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‘We cannot be free if you are not free’

14 April 2022

Rowan Williams expresses solidarity with the Ukrainian people and praises their commitment to freedom and dignity

YouTub/Elijah Interfaith Institute

IN THE Hebrew scriptures, in the prophecy of Ezekiel, we read that the prophet is taken by God to sit among the Jewish exiles in Babylonia. He feels great turmoil in his spirit, and, when he comes to where the exiles are, he says, “I sat there overwhelmed among them for seven days.”

Now, we who have come to sit with you today are not prophets. We are only fellow humans and fellow believers. We are here because the terrible events of the past months have created turmoil in our own spirits, grief and anger at what you have suffered. Thousands continue to die; millions have been made exiles in their own country and abroad.

And, like the prophet in the Bible, we don’t want to come with easy words, with cheap comfort or hope. We want to hear what you want to say. We want to be able to help your voice be heard around the world. And we want to learn how you live with the terror and apparent hopelessness of the situation around you. Because the hope and the loving solidarity that you give to each other is a gift to all of us as well.

Our hope, then, is just to stand alongside you, to let you know you are not forgotten, and to hear from you, and to receive life and hope from you.

Our Christian scriptures say that, if one part of the body suffers, all suffer. What makes you suffer, what threatens your life, threatens the lives of all the human family. And, if this is true, the least we can do is to be here, to sit with you, even if only for this short time, and even if we are overwhelmed, like the prophet, with the tragedy.

For us, it’s a way of saying to the various countries and contexts we come from, it is our life and our hope, too, that is at stake in the agony that this country is enduring. No cheap comfort, but we are here because we recognise that we cannot be free, we cannot even be human, if you are not free and if you are not treated as human.

We have already found strength today in recognising what freedom and humanity might look like in the faces of those we have met and their relations with each other.

And we feel, too, the bitterness of knowing that those who abuse the freedom and humanity of others are, in fact, destroying their own humanity — wounding the image of God in themselves, as well as in their victims. The oppressor, the aggressor, destroys others; but, in doing so, destroys his own integrity and faith and future.

Our fellowship here today may not change the circumstances of this dreadful conflict, or touch the hearts of the aggressors, and yet we can still speak of the human dignity we share, and commit ourselves to the long struggle to see that this human dignity is affirmed and defended throughout our world.


PERHAPS one of the things we should hope for is that we should learn more deeply how much we need one another. So often, violence grows out of others’ denying that they need others. But, in times of terrible crisis and trauma, we gladly recognise that we cannot find in our own resources what we need to be ourselves, to be human. We need others to bring us to life. Not just in terms of practical support and help, but in terms of knowing that we belong, knowing that we are welcomed and valued.

Part of the history of this great city is the story of how, in the 1940s, so many Jewish people were saved from transportation and death by the efforts of those who were leaders in the city. It is as though at least some people recognised that, if this city, this nation — indeed, this continent — rejected and killed its Jewish citizens, as has happened so often in this and so many other supposedly Christian countries over the centuries, it could never truly be itself.

It’s a reminder that a strong city, a strong community, a strong nation is one that knows how to respect and to learn from its minorities, because it is not afraid to share freedom, [to] share the truths it values and lives by. It is a community which does not have to kill and humiliate others to be sure of itself.

That, surely, is one of the things that is meant in the words of Jesus Christ: the truth will set you free.

All our religious traditions acknowledge that we depend on a reality quite beyond our control, our words, our understanding; a holy presence in whose light we see that we are all reflections of an infinite life of love and understanding; so that we know we have a place in the universe and a dignity that cannot be taken away.

And to know this is to be free — free from the desperate urge to hurt and diminish others so as to make ourselves feel safe and superior. The urge towards evil and oppression that arises from some deep fear that we are not loved and valued. May we not, then, hope for fearlessness. How often in Jewish and Christian scripture do we hear from God the words “Do not be afraid.”

Faith, above all, is the trustful knowledge that our lives, all of them, are precious. War is a terrible assault on this knowledge, because war is a process in which lives are sacrificed in cruel, arbitrary ways, especially in the indiscriminate terror of modern methods of war, as we’ve seen so dramatically and horrifically these last weeks.

And the faith and hope we want to witness to, along with you, is a trust that the strong and fearless commitment to freedom and dignity which the people of Ukraine have shown will be a sign of hope worldwide. Even, one day, a sign of hope to those who have been enemies and aggressors, when they begin to wake up to the terrible nature of what they have done.

We have been reminded that we are moving towards the Christian celebration of Easter in Western and Eastern Christendom, and the celebration of Passover, the celebration of liberation and new life, the celebration of fearlessness. Can we dare to hope that there will be a voice raised somewhere in Russia to say “Let there be a truce, let there be a ceasefire” over this period that is precious to so many. So that we may hope to celebrate together the life we treasure.

But, meanwhile we pray that your resistance to terror and threat will remain strong. We all need your courage and your faith in a just and peaceful future. We pray today and we shall go on praying that God will bring peace and healing when conflict is past. And, while the conflict continues, we pray that God will bring courage, fairness, generosity, and welcome for each other and for all those who have suffered most deeply.

God bless you all in this city and this nation. God make you signs of hope for his world.

This is an edited transcript of remarks given by Lord Williams in Chernivtsi, on Tuesday, at the “Faith in Ukraine” event, organised by the Elijah Interfaith Institute and the Peace Department. To watch a video of the event, visit www.FaithinUkraine.com.

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