Thought for the Day - 19/03/2014 - Canon Dr Alan Billings

So President Putin has signed a treaty to annex the Crimea. And now the world's attention is turning to the towns of eastern Ukraine - with some commentators predicting that Russia will set its sights on absorbing territory there as well. How are we to understand what's happening?

There's a story in the gospels in which Jesus told his critics that while they knew how to interpret the appearance of the sky – red sky at night, shepherd's delight – they couldn't interpret what he called 'the signs of the times'. They couldn't read the significance of events in the way they read the weather. There's a hint of irritation. It's not that they don't know how to, they haven't taken sufficient trouble. Reading the sky requires little more than an upward glance; reading the signs of the times requires effort.

There was a time in the 1980s when people in my city, Sheffield, were in regular contact with the citizens of the east Ukrainian town of Donetsk – at that time part of the soviet empire. The cities were twinned. There were sporting, cultural and civic exchanges. Inevitably we who participated got to know families and civic leaders, and found ourselves absorbing something of the history and culture; something of what made the people of eastern, mainly Russian-speaking Ukraine tick. This was the point of town-twinning.

My interests were partly religious. On one exchange I asked a member of the city soviet – the local council - where the churches were. 'We have no churches in Donetsk', he said. He was a communist.
But later our interpreter came to my hotel room, nervously took a crucifix from his pocket – a gift from his mother - and asked me to bless it. In return he explained the complex religious landscape of his country.

In the east, Christians were members of an Orthodox Church that looked to Moscow. Towards the capital other Orthodox congregations owed allegiance to the church leadership in Kiev. But in the west, although the clergy looked Orthodox with beards and black cassocks, they were Roman Catholic. And behind this religious diversity lay histories, the most serious being the division in the second world war between those mainly in the catholic west whose fear of communism led to Nazi sympathies, and those in places like Donetsk who resisted the Nazis and paid the price. The story my hosts told about themselves invariably began with the remembrance of this war-time betrayal, suffering and eventual liberation by the Red Army. Recalling all this makes me anxious about some readings of what is happening in the Ukraine now.

Almost all the conflicts of recent years – from Iraq to Syria and now the Ukraine - have involved populations with similar complex religious and political histories. Interpreting the signs of the times requires the effort of learning them. It's not like reading the sky at night.

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