Is post-Brexit reconciliation even a possibility?
The immediate aftershocks of the success of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum in the UK have been wide-ranging and surprising. Political careers have been ruined, intergenerational tensions have been stirred, and there has been an upsurge in reports of racist incidents.
The closeness of the referendum result (51.9% to 48.1%) has revealed deep fractures in opinion across every part of society, including within the Church. There have been calls for reconciliation between and by Christians on different sides of the Leave/Remain chasm, and I have seen numerous references on social media to Christians having the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ or being ‘peacemakers’. I have also seen comments by friends on social media who have advised Remain supporters to ‘get over it’ (unhelpful) or ‘to accept the result and work together to make a better Britain’ (more constructive, but not taking full account of the loss and grief felt by many Remainers).
Anyone who has read my recent blog posts or Facebook feed will know that I am a convinced Remainer. I don’t fully understand or agree with the reasons for my Leaver friends’ views, just as they don’t fully understand or agree with mine. The mere fact of the referendum has revealed very deep differences in our country (including within the Church and between Christians, many of whom have been lifelong friends), differences which have been exacerbated by the way in which much of the campaigning was fought. And the Remainers are not going to be able to ‘shake it off’ easily. Even as I write these words, a huge demonstration is taking place in London against Brexit.
So what do we do about this? Do we have anything to say to this as Christians, or are we just as involved as everyone else in the debate, with nothing distinctive to add? What does it even mean to be a peacemaker, or to have a ministry of reconciliation, when we’re just as divided on this matter as everyone else?
A model of reconciliation developed by American Mennonite Christian and Professor of International Peacebuilding, John-Paul Lederach, might help us. In the 1980s he worked on peace-making projects in Central America, and his work was used in reconciliation initiatives between Israel and the PLO, and also in Northern Ireland. He based his model on Psalm 85, which can be read as a cry to God by a people in distress, and specifically using v10, “truth and mercy have met together; peace and justice have kissed”. [i]
In situations of conflict and resolution, Lederach argued, all four of these are necessary. Truth is needed in order to establish (as far as possible) what exactly happened, and who did what to whom. But on its own, it leaves people vulnerable and accused. Mercy, with its associated ideas of compassion and grace, brings the possibility of forgiveness and restored relationships. On its own, mercy might cover things up for the sake of a quiet life, so it needs the truth to come out, but similarly it prevents truth simply being about ‘getting even’. No wonder they need to ‘meet together’. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wherein people were pardoned as they told the truth about what they had done, is a good example of this. In the same way, justice is concerned for human rights, equality and removing the sources of the conflict, along with restitution. But it could lead to further disputes and conflict if it is not accompanied by peace, that is, a commitment to working it out together without again resorting to violence. They truly need to ‘kiss and make up’. Lederach suggests that all four are necessary for long-term reconciliation in conflict situations. One has to deal with the past, through truth and mercy, exposing what has happened and letting go in favour of renewed relationships. And one also has to look to a hopeful, alternative future (as in Psalm 85:11-13), through justice and peace, righting wrongs alongside a vision for a common, shared future.
So what could post-Brexit reconciliation look like, if we used Lederach’s model? Bearing in mind that I write this as a Remainer, and a Leaver reader might object to my reading of the situation, here’s a suggestion. [ii]
Truth gets bent during political campaigns. Each side tries to make the best case for its position and to undermine the opposition. Spin and selectivity are taken for granted. But for many, the egregious misrepresentation of Brexit leading to £350m per week becoming available for the NHS and the (hastily-withdrawn) promise that Brexit would lead to drops in immigration rankle within the Remain camp and with many beyond it. Unless and until these are owned and admitted by Leavers as falsehoods, and their perpetrators held to account in the court of public opinion, truth is not being done.
This one is tricky. We all want to be the merciful ones. It makes us feel good about ourselves. If all that Remainers do is offer to be merciful to Leavers who admit to the lies I list above, this will rankle and come across as patronising. And that will not do. But if we recognise that our English word ‘mercy’ is used to translate the Hebrew word hesed, which has also been translated as ‘loving-kindness’, then maybe we have a starting point. Passions and frustrations are still inflamed; but maybe a bit more kindness, a bit more of an attempt at mutual understanding, will get us somewhere.
A sense of injustice seems to have motivated many in the post-industrial heartlands of Wales and Northern England to have voted to Leave. Whether one thinks they were right or wrong to do so, it’s what they did. What the referendum result has done is highlight the sense of impotence and neglect felt by many in these communities. A sense of injustice breeds all kinds of resentments and grievances. Whatever else we do, the UK church can unite behind a mission to bring dignity and purpose to people in these communities, to work alongside those whom we so often overlook. The very recent death of Bob Holman, whose faith motivated him to do just this in Glasgow’s neglected Easterhouse estate, serves to highlight a life that is an example and rebuke to many of us.
Peace is the goal, the end point. But it is also a starting point. The ‘peace process’ began in Northern Ireland with a ceasefire. Peace gives space for truth, mercy and justice to grow. I have not been peaceful this week. I have been angry and upset by the result of the referendum, and by the mendacity that (it seems to me) did so much to produce that result. I have expressed this anger and frustration on social media. It needed to get out; but now it needs to go away. I am cross (understatement!) with those political leaders who produced this outcome. But I recognise that others are happy with it (just as they must recognise that I am not). And so, now I need to be a person of peace. Recognising that I may be about to make myself a hostage to fortune, I will now seek to speak peace, not anger and frustration. Not because it’s all over, but because I need to play my part in bringing truth, mercy and justice to the foreground.
And maybe then we can begin to talk about reconciliation.
[i] This reads differently to the NIV because Lederach used a Spanish Bible (as he was in Central America). The Douay-Rheims translation (Roman Catholic) has this translation in English.
[ii] If you do object, please feel free to come up with your own suggestions. Reconciliation will only be possible if you do. We need to hear each other on these matters.