The much praised book by Ukrainian writer Artem Chekh (Artem Oleksandovich Tsherednik) about the war between Ukraine and Russia and his time as a soldier in the Ukrainian Army with the designated title Totshka Null, published in English as Absolute Zero, was recommended among others as one of the six most readable books from Ukraine on the war situation by the New York Times.
In it, Chekh describes his experiences from the positional war in the Donbass before the large-scale Russian invasion in February 2022.
For him, according to a commentary in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the title Absolute Zero has a double meaning: “On the one hand, the front line bears the designation ‘zero’; the exact position of one’s own position is then given as the distance from the zero position. On the other hand, Chekh uses this psychological metaphor to describe the fact that a person is reset to ‘zero’ in wartime: Everything that was before appears in a completely different light.”
The front line has now gone back and forth since Russia’s invasion, and the Ukrainians even managed to push the Russians back on several front lines, heroically defending their capital Kyiv, liberating the suburbs of Kharkiv and even the entire city of Kherson. Certainly, the massive supply of weapons from the West played a decisive role here.
But the war is far from being won. And when it comes to peace negotiations, one gets the impression that the warring parties are still at ground zero, despite of all the warnings of the experts that this war cannot be won by force of arms.
People, both in Ukraine and Russia, and outside the country, are approaching zero, to use Chekh’s metaphor, with frightening speed. The war is becoming more brutal, war crimes more frequent and mutual accusations louder. Thus, day by day, that spiral of violence can hardly be stopped.
The voices of those who appeal to reason, who warn against maximum demands, who ask for ways to dialogue and peace negotiations, are considered naive, out of touch with reality and even dangerous. Putin is Satan and one does not negotiate with demons. And it is not only at the carnivals in Cologne or Düsseldorf, where the floats depicted this alleged Kremlin monster in crass representations, that people see it that way.
At the Munich Security Conference 2023, the strongmen of the Western world agreed: Putin understands only one language, that of strategic weapons.
Even in churches and communities, scepticism is spreading that conversation and prayer alone will help. People are staring spellbound at the German-made Leopards, which could usher in a new era. Will they really? Or will strategic bombers soon be delivered as well? Doubts about a solution brought about by more weapons are justified.
Admittedly, it is not for us Christians to direct the destinies of nations. The world’s powerful leaders pay little attention to our judgement. Nevertheless, the Munich Security Conference offered, among other things, a workshop on faith-based diplomacy, less attended, but still – someone recognizes the fact that churches might be of crucial help.
Christians set accents
As Christians, we are committed to peace. We are ambassadors of Christ, who are to preach reconciliation to the world (2 Cor. 5:19-20). And as such, we cannot take positions on one side of the front or the other.
Dr. Johannes Oeldemann, director of the Möhler Institute for Ecumenism, is right when he points out that Christian ecumenism knows no national borders. It knows itself committed to peace and could therefore start the conversation about peace in a kind of a Faith-based diplomacy. Oeldemann, who participated in the Munich Security Conference 2023, also criticizes the overwhelming disinterest of political actors in cooperation with the churches. Admittedly, the church’s role will not be to offer immediate peace negotiations, but rather to prepare them.
He states: “I believe the influence of the churches cannot be to bring about immediate peace negotiations, but rather to create the basis for peace negotiations to begin at all. That is to regain trust and to draw attention to the fact that people on both sides are suffering from this war and that this suffering must end.”
The Institute for Faith Based Diplomacy (IFBD) based in Washington, DC, is committed to building spaces of healing, bridges to each other, and paths of reconciliation. The institute relies on training that starts with people who understand the spiritual dimension.
Especially in the Ukraine war with all its religious sub-themes, the churches should talk to each other and deal with the potential religious roots of this war. After all, the adventurous idea of the Russki Mir, as Putin pursues it in his visions of conquering Kyiv, is based on religious visions of the end times of Patriarch Kiril I. So it makes sense to discuss these visions and to define ways of understanding. Mere condemnations, or judging those ideas as irrelevant religious spinning, which only serve to justify dictatorial expansion plans, will not suffice here.
And then, it was precisely the Orthodox competitors in Ukraine who did not exactly cover themselves with glory in the run-up to the war and in connection with the emergence of a national Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate (UOK KP) in 2018. The violent takeovers of church buildings, expulsion of priests and believers during services, reverberate to this day. There has been no reconciliation on these issues. As far as I know, such talks are still hanging in the air.
Putin’s aggressive war and the blessing given to him by Patriarch Kirill I have only exacerbated the problem. More and more Orthodox are moving from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOK MP) to the parishes of the UOK KP. According to a survey conducted in the middle of last year, two thirds of Orthodox in Ukraine (38.8%) already professed allegiance to the Kievan Patriarchate. Only 17.4% still adhered to the MP. And the voices that want to ban all parishes under the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine do not fall silent, especially during the war, not even after the bishops of the UOK MP have condemned the war.
So, it makes a lot of sense to start an ecumenical peace initiative. The statements of the international Christian communities against the war and in support of Ukraine are valuable, but the contribution of the worldwide Church of Jesus must not be exhausted in this alone. A consciously initiated faith-based diplomacy can set a marker in the direction of turning the tide from zero.
Johannes Reimer is Director of the Department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). He grew up in Kazakhstan and Estonia and spent several years in a Soviet labour camp before being expelled from the country with his family in 1976.