By Mark Edington
As I write these words, units of the Russian army have moved across the national boundary into the eastern areas of Ukraine.
As you read them, it may be the Russian military, together with its intelligence apparatus and cyberwarfare capabilities, will be invading that sovereign country.
For weeks, Western leaders have been caught between disbelief that a war could break out in twenty-first-century Europe, and outrage at the Kremlin’s incrementally more egregious violations of international norms and human rights. But neither our incredulity nor our outrage has proved very effective as a deterrent.
These are not mere abstractions to the Church in Europe. Fewer than five hundred miles separate the Ukrainian border from a parish of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. A mission congregation of ours, a gathering of Christians who sought affiliation with us precisely because of our stance on the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the full ministry of the church, worships today in Tbilisi, Georgia; people there wonder whether their country will be next on Putin’s list.
And our sisters and brothers in the Church of England maintain a chaplaincy in Kyiv — which meets in a German Lutheran church.
Do these things matter to us? Should they? Do we have any right to speak on matters of high policy? Will these words of mine get me another few dozen heated emails about the inappropriateness of the church speaking about matters of state?
We are consumed right now on other matters, issues where we see a clear alignment between the claims of the gospel on our lives as citizens. Racial justice. The fight against white supremacy. The damage we have wrought on God’s creation.
Do we have any bandwidth left for “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”?
Seen from the perspective of the church in Europe, this is not a rhetorical question; it is an urgent necessity. And the reason for that is simple: ultimately, what is happening at this moment in Ukraine is not mere politics, but a crisis of faith.
I came to this ministry traveling what might politely be called an unusual path. My first dozen years in professional life were not in the church, but in international relations. I worked for a policy research non-profit — a “government contractor” — where I and my colleagues thought about and wrote about the security problems of Europe. We thought about how to make sure the presence of the U.S. military in Europe would stand as a clear sign of our commitment to stand with our allies who built democratic regimes out of the nations shattered by World War II.
My years in that career were evenly divided between two worlds — the world before the Berlin Wall fell, and the world after. In that verdant moment for the emergence of democracies, it was all too easy to believe that democratic government was the ineluctable unfolding of history, along an imperfect, bumpy, but irreversible path.
But those of us who watched those years closely came to see, with a combination of both awe and dread, that democratic government is something else. It is, in the end, an act of faith.
And that is why this is, yes, an urgent matter for us — and for you. Because faith is our business. Said more elegantly — and more appropriately — by responding to God’s invitation to us, we stand for the necessity of faith in the creation of a just social order.
Don’t get me wrong here. Writing as I am from a place already living at the end of Christendom, I am not saying this to make a triumphalist Christian claim. But I am saying, as Bonhoeffer taught, that the work of government is godly work, because it is the means by which in this fallen world the potential God has planted in each human being is either encouraged to flourish, damaged — or destroyed.
Our baptismal covenant binds us to the claim that each human being is to be seen as having inherent dignity. The radical equality of all people before the throne of grace is a central claim of the Christian faith. It is not something that can be proven on the basis of evidence, or achieved through scientific reasoning; holding that claim as a firm conviction utterly depends on our ability to act in faith, because the evidence of human behavior too often gives us evidence to the contrary.
What this demands of us is not only that we have faith in our loving, liberating, life-giving God; it demands that we have faith in each other. Said more sharply, it demands that we have faith in the inherent dignity of all people, even those who disagree with or disdain us. Holding that faith is not easy; it requires nothing less than the discipline of love. Not the Hallmark-card variety; the difficult, rigorous, hard sort of love the Presiding Bishop keeps teaching us about.
As Episcopalians, we are adept to the point of expertise at critiquing the moral failures of our government. Doing so is almost a sport for us. But we should not for a moment forget that a direct line can be drawn between our faith claim that all people are created with inherent dignity and worth, and another radical faith claim: that all people are created equal, and that they are endowed by God with certain inalienable rights.
That, too, is a faith claim. And if we lose the capacity for faith — including the capacity for faith in each other — then no government premised on that claim, whether our nation or our democratically-governed church, can long endure.
“At their core,” David Brooks has written,
The liberal powers radiate a set of vital ideals — not just democracy and capitalism, but also feminism, multiculturalism, human rights, egalitarianism, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the dream of racial justice. These things are all intertwined in a progressive package that puts individual dignity at the center. If the 21st century has taught us anything, it is that a lot of people, foreign and domestic, don’t like that package and feel existentially threatened by it.
Those ideas did not emerge into the world ex nihilo. They were set loose by the radical claims of the Christian gospel. We no longer own them, but they are our ideas; they arise out of our awareness of what was accomplished for us by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and they demand of us not only a response in faith to God, but a response of faith toward all humanity.
Set in these terms, our sisters and brothers in Ukraine today have the audacity to confront us with a simple, searing question: Do you have faith in us? Do you have faith that we, too, are possessed of that same integrity, sharers in those same rights inherent in our humanity, equally children of God who deserve no less than you do the right to govern ourselves free of intimidation and fear?
That is the crisis of faith in Europe today. That is the crisis of faith in democratic government, of human possibility, crystallized by this moment. And however we choose to respond, we in the West will have little to offer unless we can first show that our faith in God is strong enough to instill in us the discipline of maintaining faith in, and love for, each other.
Mark Edington is the bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.