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Parsing Pacifism: Ukraine’s Mennonite Heritage Shapes Evangelical Responses to Russia

Image: Sergei Supinsky / Contributor / Getty

Ukrainian Baptists were once practical pacifists.

Now locked in a vicious war of survival with invading Russian forces, many are on the front lines of battle. Leading voices call for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone. Pastors pray for soldiers; churches offer bread.

What happened?

It is not as straightforward as simple self-defense. But neither was their nonviolence, practiced by most Slavic evangelicals, a clear convictional principle. Forged in the fires of the Soviet Union, the then-second-largest Baptist community in the world developed along a very different path from their denominational brethren in the United States.

Just ask Roman Rakhuba, who was raised Baptist.

“I never would have called myself a Mennonite,” said the head of the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine (AMBCU). “Later I discovered I was following their principles all along.”

Known as the “Bible Belt” of Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s evangelical faith was greatly influenced by the Anabaptist tradition. Rakhuba grew up in Zaporizhzhia, 350 miles southeast of Kyiv, near the old oak tree associated with the Chortitza colony of Mennonites, founded in 1789.

His grandfather was saved through one of their preachers.

But as a Baptist child, Rakhuba was raised without toy guns, instructed to never return evil with evil. Forbidden from playing war, his relatives refused to fight in the Soviet army. He remembers Mennonites hosted at his grandfather’s home, learning of the 1763 decree by Catherine the Great to invite German settlers to develop the Russian hinterland.

They were joined by Lutherans and Catholics, dissidents and rebels, offered lands, self-governance, and—vital for the pacifists—exemption from military service. Over the next century, Mennonite communities thrived in Ukraine, developing infrastructure for agriculture and industry. But increasing prosperity challenged their social and spiritual life, and drunkenness and dancing became common.

Then came pietism.

In the mid-19th century, German missionaries, such as the Lutheran Edward Wuest, found a reception with the Mennonites. Their emphasis on a regenerated Christian life through personal conversion, prayer, and Bible study appealed to colonists dissatisfied with the traditional church. The community ruptured, and in 1860 a parallel Mennonite Brethren denomination was born, sending missionaries as far as Siberia and India.

The still-German speakers lived largely separate lives from their Slavic neighbors, until two events intervened to spark an evangelical revival. In 1858, Emperor Alexander II authorized the translation and printing of the Bible in Russian. Three years later, he abolished serfdom.

“For the first time, peasants were no longer tied to the land,” said Mary Raber, a church history instructor at Odessa Theological Seminary. “Where better to find a job than on the farm of a successful colony?”

Slavs, now with a New Testament to read, started joining their Bible studies.

Mennonites were not the only revivalist movement in the Russian empire. German Baptists planted churches in the Caucasus Mountains. An English missionary won converts among the St. Petersburg elite. Neither of these groups adopted pacifism as a rule, and even some Mennonites organized self-defense units to ward off bandits in the chaos of World War I. But none were prepared for…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 20, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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