Ed. note: Some photographs in this report contain graphic images from Bucha, Ukraine, which were first published by officials of the Ukrainian government.
A prominent Ukrainian scholar said Christian life and thought in Ukraine will be reshaped by atrocities in the town of Bucha, where more than 320 men, women, and children were killed by the Russian military. Some were killed after they were tortured or raped, and buried in shallow mass graves.
Most of the country has fallen into a deep social depression, a kind of stupor, or even despair, and a Ukrainian theologian told The Pillar that more Russian atrocities will likely emerge in the country.
But as some Ukrainians ask how God allowed unspeakable tragedy, others say that Christ is present in the country’s suffering, and even that there is reason to hope.
Fr. Petro Balog, OP, director of the Institute of St. Thomas Aquinas in Kyiv, told The Pillar that Christ is present with those who have suffered atrocities.
“Today we must recall the words of Christ from the 25th chapter of Matthew, where he says that ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
“When we talk about Bucha, we must say that Christ was raped, Christ was killed, Christ was deprived of his home, his hands were tied, and he was shot. All this was done to those with whom Christ identifies himself.”
“It must be said that God is being crucified again, tortured again. Christ does not say that this applies only to those who believe in Him. He is talking about defenseless people.”
The Dominican said that God is not above the situation. The suffering in Ukraine is not his punishment. Rather, God is in the midst of the war, and on the side of the suffering.
He urged that Christians in Ukraine should give witness to what is happening in their country.
But for many, the words don’t come easily.
“How do you comment on events which should be left without words?” Fr. Oleh Hirnyk of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv asked about the atrocity of Bucha.
Fr. Andrii Dudchenko of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine shared that sentiment.
The priest, who spent 17 days with his family in a basement on the outskirts of Hostomel, said that trying to explain atrocities in Ukraine would be similar to the empty words from the friends of the Bible’s suffering Job:
“But we know that their words were false in the eyes of God. Job's questions and cries went unanswered. We only see at the end the meeting of Job with God, which takes his story to a new level,” said the priest.
Fr. Taras Baitsar, the Greek Catholic priest of Sknyliv near Lviv, said the Ukrainian people are learning how to mourn, how to lament — how to grapple with evil beyond comprehension.
“All methods are true and good. Some people think it is better to stand in silence before God; others believe it is necessary to quarrel and shout to Him. We are rediscovering the depths of Scripture today: the books of the prophets, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Psalms, which help us to endure patience in the face of God.”
When photos from Bucha spread around the world this month, many found it very difficult to believe that the images were authentic — from the point of view of common sense, the actions of the Russian army cannot be inscribed in any logical scheme.
But at the same time the footage from Bucha began to appear, an extensive article “What Russia should do with Ukraine” was published on the website of the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti.
The article argued there is a need to destroy Ukraine as a state, and to eliminate its culture, language, and educational institutions.
Commenting on these events, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said that “We see that Russia's war against Ukraine has a clear ideological basis - it has been said in recent days at the highest levels of Russian authorities.”
“This war is a denial of the existence of millions of Ukrainians.”
Most initial reactions from Ukraine’s religious leaders to the events in Bucha reflect the general state of numbness of the entire Ukrainian society in the face of unimaginable brutality.
But on April 6, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations - which represents nearly all Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders in Ukraine - called on the world to recognize the actions of Russian troops against civilians in Ukrainian cities and villages as genocide.
“Every state in the world must recognize the genocide of the Ukrainian people during the Russian invasion in 2022, and must condemn the ideology of the ‘Russkyi mir’ as justification for the genocide of peoples and the destruction of entire states,” the statement said.
Andrii Andrushkiv is a lay theologian who was drafted into the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He told The Pillar that the killings in Bucha, which have horrified the whole world, are not the only such atrocity perpetrated against Ukrainians.
Andrushkiv has visited several cities north of Kyiv. He said the situation in neighboring Borodyanka looks even worse than did Bucha.
The town’s main street, he recalled, has been simply wiped off the face of the earth.
“Bucha is the closest to Kyiv and was the first to be liberated. But there are many small villages that no one will ever know about. They could shoot 10 people there and destroy 20 houses. But given that there were only 50 houses, it is a great tragedy.”
“And this tragedy of a small village is huge because the world reacts to large mass graves, but no one will ever know about these people. These tens or hundreds of villages will simply become part of the general statistics,” Andrushkiv said.
Along with the loss of relatives and friends, destroyed property, and looted apartments, the residents of Ukraine’s small towns face another problem.
The war continues, with sirens sounding daily throughout the country warning of the danger of new missile strikes. Even while the Russian military has been pushed from some Ukrainian regions, defense authorities have not yet allowed people to return to the liberated territories.
Ukrainian villagers cannot bury their relatives and friends with dignity, to give them the honor they deserve.
That loss exacerbates the state of deep social depression and apathy that seems likely to shape Ukrainian society for a long time.
“I saw people who simply had no emotions. They just stood with their heads down. When I asked them if they had anything to eat, they looked at me as if through a fog,” Andrushkiv recounted.
The theologian said Ukrainian churches will need to work with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian families for many years to help them survive the trauma they are currently experiencing.
And many Ukrainians are asking the deep and serious questions borne of suffering.
Europe has not seen the cold-blooded cruelty of war for decades. But today, looking at its consequences, many Ukrainian are asking themselves the difficult questions that Jewish people asked often during the Holocaust: "Where was God, and why did He allow it?"
Andrushkiv recalled that as his military unit drove through ruined cities, a fellow soldier told him that he had come to doubt his faith.
“As we approached the humanitarian aid distribution point, I told him, ‘God is here now,’” Andrushkiv recalled.
Priests and pastors have told The Pillar that Ukrainian theology after Bucha will no longer be the same as it was.
In an April essay “Theology after Bucha,” Protestant theologian Roman Soloviy, director of the Eastern European Institute of Theology, wrote that he doesn't know how to pray with a woman who was raped by the Russian soldier who shot her sick mother, or what to say to the people who survived the hell on earth arranged for them by the Russian military — who revel in their power and impunity, he said.
“How to comfort a wife whose husband ran out to seek help because she was about to give birth but was killed near their house? How to mourn civilians who have been tortured so that they cannot be identified? I'm not ready to talk about all this today.”
“We in Ukraine will have to look for answers to these questions for a long time and painfully, like the Jews after Auschwitz. We will need to shape the contours of our theology. Theology after Bucha,” Solovyi wrote.
Fr. Baitsar said he hopes those questions will contribute to a deepening of faith in Ukraine.
“All this, hopefully, will motivate us to move away from consumeristic and infantile views on life, faith, and the Church. The mystery of the cross, the mystery of God who suffered, who died, who is in solidarity with humans in all dimensions of their life, has come closer to us,” Baitsar said.
Despite the darkness of the war that has engulfed their country, many Ukrainians are still trying to look to the future with hope.
For centuries, Ukraine has been considered the breadbasket of Europe. Across the country; despite daily airstrikes and a flood of unspeakable news on television, the spring sowing campaign started in most agricultural regions.
My own 12-year-old son told me that he wants it all to end as soon as possible, because he is waiting to see how beautiful we will make our country after the war.
For his part, Andrii Andrushkiv recalled he watched cranes returning this month from their winter grounds to a village near Kyiv.
“But all their nests were destroyed, and they were just circling over the village. They were like people who came out of the basements and saw that their previous lives were ruined.”
“But in Ivankiv [a small town outside Kyiv], I saw a young woman with a newborn child come out of the hospital. And I thought that life goes on after all.”