Christians First

The dark side of national identity
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Two people protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine embrace, Washington D.C., March 6, 2022 (CNS photo/Sarah Silbiger, Reuters).

My paternal grandmother immigrated as a girl with her parents from western Ukraine in 1914. Her husband and family went to great lengths to get her U.S. citizenship in the 1930s. According to family lore, when it came time to sign the final papers, she looked at them and said, “I am no Polski.” The documents listed her as renouncing Polish, not Ukrainian, citizenship, the border having changed after World War I. She refused to sign and did not become a citizen until twenty years later, after the border had changed again so that her hometown was officially in Ukraine.

I love this story because it illustrates three things: my grandmother’s infamous obstinacy (a hereditary quality, my family used to say—looking at me); the instability of Ukraine’s borders across time; and the way national identity is important to how people understand themselves, for better or for worse. My grandmother felt an allegiance to her native Ukraine that was even stronger than her dedication to her new home, though she she and her husband from Belarus understood America to be the land of promise. (Her response also indicates that no love has been lost between Ukrainians and the Polish, but Poland is surely coming through now, in Ukraine’s hour of need—and God bless them for it!)

Identity is still potent stuff today. Surely one effect of Russia’s horrific violence in Ukraine is a deepening of Ukrainian identity and loyalty. Many Ukrainians are essentially saying, “I am no Ruski.”

As much as I am amused by my grandmother’s refusal to be categorized as Polish, and as much as I am sympathetic to the strengthening of Ukrainian identity in the wake of the invasion, I have reservations about the kind of national identity that trumps every other loyalty. As an Orthodox Christian, I try to remember where I store my treasure. When I am at my best, my ultimate allegiance is only to my Creator. This identity, as a beloved child of God, is my primary identity. My tribe is the human tribe, created in the image and likeness of God. The fratricide in Ukraine reminds us how far short of this ideal many Christians still fall. If we truly understood ourselves and one another as creatures formed in the image and likeness of God, war would not be possible.

It would be dangerously myopic for us to elevate national identity today because it is strategically expedient.

I do not know how to put an end to what’s happening in Ukraine now. I, like so many others, feel lost, unsure of which course of action our leaders ought to take to end this slowly unfolding nightmare. Amid all the uncertainty, one can at least insist on our shared identity as created and loved—an identity shared by Ukrainians and Russians, as well as Christians around the world.

I mourn for Ukraine. I also mourn for the Russian people, who are being groomed by their government to value their national identity above all else, and to turn a blind eye to horrors perpetrated in the name of Mother Russia. I worry, too, about the way national identity may be treated here in the United States during this war. Will we look askance at Russian immigrants and their descendants? Will we treat them the way we treated Japanese Americans in World War II? Will our own American identity, and our pride in that identity, obscure rather than clarify our view of what is at stake in Europe, confirming Putin’s propaganda that this is about a conflict of civilizations? I hope not. It would be dangerously myopic for us to elevate national identity today because it is strategically expedient. Even if we manage to avoid another world war, we are likely headed into another cold war. May we learn some lessons from the first Cold War and keep national identity from becoming an obstacle to peace.

My heart breaks for my Ukrainian brothers and sisters. It had been the hope of so many that the twenty-first century would be an era of recovery from the twentieth, not a perpetuation of life-destroying conflicts between nation states or would-be empires. Now we are watching the persecution of one Christian people by another, and a desecration of the belief shared by Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Christians that all human beings are to be understood and treated as beloved children of God.

I pray, and hope against hope, that Vladimir Putin may experience a radical conversion of heart, and that the Russian people may understand and reject the atrocities being committed in their name. I pray, first and last, for those still in Ukraine and those who have fled. But my sense of solidarity is not mainly a matter of my own Ukrainian identity; it is a requirement of my Christian identity. Moved by sympathy with Ukraine and outrage at Russia’s aggression, many now find themselves saying, “Today, we are all Ukrainians.” But it is, or should be, enough to say, “I am a Christian—and therefore opposed to every attempt by one nation to dominate another.” In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither Russian nor Ukrainian. As we pray in the liturgy, let us “hope for peaceful times for the whole world,” and let us work to overcome the kind of pride that starts wars and keeps them from ending.

Published in the April 2022 issue: 

Carrie Frederick Frost is a professor of theology at Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, a mother of five, and a board member of Saint Phoebe Center for the Deaconess.

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