In September, the Kjalarnes deanery of the national church of Iceland held a conference titled Peace and Conflict Resolution. Present were two special guests, Dr. Rodney Peterson of the Boston Theological Institute and Dr. Raymond Helmick of Boston College, and they lectured about their special field, social reconciliation and social healing. Dr. Peterson and Dr. Helmick have both studied social reconciliation as scholars, and they have also participated in the real process in places such as Northern Ireland, the Middle East and the city of Boston.
They analyse the process of social reconciliation and healing using four key concepts: forgiveness, reconciliation, restorative justice and community. I can just hear readers saying “OK, that’s fine, that’s beautiful!” in a cynical way. It looks too idealistic at first glance. But these concepts can help us to understand how the groups we belong to might choose to act in the wake of conflict with another social group.
In the conference, it caught my attention that some Icelanders tended to find examples of social reconciliation and healing in the recent history of the Middle East or Sri Lanka, but not in their own experiences in Iceland. I remembered a wise old saying: “It is easier to love the whole world than to love one’s neighbours.” So I would like to point out one local example that fits into the framework of social reconciliation: the “gay” issue.
During the recent debate about the legal status of gay people in Iceland, and whether they may be married in church or not, there was a lot of conflict. Fortunately there was no physical violence, but a sort of violence of words took place. Many people were hurt spiritually, and many human relationships were torn.
Ultimately, the synod of the Icelandic church recommended an ongoing effort to examine the issue theologically. But another important thing here is that one would hope to see some kind of reconciliation and healing follow the conflict, but it has not yet taken place.
I would like to make it clear that I am not trying to bring up the issue of what is the right or the wrong doctrine for the church. I would like you to remember the fact that many were hurt during the debate.
Many gay people and their supporters left the church during these debates. Some announced their departure in public, and some others just left. I know some of them personally and I could see anger, disappointment and irritation among them, but most of all, sadness. Those who sit on the other side were wounded, too. I mean those who were not willing to support expanded rights for gay people. I am sure that they had reasons not to. They got harsh criticism from society, which must have been tough for them.
There were people in a third position and I myself was among them. These people were inside the church and yet supported the gay people. We, those in this third party, faced criticism from debaters in the church. We had to endure criticism from the gay peoples’ side, too, because they often saw us only as a part of the establishment they were trying to change or fight. I think that there were also people who tried to use the dispute in order to criticise the church, quite apart from its attitude to gay peoples’ rights. I have to confess that it was a really hard time for me, and I felt angry and sad. Many must have hoped for more effort towards reconciliation and healing. But since the dispute ended, not enough has been done.
On the day of the Gay Pride festival in Reykjavík in August, a Rainbow Mass was held in Hallgrímskirkja church with many participants. It might have been a kind of symbolic event to mark a reconciliation between the church and the gay community. But one of the essential conditions of reconciliation is to forgive and to be forgiven, and this has not happened yet.
Icelandic society can go ahead, of course, without making any effort towards reconciliation between the church and the gay community. But we should know by now that a cease-fire with no reconciliation usually leads to more conflict in the future. Memories of hurt, distrust, suspicion and hatred linger in peoples’ minds and resurface over and over. Scholars of social reconciliation and healing point out a pattern. Each side in a conflict creates its own stories of what happened, and over time they begin to see these stories as a kind of historical truth. Once two groups have created separate stories, it gets more difficult to get each to understand the other’s story or to put them back on a mutual track.
So I think now is the right time to work for reconciliation, not in a year or two. In doing so we would need to recognise that the parties involved still disagree and will continue to disagree for some time at least. What we need to concentrate on is not solving the puzzle, but showing our counter-disputants the same human respect that we show to those who are on “our side.” We should encourage all participants to recognise that they have hurt others and have themselves been hurt, too. That would allow us to take the first step in reconciliation: asking for forgiveness. Again, asking for forgiveness doesn’t mean giving in to the other person’s arguments. Asking for forgiveness ensures that people who disagree can live together in the same society, and can continue the discussion when the time comes to move forward again.
The final question, and my only question, is who should take the first step? Who will express their longing to be forgiven? For me, as a pastor in the national church, it seems quite clear and obvious that we, the church, should act first. Do we not teach forgiveness and reconciliation? The annual ecclesiastical council is coming up now, in October. I hope that the church will use this opportunity to take the first, brave step towards reconciliation with the gay community.