Theology in wartime: Christian hope in Ukraine

14 April 2022

Former PThU student Stanislav Bondar lives and works in western Ukraine. Still lecturing in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, he writes us how he wrestles with the relevance of theology amid the horrors of war. "What can I, as a theologian, say when artillery and mine-thrower sound?"

  • Stanislav Bondar
    Former PThU student, lecturer

I am writing this text when the whole world saw footage of the genocide of Ukrainian civilians. At this moment, I have to prepare for the next lecture on public theology for students at the Ukrainian Catholic University. Despite the war that began with the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, our university has resumed its educational process.

"I feel the weakness and limitations of human nature"

The Covid pandemic has prepared us for a new online learning format that we have successfully used in wartime. I am amazed at how students find the time and motivation for academic work in difficult times. At the same time, I cannot write a single word to my research on the theology of dignity. I feel inner devastation and I can't squeeze a word out of myself. I remember the words of a German writer who was a soldier in the first half of the 20th century. He testified that words of honor and dignity caused laughter among soldiers when they found themselves in places where dead people were stacked in grotesque heaps in the streets.

For the third semester in a row, Father Dr. Mykhailo Dymyd and I are leading a course for non-theological students on the interaction between the Church and public space through the focus of the Revolution of Dignity. Our course has the title "God and Maidan". Tomorrow will be the first lecture, when I do not have a clear plan of what to talk about. The tragedy that took place on the frontier of Kyiv showed that there is no limit to human meanness and cruelty. I feel the weakness and limitations of human nature. What can I, as a theologian, say when artillery and mine-thrower sound?

"I am ashamed because I'm safe"

I can't find words when I read people's testimonies of torture and rape. Before my eyes are the tears of raped women, child witnesses of murders and rapes, and bandaged men shot in the back of the head. Soldiers of the armed forces of the Russian Federation in Bucha killed Vitaly Vinogradov the dean of the Kyiv Slavic Evangelical Seminary. When Putin declared war on Ukraine, he outlined the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine as the main goals. I want to know what category the innocently murdered Vitaly falls into according to Russian propagandists.

I have the privilege because I live in Western Ukraine - we are far from the border with Russia. My family is in a safe place. I am writing this text in a warm and safe room, but at the same time my brothers and sisters are experiencing horrors that are similar to those experienced by the people of Serebrenitsa and Rwanda. I look at the photos of Bucha through the monitor screen and I am terrified. I have no words to say in the presence of women and children from Bucha. I'm ashamed because I'm safe. When I talk to my son, I imagine children who will never see their parents again.

"How can I theologize after Bucha?"

In fact, we are experiencing in our specific context the same problem which had theologians after World War II. I ask myself in the empty room: how can I theologize after Bucha? How do talk about God after Auschwitz? Now, I realized in the practice the challenges that Jürgen Moltmann tackled as he worked on the theology of hope.

Ukrainian theologians did not create theology after the Holodomor. We paid little attention to the study of the church's collaboration with the Soviet totalitarian regime. Silence about the crimes of the past - gives birth to new crimes. Most of the soldiers who were killed, raped, and looted in Bucha were baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). It is symbolic that at a time when the Russian army was committing war crimes in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill was speaking in a sermon about the peace-loving nature of Russians. At the very beginning of the war, he called the war in Donbas a metaphysical war against LGBT people.

Patriarch Kirill did not speak about the war in Ukraine, because according to the narratives of Russian propaganda, there is no war in Ukraine. Even before the tragedy in Bucha, students enrolled in the course "God and the Maidan" asked: Can Patriarch Kirill be called a Christian? Is the ROC, which is silent about the war, a church? After Bucha, I have clear answers to these questions.

"True theology cannot avoid difficult topics"

The time of crisis is reminiscent of basic things. True theology cannot avoid difficult topics and hide behind good words about love, peace and mutual understanding. Theology must be true. Evil must be called evil and cannot be justified by the fact that Russia has its own truth. Russia has its own truth - these are the words of the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, who is one of the ideologues of war. "Russia is the last bastion of Orthodoxy", "Moscow is the third Rome", "We have a metaphysical war with LGBT people" - behind these narratives hides a low, cynical and sinful desire for war.

Carrying hope is a task for Ukrainian theologians, it is a guide for researchers who will theologically reflect on this war. Roman Solovyi, a Ukrainian theologian and director of the Eastern European Institute of Theology, rhetorically asks in his Facebook post: "What can be said about people who survived hell on earth, which was arranged for them by the Russian military, who enjoyed their power and impunity?" Such questions will shape the contours of theology after Bucha.

Ukrainian theology and the Kingdom of God

I want to mention the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who portrayed hell as a place where there is no hope. Russian weapons have brought the same hell to peaceful Ukrainian lands. The tragedies of the twentieth century, as well as the new crimes of the twenty-first century, have made people think more about hopelessness and hell. Christians are witnesses of Paradise, because already here in this life they can be partakers of the Kingdom of God.

Obviously, the main task for Ukrainian theology in the coming years is to solve the problem of witnessing Paradise and the Kingdom of God in the darkness of our days. At the moment, I'm not feeling well enough to join the Negotiating Good Life in Times of Crisis conference at PThU, also I haven't been able to do my research project for the last month, but now I feel a moral obligation to complete my research project on theology of dignity. Recent events and the hope that lives in the hearts of my brothers and sisters in Ukraine clearly show me my role - I am the Ambassador of Bucha. All people of goodwill are Ambassadors of Bucha. Our task, regardless of profession or type of activity, is to bring the truth about Ukraine and to bring hope to those who have lost it.

I do not have a clear plan for the next lecture with the students, but I am sure we will talk about Christian hope.

Photo copyright Rob Nelisse, Erasmus+ production Theology without Borders 

The PThU has created a special page about Ukraine with more information about how you can help as well as more background articles and videos.


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