I taught a class after the world ended. On this day, 28 years ago, I spoke to a class in the State University Named for Taras Shevchenko in Kiev, Ukraine. I received an invitation because I was an American Christian teacher. The Soviet Union had collapsed 11 months earlier. The world and the life of these students had ended…and begun. Ukraine was an old nation but a new state. It was part of the Commonwealth of Independent States that Russian leader Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of the other Soviet republics formed to replace the USSR. Nobody knew what that was, really. One professor told us, “We are independent. Rather, we hope we are independent.”
The Old World Ended
“America won the Cold War!” President George H. W. Bush declared in the State of the Union address earlier that year. The ban on independent religious organizations and gatherings was ending in the former Soviet Union. And so, in October, I went there as a “Youth” minister to work among students.
There were some signs the old world continued functioning. Elementary school students wore the red ribbons around their collars. You could purchase Soviet memorabilia. I have a soldiers hat made from rabbit fur. I once wore it while walking in a blizzard. It was warm. Soviet emblems of red and gold stars were everywhere in the city.
I met some of the people who made the old world too. These were old men and women wearing military medals including the Order of Lenin on their civilian clothes. I sat on the subways and park benches listening to their stories of the siege of the city by German forces during “The Great Patriotic War.” They were happy to tell this young American how they had won the war. In their minds the Western allies helped out some in the victory.
One other misconception I had corrected was that the Soviet Union had been officially atheistic. But the elderly women – the babushkas – kept the nation Christian. “If you were a Christian,” one grandmother told my interpreter, “you would not be wearing western clothes, or all that makeup, or associating with Americans.”
The World In Limbo
Old worlds do not end by new one’s beginning. The people were teaching me about my world ending. American fundamentalists are “true Christians.” All you had to do was ask us. We would tell you. I could not keep thinking that after my experiences in Kiev. Where is the logic of a denomination centered in the American South claiming to represent real Christianity to all of the worlds “corrupted” churches? I suspected we were not using the Bible, our primary organizing document, correctly. It was difficult to find the shoe on the other foot. My foot this time.
My world was ending in other ways. What was the remaining superpower, my country, going to do? The Gulf War had been completed quickly. Was some sort of pax americana on the rise? Can the churches that identify with first century Christianity support imperialism. Had we been doing so all along?
Answering such questions is difficult. The assumptions that lay behind one’s claims have to be discovered and examined. 28 years later, I am still doing that. I know when my world began unraveling. It seems so trivial. But I was talking about a new world.
Talking About The New World
“Be prepared for questions about today?”
“Why?” I asked the professor. “What has happened?”
She looked at me sternly and asked, “what country are you from?”
I had completely forgotten it was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the new world. I didn’t think the students would be interested in Columbus Day. It is a holiday most Americans forget about. But Columbus was already controversial. I didn’t want to think about that.
Thankfully, I never answered any questions about Columbus day. But the thought had recast my entire presentation. We were from the New World visiting the Old World. What do those terms mean?
“Who is your favorite Russian author?” A student asked me. “Nikolai Gogol,” I responded quickly. He was surprised. “Gogol was Ukrainian, you know.” A new world was forming. Gogol had been a proud subject of Imperial Russia. Now, like Taras Shevchenko, was joining the new pantheon of Ukrainian artists.
“Who is your favorite American author?” Another student fired the question to me. “Kurt Vonnegut,” I replied. “Have any of you read him?”
One student answered with a title I did not know. “Tell me the plot.” I prompted. “It was about the future when people destroy machines.” “Oh,” I said. “The title in America is ‘Player Piano.’ I had to explain what that was. “It is one of my least favorites.” I admitted. “Why?” I explained the idea of dystopia. A utopia that didn’t function as it should was something they knew plenty about.
My fundamentalist world ended that day. I began thinking about what I was doing. “Is it really who I am?” I asked. “Is anything I am saying true even to me?”
I now se old worlds must end before new ones begin. A period of exploring what we do and where we go next must take place. The limbo has been going on for a generation. It effects churches, nations, and the physical world. We are in it. And looking for our way through it. At least, the unravelling is over. What churches do now cannot return to the past. We should not attempt to preserve the present. We can only live in the present and weather the changes.
It is hard to accept this, I know. I always want to fix machines and make them run like they did before breaking down. Civilization has never worked in that way. Ask Julian the Apostate who wanted Rome to return to the old gods.
Old Worlds functioned. New Worlds do or will do. Now is the hardest of times.