David Deane, Catholic theologian of Irish origin, associate professor at the Atlantic School of Theology (Halifax, Canada) gives an interview to the «Christian Vision» group of the Coordination Council. He talks about his encounter with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, shares his thoughts on the movement for democracy in Belarus and women’s political activism, and also explains why he is disappointed with the actions of the Vatican.
«Christian Vision»: Could you please tell how you met Sviatlana in Ireland, what was your experience of hosting her and other «Chernobyl kids»?
David Deane: In the 1990s and early 2000s a relationship was established between the part of Ireland I was from and Mikashevichy, in Belarus. A number of children from Mikashevichy would come to Ireland to spend their summers. That was the first time that I met Sviatlana. She stayed at our house. I was in university, so I met her when I’d be home for a weekend.
She was a typical Belarusian teenager. We were tremendously impressed with the intelligence and the standard of education of the children. All the kids who came across, particularly the girls, were extremely intelligent and well educated.
And after a couple of years, it became clear that a number of the younger children were very much drawn to Sveta. Many missed their parents, there was a language barrier, and the food etc. was all so strange to them. Interestingly, they gravitated to Sveta as the person who would mediate between them and their host families. Sveta, naturally, became a leader for the younger children in Ireland. And, because of that, she was hired in the subsequent years as an official translator. She was a typical teenage girl, both shy and fun-loving, and she wasn’t someone who would put herself forward as the leader. But nonetheless, she had certain leadership qualities that naturally drew younger children to her. That said a lot about who she was, even then.
CV: Speaking about that, is it right that it was your father who organized this «Chernobyl Lifeline» project?
DD: That’s exactly right. The first form of this organization was established by a woman called Adi Roche. She was the first Irish person to bring kids from Belarus to Ireland to spend summers there. My father started as one branch of her organization. But he had a lot of political contacts in Ireland in the Department of Foreign Affairs, so he was able to bring in more children to our area. His organization was based in the little town Roscrea and it grew significantly from there.
Each summer Roscrea would be lit up by the presence of all these kids, around three hundred per summer. They really opened the eyes of the town. At that time Ireland was extremely inward-looking and there wasn’t any immigration. Instead, we were a nation of emigrants. Because of this the people in Roscrea were not used to foreigners. The kids and their interpreters made a very big, and a very positive difference. These days, if you were to go to that little town, you’ll find businesses where Russian would be the main language, you’ll find a «Polski sklep» with goods from all over Eastern Europe. Roscrea is quite multicultural now, and Chernobyl kids were the first wave of that multiculturalism. It was very exciting. For me too, as the kids would bring across gifts and I would ask for little pins from the communist era, with Lenin and other symbols. That was exotic and cool for me as a college student.
CV: Have you been to Belarus yourself?
DD: Yes, I’ve been to Belarus once, it was in the 1990s. It was connected to my father organizing the «Chernobyl Lifeline». We all went to Belarus, obviously to Minsk, and to Mikashevichy, and then we went on a long journey to Navapolatsk, to the university there. We were just travelling around meeting and speaking with people, getting a sense of things. It was wonderful — the friendliness, the charity the people showed to us, the extremely potent vodka. It was a dramatic and wonderful experience.
CV: Did you keep in touch with Sviatlana since then?
DD: Yes, we have exchanged occasional messages via social media. Just some ‘likes’ and comments on family pictures on Instagram. But my dad has been in regular contact with her and I would get updates on her life through my dad. And then, all of a sudden, a year ago or year and a half ago my dad told me «You know, Sveta’s husband Siarhei has been arrested? it looks like Sveta is going to take his place on the ballot».
CV: No, it was less than a year ago! It seems like a long time but it was only the beginning of the summer!
DD: Wow, amazing! It seems so long ago! To be honest, I was very surprised when I heard what Sveta was doing. Sveta was obviously very intelligent and a natural leader, but it just didn’t match up in my head. So I messaged her a few times and everything was happening so quickly for her. It’s so great to see how everything has progressed, how she has taken on this immense role. It’s also amazing to note how she has been a magnet for all these gifted people! So many brilliant people who are committed to a new and better Belarus have been attracted to this movement! Both Sveta and movement on the whole is incredibly impressive.
It’s an inspirational story. Not just in Belarus, but also globally. The interest here in Canada has been massive. Right now, it’s ebbing, but we at Atlantic School of Theology have an event with Sveta on March 17th and we’re going to try to get it back to ‘September’ levels of interest. The story, the narrative, is a compelling one.
CV: In September, when the protests in Belarus lasted for a month only, you said in an interview about Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — “She thinks that she’s not a leader because she doesn’t fit the mould – but the mould is toxic. We should adopt her mould”. Now, half a year later, we see that neither the people stopped protesting nor the regime stopped terrorizing them. There are voices of disappointment in the peaceful protest. What do you think about the chances of non-violent resistance against «toxic» power?
DD: The temptation in trying to “win” is to adopt the means and methods of the oppressive regime. I think history is very clear that once we concede normative status to the forms of leadership that have existed and we use those very forms to overthrow the regime, what we’ll do is instantiate something similar and equally oppressive. One of the obvious examples of this is the French Revolution. It embodies and reinscribes coercive violence and what we get is the reign of terror. If you look at my own Irish situation, we overthrew the colonial oppression in the southern part of the country, but we reinscribed the very forms of oppression we sought to overthrow. There was a civil war and after that we had a very repressive country in which there was still oppression, just with different kinds of people oppressed than were being oppressed before. Replacing one regime with another regime with the same methods and logic will not bring any good. If you mirror the oppressors then you fail, even if you seem to “win”, as you simply replace like with like. That’s what happens in countless examples.
So, the question emerges — how do you bring real change without using the methods and the means of the oppressive regime? As a Christian, the goal for me is to live and act like Christ, irrespective of the consequences. This is the constant question in the Bible, the question that the Israelites face in Babylon. How do we sing the Lord’s song in the strange land? How can you remain faithful to what’s good and right even if it won’t win?
Now, for me, the non-violent methods that are in keeping with God’s will are also best placed to bring about real and lasting change! But it will take time and it will take virtue. And it will test both the Belarusian people and the international community. Are we really committed to change? If our level of commitment is sufficient, I believe change will happen. But it is very difficult for a whole host of reasons. First, Belarus is at the interface of Europe and Russia and so can often be a political football that gets played between both sides. The movement will be pressured on all sides and it will need to constantly resist the temptation to buckle.
But that’s another really exciting thing about the movement for change! The movement for Belarusian freedom is not willing to sell out to either East or West. Neither Russian models nor Western models have proven that they work to bring about the kind of society that we seek. And so, Sveta, and the people around her, are imagining alternative models based neither on Russian nor Western models, but, instead, on what’s best for Belarus. The Belarusian people are looking for genuine change, not just change from one leader to another leader that embodies the same kind of ideology.
So that’s my response to those disappointed in peaceful protests. If you really want change, then you have to embody and live the change you want to see. Faithfulness to this offers the best chance of “winning”, but even if it didn’t – it’s the only hope, as to mirror the approach of the oppressive regime is simply to risk “winning” without actually changing anything.
This is one of the interesting things happening all over Eastern Europe right now. Some people might hate what’s happening in Hungary or Poland, but what you see there is a host of peoples who are imagining alternative kinds of social orders. They say, “this is what the Good looks like, and we’re not simply going to do what typical governments do — safeguard our borders, have a good military and so on, we’re going to try to move our social order in the direction of the Good”. Now, again, the problem here is that not everybody agrees what the Good looks like. And you can’t force it. But what interests me is that all these movements in Eastern Europe are reimagining things and trying to think outside the box, whereas Western Europe and North America are just recycling the same methods with slight differences. Take the United States for example. The United States is polarized not because of a massive difference in political ideology between the Democrats and the Republicans, but because of a massive difference in how each side are depicted by a polarized media. While Fox news claims the democrats are communist and everyone else claims the republicans are fascist, the actual difference between them is negligible. No matter who wins, one capitalist elite is replaced by another capitalist elite. The system offers a simulacrum of freedom. People think they’re enfranchised. Each side believes they’re fighting the forces of evil, but it’s an illusion. It’s a simulacrum. Secular capitalism proceeds as before no matter who wins and very little actually changes. In contrast, the people of Belarus don’t just want to change the president, they want to change what a president does and how a president acts. It wants real change.
CV: You have already touched the Christian theme. The political crisis in Belarus has motivated the Christians of all traditions to speak up against the violence and to rethink their role in the social and political life. This is happening in the secularized post-soviet context that is quite different from the Irish one, Belarusians are not very used to the political activity of the churches. What can you say as a theologian about the Christian involvement into politics?
DD: Christianity doesn’t offer a blueprint for a secular nation state. Christians are shaped in relationship to Christ to care about the poor and those in need. They are one with the Holy Spirit, who is hope itself. And these things mean that Christians often respond strongly to political circumstance. For example, in the overthrow of the communist regime in Romania, one of the key sparks was the reformed pastor László Tőkés. He was a consistent critic of Ceausescu, Ceausescu arrested him, and it was a turning point. Similarly, if you look at the USA, you see Martin Luther King Jr, a Baptist pastor, and alongside him clergy and other religious people at the marches in Selma. Why are religious people often at the forefront of radical movements like this? I’d like to think it is because they have a culture of fearlessness, from the tradition of the martyrs, which enables them and, indeed, encourages them, to stand up to oppression. The Christians of Belarus are responding in faith, hope, and love, to the need of the Belarusian people for freedom. This is exciting.
Jurgen Habermas has an interesting take on one area where Christianity differs from Marxism that may help us understand why Christian attempts to work for change have lasted millenia. For Habermas, one of the problems in late communism is that there is a model of what a good communist state ought to look like – a model that drives early communism and revolutionary forces. But as the decades wear on, this ideal system comes to haunt the actuality. People look around and say, “This isn’t what we were promised!”. And so, the promised society turns parasitic on the current society, which doesn’t reflect the promised society. In contrast, for Habermas, with Christianity the hope never turns parasitic, because the hope is always understood as being on its way. It’s in process and its fullness is always eschatological. Therefore it doesn’t turn parasitic upon the lived reality, instead it encourages those within it to keep working for the kingdom, which breaks in only lightly, in the eucharist and similar sacramental moments. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Christianity has had such longevity, that it’s still such a powerful force in people’s lives 2000 years after the initial revolutionary movement. It can contribute hope, it can contribute radicality, it can contribute vision. This is what the Belarusian churches can do, they can be more fearless in offering alternatives, in providing martyrs, people who will be willing to suffer in order to live into the new world, which they are asked by Christ to bring about. This has happened many times before. Look at the overcoming of slavery in the United States — the spark was lit by people like John Brown and Nat Turner. These were, essentially, «Jesus freaks» who were so committed to Christ that they wanted to overthrow oppression and bring the new world into being. This is why I’m so disappointed when a Church body, for example the Vatican, asks people to tone down their critique of an oppressive régime.
CV: This leads up to another question. The Belarusian political crisis coincided with the publication of the encyclical Fratelli Tutti by Pope Francis, which deals with politics. In December Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya sent an open letter to Pope Francis, based on this encyclical, and invited him to speak up against violence in Belarus. However, there was no answer and in general the Pope only briefly mentioned Belarus in August. This raised critique among some of the Belarusian Catholics and other Christians. How would you explain such an attitude and what can you propose to the Christians who disagree with their ecclesial leadership?
DD: I have been very disappointed with Pope Francis’ leadership in relation to Belarus. Pope Francis has great gifts in many areas, but his self-understanding is that he is going to be a pastor, a friendly reconciling voice, and he’s not going to adopt strong political positions. In terms of politics he is the opposite of John Paul II. He’s a dealmaker, a pragmatist; some might even say he’s utilitarian. Within Catholic social teaching, the role of the State is to facilitate the good, or at the very least, it needs to provide the freedom for people to pursue the good. Lukashenka’s régime is the precise opposite of this! It represses people and limits their capacity to seek the good. As such, it is the precise inverse of the kind of social order Fratelli Tutti calls for, yet, for some reason, Pope Francis has not criticized it.
Most specifically, the deal around Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz has troubled me. The press-release by Lukashenka’s government allowing Kondrusiewicz to return said that «the obstacles to his return have been removed». Now what were those obstacles? Those “obstacles” were his criticism of the regime! And two days later he is retired. So, it seems to me that, like with China, Pope Francis has done a deal with Lukashenka, which can enable priests on the ground to provide, you know, a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the back, or some pastoral care. But what’s really needed from the Pope is to denounce Lukashenka’s dictatorial regime in such a way that it brings international pressure and empowers Catholics and other Christians in Belarus to take a stronger stand against it.
I understand how difficult it is for Pope Francis to do what is right here. If he was to say something about Lukashenka, then he would have many bishops saying «Yes, but how come you don’t speak out against this or that cause that I really care about». He’s not willing to bring this critique on himself, but the price he’s paying for this is acquiescing with Lukashenka’s regime.
Now, he’s not the first Pope to do it. There was a Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone – essentially the Prime Minister of the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy – and he was very close to Lukashenka. He spoke out strongly against sanctions that were being levied against him. This is why then and now Lukashenka speaks about his “good relationships and partnership” with the Vatican. That, to me, is a disaster. We need more radical leadership from bishops, cardinals, and especially the Pope, if we are going to be faithful to our call from Jesus Christ.
You asked about those who disagree with their ecclesial leadership – I would say that the history of the Church is filled with people like Joan of Arc who were strongly condemned by the Church at the time and who, later on, were canonized by the Church. I would encourage people to take inspiration from Joan of Arc and others, but also from the early Christian martyrs in realizing that faithfulness to the Kingdom of God is the compulsive call. Non-violent resistance in all its forms is what Christ calls us to in the Gospels. We are Christians today only because of the Christian martyrs of the first three centuries. If those people were not willing to be faithful to the Gospel despite the pressure from an oppressive régime, then we wouldn’t be here today.
Now it’s easy for me to say this in the comfort of Nova Scotia, in Canada! There’s no risk to me and I’m aware that this might sound hollow. But we need to be faithful to our mothers and fathers in the faith. And I honestly don’t think that Pope Francis would have any problems with priests and bishops peacefully protesting. Bishops serve in persona Christi, so they just need to ask themselves «What would Jesus do?». Would Jesus cooperate with the oppressive regime, which is designed to destroy the hopes, the hearts, and the souls of citizens? If not then they need to resist this régime in the hopes of creating a different Belarus. That’s what they need to do, and I don’t think that, long term at least, the Church would have any problem with that.
CV: You have mentioned Joan of Arc, one of the most famous female saints. Also among your research interests there is the heritage of Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval German nun and mystical theologian. The role of women in the Belarusian protests is a major one — the world has seen the massive female rallies, the face of the Belarusian revolution is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. What is your perspective on the female activism and leadership in the politics and in the Church in XXI century?
DD: That’s an amazing question. First, I’m an amateur when it comes to Belarusian society. I’m just someone who has many Belarusian friends and has a great interest in the country. This has probably changed significantly, but, in my opinion, back in the nineties, Belarus was a culture that really encouraged boys and did so, sometimes, at the expense of girls. I think there were two reasons for this. First, the Soviet model of leadership was the no nonsense man, the “rough around the edges” male figure. This is what Stalin tried to portray and others after him — a boorish, male, man of the people. Second, this conflation of leadership and maleness was exacerbated by the fact that, per capita, Belarus suffered more deaths in the Second World War that any other nation. I saw a stat that if you were born male in Belarus between the world wars your life expectancy was somewhere around 23 years. Because of this, in the 1950s-1970s there were simply not enough men to go around! Even as late as 2015 there were only 86 Belarusian men to every 100 Belarusian women. This “scarcity” further increased the privileged role that men had. The cultural consequences of this could be seen, for example, in 2016 when Lukashenka commented that Hillary Clinton couldn’t win the U.S. election because she’s a woman.
That’s the backdrop to these remarkable things that are happening. I think that Sveta, and countless other women in Belarus want a free, open, inclusive Belarus that can allow its gifted citizens the opportunity to flourish. I remember talking to some of the Belarusian children about Lukashenka when they were nine, ten, or eleven, and there was real fear in speaking about him. Even then! Sveta doesn’t want that for her children. So, one, you have a huge amount of mothers who are involved in the movement, mothers who want a different Belarus for their children, and two, you have a huge amount of women who are rejecting a traditional, boorish, hyper-masculine form of leadership. They’re embracing new and different models of leadership, and this is offering hope throughout the world.
How does this relate to the religious elements? Well, the churches, globally, are far more female than male, woman are, statistically, much more likely to be religious than men. Yes, at “the top” many churches are male-dominated, but in terms of the pews there are more women than men. And this, I think, is connected to a capacity for hope, for vision, a willingness to imagine radical alternatives. Men are, perhaps, less inclined to change because the system already works OK for us.
Someone might be cynical and say that the Belarusian protest has been branded as women led for the Western audience. But I think the movement itself is a movement of resistance against a patriarchal repressive refusal to change. If you were to list female Popes, you would have zero, but if you were to list female martyrs in the Church you’ve got hundreds, thousands! What does that tell us about the capacity for women to respond radically to a call for a new world? It tells us that women have always been at the forefront of real and lasting change. The movement for Belarusian democracy embodies this call for real and lasting change. As such, the movement should capture the imagination of people around the world. Sveta and the movement represent a genuine attempt to both imagine, and bring into being, a different kind of social order. Now, if that is not something we can get behind, then what is?