From Bonhoeffer to Rusyn: Witness in War

Posted: July 29, 2022 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

I was knee-deep in presenting a class on the life and teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I read the article: “War and the Church in Ukraine: A Pastor Describes Ministering in Wartime Bucha and Kyiv” (Plough Quarterly, Summer 2022, 12-14) The parallels were striking, even if they were not exact. Bonhoeffer addressed the fascism and heresy of his own country in the rise of the 3rd Reich during WW II and Ukraine is suffering from an attack by a neighboring adversary. In Bonhoeffer’s case, he dared critique the evil of the Nazi regime, confront its theological heresy, form alternative underground church structures, and engage in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In the case of Ivan Rusyn, president of the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary in Kyiv, he had to decide whether to flee over the border to safety or stay and minister to his people. On that score, Bonhoeffer and Rusyn are exactly on par: Rather than flee, they both stayed.

Bonhoeffer, of course, paid the ultimate price for his return to Germany, almost certain imprisonment, and possible execution. Ivan Rusyn returned with the knowledge that extreme danger awaited him. They both went anyway.

Another parallel between the two became perfectly clear: The way in which “ethics” are transformed, or seen differently, against the backdrop of the extreme chaos of war, especially a war born of an evil adversary. Bonhoeffer came to the conclusion that the weight of the concrete moment places a moral demand on the person of faith, a demand that might be seen differently in in different times. For Dietrich, the decision to participate in a plot to eliminate Hitler was hard, but clear: One must die so that the many might live. Ethics, then, cannot be constructed in an ivory tower outside of the struggle of history. They must emerge in the thick of living in the world.

In the same way, Rusyn described the Ukrainian struggle of peacemaking in terms of overcoming evil in order to create peace. In his own words:

“I used to be a pacifist. When I was called up, I chose alternative national service. Now I believe that only the nation that has known the horror of war has the right to speak about pacifism. My theology has been changed. For me, peace-making is not a passive thing anymore, an ability to absorb and embrace everything. No, it is very active – action in order to stop violence…When you compare the size of Russia and Ukraine, you will see that we are fighting a giant. The only hope we have is God. So, yes, I do pray. I don’t pray about peace, I pray about victory. Peace will be an outcome of victory. Unfortunately, with Russia, there will be no peace without victory.”

Then there was the Barmen Declaration, penned primarily by Karl Barth and embraced by Bonhoeffer and others of the Confessing Church. Dietrich’s objections to Barmen had to do with the omission of statements condemning the persecution of the Jews. But otherwise, especially as regards the Christian’s ultimate loyalty and worship of God as opposed to political or national idols, Bonhoeffer was in complete solidarity. We have but one Lord. The church is not a functionary of the state.

In Rusyn we also have a parallel to Barmen: “This is about our ultimate loyalty. Worship has political resonance. Whom do we worship? The gospel is so powerful that it transforms every area of our life. We are not just waiting for evacuation to heaven. If we are Christians, we have to have an impact. Yes, we are not of this world, but we are in this world for the sake of this world. We have to be engaged if we want to be a true church. For me it was very important that I remain here with my people. If I evacuate before everybody else, what kind of pastor am I?”

Bonhoeffer couldn’t have said it any better. Though he did say it in so many words. They both have. And their witness lives on in the debris, through the suffering, and by faithful striving in the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s