The former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrick Ilves, was addressing a group of university students late last week. He said to them, “What you grew up with in the last 30 years is over. We are somewhere else now.”
Over the last number of days, we have been watching with horror the violent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. We have watched images of the decimation and destruction of civilian homes, businesses, government buildings and the core of Freedom Square. We have watched families being separated, some staying to fight while others flee for safe-keeping into the western part of the nation. Still others head for the border with Poland. Bumper to bumper to bumper, the convoy of cars leaving the country forms a line some 18 kilometers long.
We have heard the sounds of air raid sirens, gunfire and explosions. We have been listening to Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskyy. Once a stand-up comic, he now stands at the microphone and searches for the right words that will inspire a nation to find hope, encouragement and confidence in the face of the onslaught. We have listened to his impassioned speech to the EU, pleading for help from neighbours. “Do prove that you are with us… otherwise Ukraine will be lonesome.” The translator of the speech at times lost semblance of professional composure and was reduced to tears because he knows what hangs in the balance.
The response from neighbours has been swift: the imposition of economic sanctions; the seizure of bank assets; and the closure of borders and shipping ports. Some professional and amateur sports leagues have chosen to boycott events and exclude Russian teams. Artists and musicians have cancelled shows. Ukrainian choirs have appeared on Saturday Night Live and at the beginning of hockey games. These gestures demonstrate support and a deeper hope that moral and economic pressure might help turn the Russian forces back.
While we watch and absorb all of what is happening in the Ukraine, it’s hard not to be flooded with memories and emotions of wars past and present. We are filled with dismay, resentment, anger, confusion and fear. These visceral emotions awaken in us a deep knowing that we are somewhere else now.
On Tuesday, I joined a group of colleagues for a pre-Lambeth Conference Zoom call. Talk of what is taking place in the Ukraine dominated our conversation. Bishop Joseph Aba of the Diocese of Liwolo in South Sudan told us that he was born in a country at war, that he has lived his whole life and ministry thus far in a land that is shaped by war. Bishop Aba reminded us that the war in Ukraine joins a long list of other conflicts and wars the world over: South Sudan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Palestine… And the list gets longer. So does the list of those who have perished, as does the list of those whose lives are disrupted and those who seek asylum in safer regions.
Our biblical narrative reminds us again and again that we have been somewhere else before. We hear of the invasion of the northern kingdom by Assyrian forces, the invasion of the southern kingdom by Babylonian forces. Prophetic voices like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah remind the people that they are clearly somewhere else, that they have wandered far from God who pledges to be with them, and they have become lonesome. The prophets speak: turn around, repent.
There is a video circulating on YouTube that shows a Ukrainian citizen driving down a road, and by the side of the road is a Russian tank. The tank squad stands next to the behemoth of a machine looking a little lost. They have run out of fuel. The Ukrainian citizen stops his car, rolls down the window and offers to help… tow them back to Russia. Turn around. Repent.
Just this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report making it clear that the reality of climate change is worse than we thought, that technology is not a silver bullet and that the window of opportunity to change is closing. We are somewhere else now. Turn around. Repent.
The ashes formed in the shape of a cross on our foreheads urge us to turn back and embrace the pathway that leads away from being somewhere else to home with God. Keep a Holy Lent.
Yours in Christ
The Rt. Rev. Andrew Asbil
Bishop of Toronto