglican Lutheran Society together with Bishop Rupert Hoare. Since November 2014 she has been Chaplain at St Saviour’s in Rīga.

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