This week I continue my series reflecting on essays in a recent publication of the Irish Peace Centres, Studying Faith, Practising Peace. The chapters in this volume are what graduate students in theology in Ireland came up with when asked to address the following question: ‘Do theological studies make a tangible and practical contribution to peace on the island of Ireland?’
Today’s essay is written by Jayme Reaves, who is nearing the end of her doctoral studies at my school, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast (the Irish School of Ecumenics). Her doctoral work, supervised by Dr David Tombs, is titled ‘An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Hospitality for the Purposes of Peacebuilding and Reconciliation.’
Reaves’ volume in this work draws on her doctoral research, and is titled ‘The Holy Rite of Disagreement: Hospitality and Theological Discourse from an Abrahamic Perspective.’ In her overview and commentary of the publication, Dr Fran Porter commends this chapter as offering a way out of some of the dead ends previously encountered by ecumenism. Porter writes (p. 90):
‘I am not suggesting that the response [to conflict] is solely to follow an ecumenical path. While ecumenism is embraced by some Christians, for other believers it is considered incompatible with faithfulness. The highly contested nature of ecumenism on the island of Ireland is something that I think a few essay contributors underestimate.
Jayme Reaves’ reflections on a holy rite of disagreement offer us a glimpse of the possibility of healthy relationships that can hold disagreement, where differences are not worked out. And as wounding as that prospect (of not continuing to strive for agreement) may be to some people, for others it may be that which enables their involvement with different traditions.’
So what does Reaves’ holy rite of disagreement entail?
Jayme Reaves on The Holy Rite of Disagreement
Reaves opens her reflection with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek story about her partner’s plan to bring peace and reconciliation to Northern Ireland. He recommends setting up large ‘tea and biscuit tents’ throughout Northern Ireland and along the border, claiming that these should (p. 77):
‘be supplied with unlimited amounts of free tea and biscuits for as long as necessary. … No one can turn down free tea and biscuits … So people from all sides of the community will come from the free tea and biscuits, and then they’ll sit down and have a chat and actually get to know one another. They don’t have to agree, but they at least might actually hear what the other side has to say. Viola! Peace through PG Tips and jammie dodgers!’
As whimsical as the giant tea tents may sound, Reaves recognises a plausible sentiment around this less than serious suggestion. She thinks it’s necessary to create spaces where people can talk with each other safely and civilly – about tough issues of religion, politics and identity.
Next, Reaves writes about historical examples of inter-faith dialogue between people from the Abrahamic religions. She describes it this way (p. 78):
‘Historically, the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam prized their theological discussion, debate and dissent with one another, considering the theological inconsistencies and the working out of such ideas as a sacred and religious discipline. Those considered most faith and authoritative were those who engaged in dialogue with others, who participated in a holy rite of disagreement, not as an attempt to convert but in the deep belief that God was so great that merely one person could not grasp the entire truth. Inherent in this is humility and an acknowledgement that one person or community does not have all the answers. There was the recognition that one needed the other to test one’s ideas, and welcoming the other into one’s space was part of this desire to know God more fully. To disagree was not to reject but to engage with the other, and in that engagement there is the recognition that one could not walk away unaffected.’
Summing up her examples of how this happened historically, she describes it as ‘welcoming the ideas of other traditions other than one’s own in order to enhance one’s understanding.’
But Reaves says this does not require everyone to change their minds, hold hands, and agree about everything. That’s not the point. She concludes:
‘The heritage that lies before us within theological studies is diverse, and peace is not necessarily contingent upon agreement. If theological discussion were conducted in the way they were carried out historically, then there is tremendous potential for theological studies to provide a model for and contribute to peace on the island of Ireland and, let’s think big here, throughout the world. So pitch the tents and put on the kettle. There’s work to be done.’
It’s a compelling vision – seeing civil dialogue and the ability to disagree peacefully as an embodiment of hospitality. It does make me wonder if an agreement to disagree could be ultimately paralysing, for example what if opposing groups are unable to ever compromise about key issues which need action or coherent policies?
But ultimately I think the aim is that the relationships built up through this practice of hospitality can eventually compel previously antagonistic groups towards honourable compromises. And that’s something to drink (tea) to.
(Image sourced on flickr photosharing, by Bright Meadow)