• Ross Moughtin

To welcome everyone, especially those not like us.

For those of you who did not tune into Radio 3 yesterday for the evening concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, you missed an unusual introduction by Stephen Maddock, its Chief Executive. He began by offering sympathy for the people of Ukraine and like all of us he condemned the use of military violence by Putin and his inner circle. He then went on to explain that that evening’s composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, could in no way be held responsible for the outrage and so the concert would proceed as planned with his overture Romeo and Juliet. As we recoil from the events at the other end of our continent, it is so important that we hold on to a clear perspective and do not seek to punish the Russian people for their leader’s aggression. Of course, they are going to suffer as victims of economic warfare but sadly this is collateral damage in our campaign against the Russian oligarchy. As it happens, just three weeks back, I went to a performance of Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev. I’ve always thought of Prokofiev as Russian but as I check the spelling of his name I now find that he was Ukrainian. We went to the Liverpool Empire to be spell-bound by the Russian State Ballet of Siberia from Krasnoyarsk (I can’t say that either). Sadly I now read that their entire UK tour has been cancelled. In their press release they make it quite clear that they abhor what is happening in their name: it begins "In view of the current shocking circumstances unfolding in the Ukraine.” They too are victims of Kremlin violence Of course, the Kremlin is doing its best to isolate its own people, and yet it seems that more than 1.2 million Russians have signed an online petition against the war while protests by huge numbers of professionals there are circulating on the internet. You may have seen the video of police arresting the 77-year-old Yelena Osipova in Putin’s home city of St Petersburg. Should we ever reach the stage that Tchaikovsky could never be performed in the West then Putin would have achieved a key aim of isolating his country from liberal democratic values. We need perspective as we pray for the Russian people as well as their counterparts in Ukraine. Each day I use the prayer diary published by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an NGO active in advocating for those who suffer religious persecution. I was always impressed by the selfless work of one of its founders, Baroness Cox. She exploited her position as a deputy speaker of the House of Lords to the full, travelling to trouble spots at some personal risk. What makes CSW distinctive is its commitment to religious freedom for all people and not just for Christians. So some days I find myself praying for people of other religions who are suffering for their faith. At first I found this somewhat awkward, praying for Muslims persecuted in India for example. But while solidarity with our fellow Christians is essential, the Gospel is bigger than that. So this week’s theme in the diary is not a country, such as Cuba or Iran but a special prayer for the other, “for those not of our kind.” As did Jesus, who calls us to go beyond our communities and cultures and reach out in love to those who are not like us. It’s been hugely encouraging to see how people have taken the cause of the threatened Ukrainians to heart. We can see ourselves in their predicament – and we want to reach out. But we need to be careful here, for what happens when we do not see ourselves in the other. When they are different from us. For tragically as the Russian military start to carpet bomb their way to Kyiv this is no less what they did to innocent Syrians. The people of Aleppo are victims of Putin as much as the citizens of Mariupol. They too deserve our support. For the Gospel of Jesus demands no less, his cross has destroyed all barriers between people and between peoples. In New Testament times no one liked the Scythians to say the least; they were feared for their savagery and barbarism. A nomadic people they lived around the Black Sea;they were so hated that they had a category all of their own. To quote one scholar they were “the lowest kind of barbarian.” They were the ultimate outsider. So when Paul wrote to the church in civilised Colossae, he knew he was being controversial when he wrote: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11) Whatever the barrier, for disciples of Jesus it has no place in thinking or actions. Radically we are to welcome all people into his Kingdom. Again, that may seem obvious and a basic for any Guardian leader writer. But on the ground there will be huge implications. Of course, our hearts go out to those fleeing Ukraine and seek sanctuary in their bordering countries. But that means everyone who would cross the Ukrainian border for refuge, students from India as well as from Izyum. Viktor Orbán, the nationalist Prime Minister of Hungary can’t have it both ways, refusing asylum to some while welcoming others on the basis of whether they are ‘like us.’ The good news is the cross of Jesus has power beyond our imagining. It has power to transform countries and civilisation, and more: it has the power to transform us and the way we think, as we welcome all people, all peoples, in his name.

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