Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

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Mere Christianity: Teaching Ethics in Ukrainian Public Schools

Mary Raber

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Fall 2011):1-3.

Promoting Respect for Others

Its practitioners point out that Christian ethics instruction is not Sunday school. Proselytizing is not allowed: “We can give people the keys to their salvation, but we cannot force the lock,” Zhukovskyy observes. Instruction excludes doctrine, prayer, and visits to churches for the purpose of worship. In other words, the vision of the curriculum is to present “mere Christianity” for the formation of morals with no single confession dominating. “Its value is that children get acquainted with the absolute, unchanging ethical teaching of Scripture,” states Sannikova. “Whether they accept it or not is their choice; acquaintance with it is the main thing.”

The program is also geared to promoting respect for the religion and worldview of others, a valuable outcome in a multi-cultural and multi-confessional society. Sannikova also works at overcoming stereotypes with her students at the Odessa Institute for Post-graduate Pedagogical Education where she teaches Christian ethics methods. For example, she discourages the use of the word “sectarian” and insists that all confessions be discussed with respect. “We’re pedagogues,” she says. “We need to encourage dialogue. If we teachers will learn to do this, the children will follow.”

Voluntary and Popular

Furthermore, Christian ethics is not a required subject, but an approved elective, offered in all Ukrainian public schools at the request of parents. Four interested families in a village and eight in a city are sufficient to give the subject space in the schedule. Any child may attend with parents’ written permission.1 The elective status is prized. “As soon as you make Christian ethics a requirement, it loses its appeal,” Sannikova claims.

Thus, the mechanism for the systematic teaching of Christian ethics in Ukrainian public schools is presently in place. The courses are popular and appreciated. Anecdotal evidence indicates the children’s behavior and relationships have improved where the classes have been implemented, besides providing a rare forum for educators and others to overcome religious barriers. Students who choose the elective participate in a national Bible knowledge “Olympiad” held annually, and recognition is given for the best Christian ethics teacher.

Threats and Shortcomings

Yet ambiguities remain. The creation of a curriculum without a confessional slant is a remarkable accomplishment, but it is not universally supported. The politically powerful Moscow Patriarchate promotes the introduction of a basic Orthodox catechism, Zakon Bozhiy [The Law of God], as a national requirement. Significantly, their representative withdrew from participation in inter-confessional curriculum groups in April 2010. Some fear that President Victor Yanukovich favors the Moscow Patriarchate and has appointed officials to the Ministry of Education who will bypass the carefully constructed inter-confessional Christian ethics structure and eventually dismantle it. Meanwhile, in places where Greek Catholicism predominates, moral education in the schools goes hand-in-hand with church-based religious instruction and a confessionally neutral approach may be considered superfluous.

Moreover, Christian ethics has not been implemented everywhere. Many parents are not even aware that the subject exists as an option for their children. Some school directors may simply ignore the Christian ethics elective because of the extra work of assigning a teacher, or out of a sense of caution, or perhaps because of lingering Soviet-era anti-religious attitudes, or because they fear potential conflict. However, Anna Solomina, a teacher in Kyiv, blames indifference and lack of unity among Christians for hindering the implementation of Christian ethics: “We have failed to recognize God’s mercy for Ukraine….This has been available since 2005. By now we should already have Christian ethics in all the schools.”2

Christian Ethics as Life Choices Education

At about the same time that Tetiana Sannikova was starting to teach biblical ethics to Odessa fifth graders, Nadiia Malicheva, trained as an artist, was visiting high school classes in Kyiv to talk to teenagers about making wise decisions. Like many Ukrainian women, Malicheva had undergone an abortion that caused her great physical and spiritual suffering, and she wanted to help others avoid her experience: “I didn’t want to scare them, but teach them how to think.” In addition to abortion, she addressed narcotics, alcohol, and other topics, connecting each issue to biblical principles. Eventually she collected information on 60 themes, which became the basis for teaching materials now prepared and distributed by Nove Zhittia [New life], a “cultural-educational center” with affiliates in several major cities.3 Malicheva is one of the forerunners of professional and volunteer teachers who entered public schools in increasing numbers during the 2000s to give instruction in stanovlenie lichnosti, that is, character formation, or life choices education. Like many others, Olena Prokhorenko became involved because of a direct call for help from a school director who was overwhelmed by the complex and dangerous issues her pupils faced. “I started with drugs and alcohol,” Prokhorenko remembers. “Then I tackled pre-marital sex, abortion, HIV-AIDS, and getting along with parents.”

Some schools rely on doctors and other professionals to speak on such topics from a strictly informational perspective, but because of their morally based approach, some teachers refer to life choices education as “Christian ethics” in a kind of shorthand. The national Christian ethics curriculum touches on the same issues, but from the standpoint of developing a framework for a comprehensive moral system and with direct reference to the Bible. Life choices education is more immediate, focusing on the needs of young people to confront serious day-to-day challenges. Here the emphasis is on presenting clear, reliable information from a moral perspective that may or may not be directly identified as Christian.

Examples of Life Choices Instruction

Prokhorenko, a member of a Charismatic church, and her Orthodox colleague, Svitlana Lopata, are employed by Charitable Fund “Good Shepherd Shelter” in Makiivka (Donets’k Province). Their original assignment was to maintain contact with children who had lived briefly at the organization’s shelter before being permanently assigned to state-run boarding schools (internats). Now, besides teaching life choices in the internats, they present regular classes at numerous area middle schools and have also given seminars to local government officials and parents. “It helps that we’re identified with a social service organization,” Prokhorenko observes. “If we said we were from a church, we couldn’t get in.”

Baptists, Adventists, Greek Catholics, and others are doing similar work around the country with good results, but because they are working in public schools their church affiliation is downplayed. If a teacher has been engaged to lecture on AIDS prevention, for example, he or she must do that competently without reference to faith. Yet conveying the basics of Christian morality in a non-intrusive, informational way is not ruled out. Much depends on an individual teacher’s relationships with school administrators and pupils. “As trust develops,” Prokhorenko says, “I add more biblical material.” Occasionally, when she is challenged by Orthodox laypeople, her partner Lopata takes the lead. In general, however, no matter what their confession, life choices teachers are able to agree on “mere Christianity,” acknowledging that truth is in Christ and that schoolchildren desperately need clear information and a moral structure for making decisions.

Through life choices education young people sometimes ask to study the Bible or seek further opportunities to explore a Christian worldview. In order to accommodate them, Nove Zhittia offers clubs or discussion groups outside of school. For eight years the Christian youth club, Tvoia perspektiva [Your Perspective] in eastern Ukraine, headed by Viacheslav Khalanskiy, has organized a summer camp around Christian worldview themes. Many of the participants first became interested in the camp through contact with life choices teachers. Several times a year Tvoia perspektiva brings together interested teachers, students, parents, church leaders, government officials, and others for day-long seminars on character formation, sexual morality, family relationships, and Resources and Networking

Obviously, teaching life choices/Christian ethics demands considerable tact, skill, and knowledge. “You can’t just stand up there and lecture,” warns Prokhorenko, “If you do, none of these kids will listen to you. You have to be able to get their attention.” Fortunately, many resources have been developed for teachers in Ukraine since the 1990s. No central clearing house exists for information nor, rather surprisingly, any standardized requirements for teacher competence or even curriculum, although many teaching materials have been approved by the Ministry of Education. Instead, individuals and organizations seem to manage to locate each other through word of mouth or specialized seminars offered around the country.

Many volunteer teachers valiantly continue to collect their own material, drawing on newspapers, popular films, internet, and classical literature. As mentioned above, Nadiia Malicheva teamed up with professional educators to create comprehensive lesson plans illustrated with DVDs of film clips, slide shows, and music. Often teachers make use of translated materials from international organizations that provide teaching resources on specific issues, such as those offered by AIDS Care Education and Training (ACET).5

Nove Zhittia, ACET, and others also sponsor regular training seminars for educators in order to introduce resources, practice teaching, and discuss problems. The international organization Hope in Education (http://hopeineducation.com) presents seminars on the integration of a Christian worldview into the educational process. Confessional lines are frequently crossed. Baptists might attend a training program on HIV-AIDS at a Charismatic church, or an Orthodox priest might address a gathering of teachers held at an evangelical theological school.

Conclusion

The websites of numerous organizations working in the area of Christian ethics in Ukraine usually include positive testimonies from students, teachers, and school administrators concerning the usefulness of a given program or resource. Most groups conduct some kind of informal assessment of their work, and seminar participants almost always fill out evaluation forms. Some school administrators have noticed an improvement in children’s attitudes and behavior where Christian ethics is taught. However, to my knowledge, no formal study has yet been made documenting the long-term results of teaching Christian ethics in Ukraine. Nevertheless, even without hard statistical evidence, the consensus is that such courses can only help. Whether they will continue depends on the wisdom, commitment, and goodwill of people at all levels of the educational process.

Of the two broad Christian ethics trends, the national inter-confessional curriculum is more vulnerable to dismantling because of its public character, its dependence on government policy, and the plain hard work of maintaining relationships among various confessions. Life choices education with a Christian perspective is probably more sustainable because of its informality. It is locally based, draws on a wide variety of resources, and meets an undeniable need. The development of a national life choices curriculum might be advisable, but it could end up stifling the role of Christian volunteers. On the other hand, greater efficiency and unity among life choices practitioners are probably needed to consistently deliver quality moral education to schools countrywide.

Before he was crucified, Jesus prayed for believers that “all may be one” (John 17:21). Without doubt, that prayer will be fulfilled in the future Kingdom. In the meantime, however, in the Ukrainian context, a truly inclusive Christian ethics curriculum and the consistent witness of teachers of all confessions may be some of the best evidence for the Holy Spirit’s presence. These social projects offer genuine hope for the formation of moral values among the young and also create space for much-needed inter-confessional dialogue. Incidents of religiously motivated violence have occurred in Ukraine since independence, but if the country continues to be spared the armed conflict that has crippled other countries, perhaps future historians will point to instruction in Christian ethics as one of the mitigating factors. ♦

Notes:

1 Alternatives are philosophical ethics, which takes a secular approach, and religious ethics, which explores the moral values of other religions besides Christianity.

2 Quoted from a presentation at a conference on spiritual-moral education held in Odessa, 17-18 March 2011.

3 Based on notes from a presentation and personal conversation at a conference on spiritual-moral education held in Odessa, 17-18 March 2011. Nove Zhittia may be accessed at www.nlc.org.ua.

4 Information on Tvoia perspektiva may be accessed at http:///www.mxk.artangel.org.ua.

5 Available at http://acet.org.ua.

Mary Raber, from St. Louis, Missouri, has spent 16 years in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Presently she is a service worker with Mennonite Mission Network based in Odessa, Ukraine, teaching church history and other subjects at Odessa Seminary, Donetsk Christian University, and other theological schools in Ukraine, Russia, and Armenia