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.
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