the White Rose and hope

2 10 2013

Today marks the beginning of my second year in Kyiv.  A year ago today, while moving to Kyiv, I had an 11.5 hour layover in Munich–which I chose over a 4.5 hour layover where I would have only seen the airport.  I hopped on the train from the airport to the city center with one primary goal : find the Hans and Sophie Scholl monument.

Munich was full of men in lederhosen, and women in traditional dresses, all there for Oktoberfest.  I grabbed a quick breakfast at a cafe, and set off to find the street which would intersect Geschwister-Scholl-Platz, the square named after the Scholl twins.  When I found the street its entire length was a huge party for the Day of German Reunification; every German state had a booth with tourist info, food, drink, and lots of people.  I walked maybe a kilometer up the street, found Geschwister-Scholl-Platz covered in festivities for the German reunification party, and eventually found the monument in the pavement.

I was en route to Kyiv, but finding that monument mattered to me.  Ukraine is a country that suffered greatly during World War II and under the Soviet Union.  I knew a little of the Scholl’s story, enough to know that their connecting their Christian faith with actively standing for truth, was something I wanted to learn about, and is something I believe is still relevant today. Perhaps more than anything, what Ukraine, Europe, or the United States need today is a solid basis for hope.

the White Rose in Munich

Hans and Sophie Scholl have been heroes of mine ever since I first read of them as a college freshman.  During World War II, the Scholl twins were part of a small group of university students in Munich who published a series of pamphlets from June 1942 through February 1943 informing people about the evil the Nazi government was pursuing, and calling people to stand against it.  Hans and Sophie were eventually arrested by Nazi secret police, tried in what was by all accounts a show trial and travesty of justice, and beheaded, along with five of their friends and fellow-students, who had helped write and distribute their pamphlets.

I felt that their story mattered deeply, and that in coming to Ukraine it was worth the stop to find their monument, to gain a little more understanding to their commitment to truth.  They believed that loyalty to truth ought to drive us to action, to standing against evil in the world, with a willingness to die if necessary.  During his interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo, Hans Scholl stated, “I knew what I took upon myself and I was prepared to lose my life by so doing.” Wow.  You don’t make that kind of decision without a commitment to truth and solid hope for the future.

But some have this idea that truth is for hard-nosed people, that you either care about truth or you care about people, that truth is only facts, and hope is just an irrational feeling.  Was that the case with Hans and Sophie?  Or did their loyalty to speaking the truth actually illustrate the deep love they had for their neighbors and hope they had for their future, for the men and women who lived in German cities, who were all around them but largely silent in the face of fascist atrocities?  Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  Their loyalty to truth, to living their lives out of their deepest commitments and hopes, still speaks today.

Here in Ukraine, one can still see the legacy of World War Two destruction, some seventy or so years later.  There are lots of monuments, eternal flames, and statues commemorating those who died, those who fought bravely, and those who died tragically and horrendously.  There are also countless villages which no longer exist, wiped off the map.  Much trust has been broken, and generations of people didn’t know if they could trust their neighbors or their government.  Soviet writer and dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago (p. 15) regarding the silence with with people responded to the disappearances of their neighbors and friends,

“You really can and you really ought to cry out—to cry out that you are being arrested! That villains in disguise are trapping people! That arrests are being made on the strength of false denunciations! That millions are being subjected to silent reprisals! If many such outcries had been heard all over the city in the course of a day, would not our fellow citizens perhaps have begun to bristle? And would arrests perhaps no longer have been so easy?”

Though not Ukrainian, Hans and Sophie Scholl provide a much needed example of people who weren’t content to remain silent.  They cried out, giving their lives as a witness to the truth.

There are still many things broken and wrong here, systemic corruption, and deep cynicism about the government.  However, this isn’t unique to Ukraine.  I have plenty of friends back in the United States who are deeply cynical about the state of things there.  Some think gargantuan corporations run the entire show with their Republican friends by simply pursuing the almighty dollar and a pound of flesh, others think leftist and statist liberals are out to destroy or remove constitutional freedoms.  All over people are concerned about the potential of terrorist attacks.  Whether confronting hard historical realities that still reverberate here in Ukraine, facing deep challenges to constitutional liberties and social order in America, or facing unpredictable terror, I think a primary question is how to give hope for the future.  And I’m not naive: neither people nor cultures change overnight, but they can change.

When a man lays down his life for his enemies, and then rises from the dead three days later, that can change the world.  That gives real, substantial hope as it reverberates through history.  That hope is something solid, not just a wish—its a foundation lives can be built on, truth to which we’re called to live in response, and hope for cynical cultures.

I’m beginning my second year here.  How much can I really do, as a foreigner?  I’ve just made a start learning the language, with only 11 months under my belt.  I worship with Ukrainians Christians, serve our community through an English club,  am investing in relationships with friends I’ve met here, and am helping a small group start a new church.  Why?  I long to give hope, to bear witness to the truth, to stand against cynicism and help Ukrainians, Europeans, and Americans display this hope for their own cities, and point to the empty tomb that gave birth to a new humanity of women and men with hope.


difficult histories and a living hope

27 04 2012

Welcome to Pidvysoke

Imagine yourself driving across Ukraine.  Its larger than Texas, and most of the roads are akin to the secondary highways in Germany or America; you won’t find many Autobahn or Interstate-class highways.  As you enter each village, you’d typically see the town name on a simple white sign, and when leaving you’d see the same town name on a black sign.  In 2009, I saw bunch of the white “welcome to ____ ” and black “you’re leaving ____” signs as my team leader and I drove through a number of little towns outside Kiev, through thirty to forty kilometers of flat wooded pine forests, on our way to Klavdiievo (Клавдієво) where the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Kiev was holding classes.

Later that week I saw the same white signs welcoming me as I walked up the stairs to enter the Chernobyl museum in Kiev.  Countless Ukrainians lives were changed forever when catastrophe struck reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear plant April 26, 1986.  The museum told the story of the disaster, and cataloged the responses of people worldwide.  If you’d been there with me, you would have seen a diorama of the disaster, models of the town and the plant, paintings and poetry by Ukrainian artists reflecting on the ruins and the radiation, newspapers headlines from global cities, and letters children sent to Ukrainian kids from all over the world. You’d see photography exhibits of deserted villages in the exclusion zone today, a bright-red doll against a grey wall, abandoned where children left it, books laying open on people’s tables, or dishes left from interrupted meals. Leaving the museum, as you exited down the staircase that brought you in, you would see those familiar black “you’re-leaving-town” road signs, except there was a bright red slash through each village: obliterated, you’ll never see them again.

names of villages near Chernobyl

villages you'll never see again

Even today, twenty-six years later, the effects of the radiation from the plant are on-going, and a new construction project is underway to build a new sarcophagus to cover the ruins of the explosion and the old crumbling sarcophagus.  The works of man’s hands often crumble, and the best of our intentions can end in disaster.

The Chernobyl disaster is only one event.  Ukrainians have faced a long, difficult history.  Three Ukrainians I met may give you a brief glimpse of Ukrainian’s bitterness:

  1. A early thirty-something carpenter from eastern Ukraine, and a non-Christian, told me in 2009 he wasn’t proud of his country: “We’ve longed for freedom for hundreds of years, but after 18 years of freedom, we don’t know what to do with it and we’re not better off than under the USSR.  In the west, they say they’ve got culture and cafes, but in the east, we build things!” He was bitter, looking for hope.
  2. A twenty-something Ukrainian guy who’d worked as a life-guard in Boston, also not a Christian, told me he was upset by the high levels of corruption he saw in business and government in 2009, and the way people didn’t care for the environment.  Yet when he has kids he wants to raise them in Ukraine, because he said most Ukrainian kids are still care for their parents when they’re older, but in America once kids are 18 they ignore mom and dad. His cynicism was real.
  3. Ukraine has been divided east and west along ethno-linguistic and religious lines since at least the time of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the Russian Empire in the sixteenth century.  In 2007, one of my English students, a university student from L’viv in patriotic west Ukraine, told me her rock band only sings Ukrainian language songs, and if she hears people speaking Russian on the street she’ll tell them to quit speaking Russian–this is Ukraine.  Her ethnocentrism was understandable, but ugly.

Yet there is a source of hope in the face of Ukraine’s harsh realities.  When God’s people were captive in exile, thousands of years ago, God answered Daniel’s prayer in an impossible situation, sparing his and his friends lives, and giving a promise about the growth of God’s kingdom: a stone not cut by human hands would grow and fill the entire earth, smashing the empty kingdoms we set up (Daniel 2).  That living stone is growing in Ukraine, not by the works of human hands, but by the grace of God.

Two out of every three Ukrainians may be atheist, but the gospel of Jesus’ grace is growing, changing hearts and attitudes in the people of God.  The third person above, one of my former English students, was also a follower of Jesus.  When I asked her if she only worships in Ukrainian, she said that she’s happy to worship in Russian, English, or Ukrainian, because God is the God of all peoples.  That’s the living hope of the gospel, the growing stone of Christ, beginning to crush her ethnocentric-kingdom and replace it with a heart for the world.  As Bono sang, “… Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.”

Christ himself is the living stone (1 Peter 2), and because he lives I have hope in the face of Ukraine’s difficult history and hard present.  He’s called me to serve there and is calling you to pray and give to send me.