In the summer of 2015, I returned to Estonia for the first time in 17 years. A year prior, Russia had annexed Crimea, threatening the peace of the post-Soviet world order. At home, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a marriage recognized in one state must be recognized in all states, effectively legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. I would have never imagined that these two stories would make their way into the same conversation, but they did.
I ran into an old acquaintance that I had met in the 90s while I was a student missionary in Estonia. This is a good man who, as a Christian, had suffered greatly under the Soviet Union. Certainly not Stalin-level, deportation era “suffering,” but Cold War, continual looking-over-his-shoulder, anxiety-ridden suffering nonetheless. And he was within living memory of the atrocities of post World War II communism. He knew very well the precarious nature of living in a small, peaceful country in the neighborhood of a historical, aggressive occupier.
But he was also influenced by years of American, conservative evangelical missionary activity. This is a world I was well versed in. Indeed, my own connection to Estonia began as an importer of a particular way of understanding Christian faith. In 2015, I was still in the early stages of reckoning with that approach to faith and my relation to and place within it. My conversation with this old acquaintance gave me a sobering clarity to all this.
We ran into each other randomly on the sidewalk, and I had to remind him who I was. After his memory was jogged, we had a fun conversation about the summers we spent together and our lives in the years since. Once the conversation began to subside, he asked that I pray for his country and the Christians in it, because he was afraid there were dark days ahead. Of course I nodded my head and assured him I would, assuming his fears were about the geopolitical situation with Russia and Crimea/Ukraine. I said something like, “Yes, I followed that news last year and had Estonia in my heart throughout it all.” He realized I had misunderstood him and replied that while the Ukrainian situation was very concerning, he was more concerned with the wave of western countries legalizing gay marriage, fearing Estonia would be next.
He was more fearful of gay marriage than he was of the tyranny of Vladimir Putin.
This is the tragedy of American Evangelical Imperialism. It preaches a gospel of fear-of-the-other rather than a Jesus who sides with the oppressed. It victimizes aggressors and marginalizes victims.
This morning, on Estonian Independence Day, I pray to a God whose heart is with the people of Ukraine, Estonia, Russia, and all within the tyrannical reach of a strongman who only understands the language of power. It’s the same God whose heart is also with trans kids in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere who are within the tyrannical reach of strongmen who only understand the language of fear, shame, and “othering” those who lack power and visibility.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, bring justice.
Lord, bring peace and inclusion.