Vol. 3 of the Series: Different Perspectives on Peace in Europe
8 May 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, which was the start into 75 years without war in many European countries. But when looking at the history of Spain one can see that the absence of war does not necessarily mean the presence of peace and unity. Continued suppression under Franco´s dictatorship and the fight for the sovereignty of the Basque country, which in its extreme form led to armed conflicts and terrorist attacks, affected the country in the decades following the end of the war. Today the Spanish state still unites several regional identities in one state and nationalist movements in some autonomous communities nonviolently claim sovereignty for their communities, which repeatedly leads to political tensions. Aiming to approach the topic of peace in all its complexity and its partly contradictory nature, the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) therefore highlights different voices from different corners of Europe on peace in 2020. As part of our series on different perspectives on the end of the Second World War and on the theme “Peace in Europe”, we met Xesús Manuel Suárez García, General Secretary of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance, for an interview, in which he answered a few questions on this topic. The Alliance has worked for many years to help Spanish Evangelicals, whatever their views on matters of nationality, to unite in prayer and to work together for understanding and peaceful outcomes.
In the light of Franco´s dictatorship and the tensions around the sovereignty of some autonomous communities, in which way can you as the General Secretary of the EA Spain relate to the theme “75 years of Peace in Europe”?
Let me start by sharing an important fact with you. The nationalist movements in the Spanish state in Euskadi (Basque country), Galicia and Catalonia claim national sovereignty for their countries, but they never intended to erect borders, on the contrary, they always advocated for eliminating state borders. In fact, in the 1930s they postulated the formation of the “United States of Europe”, while the states were preparing for war.
Spain did not participate in the WWII, but the absence of war does not mean the presence of peace and unity, indeed, among other things because neither peace nor unity can be imposed; they are the consequence of a just and free coexistence in good fellowship. During Franco’s dictatorship, which was established in 1936, there was neither justice nor freedom; there was absence of war, but not peace. I personally participated in activities against the dictatorship at the end of it and several of my friends were imprisoned and tortured. Collective and personal freedoms were seriously restricted, and these restrictions were even more severe against Evangelicals.
When democracy arrived in 1978, freedoms were restored, but the Constitution was written under the constant supervision of the army and the Catholic Church; that is why a period of transition was introduced that in some areas continues uncompleted until today; in this sense, there are still signs of discrimination against Evangelicals. The transition didn’t leave resolved the matter of differentiated national identities such as Catalonia, Galicia and Euskadi, and therefore tensions remain that need courage and vision to be finally resolved.
The problem underlying this conflict of identities lies far deeper than the mere selfish drive of these three nations to achieve economic privileges: it lies in the inability or unwillingness to understand the other, a problem of disagreement between collectives. Evangelicals in Spain have different perspectives on whether this inability occurs on one side, on the other, or on both. Positions are very far apart, there is a lot of what I denominated “political hooliganism” and little willingness to listen to the other on this issue; dialogue is replaced by positions of strength and so it is difficult to envisage a satisfactory solution.
What does the average Spaniard associate with the word peace?
The collective Spanish mentality is certainly Tridentine Catholic; in Spain even many agnostics have this mentality, a dogmatic one that does not tolerate the different and persecutes it. Unlike many other European countries, Spain has not gone through the influence of the Protestant Reformation and, therefore, finds it difficult to coexist with the differences and renounce to imposition. We Evangelicals have suffered from it from the 16th century until today. The prevalent mentality results in a tendency to understand peace as the absence of differences; consequently, there are difficulties to respect differences and live in peace with them. Peace, in this perspective, is only possible when one part imposes itself on all and suppresses the others; the special difficulties of recent governments in Spain are due to this lack of culture of coexistence of different groups, which makes it difficult to pay attention to minorities and share quotas of power. You may understand that this mentality makes it difficult to address the issue of the concurrence of different national identities.
How do the tensions around the sovereignty of some autonomous communities effect the alliance work and the relationships within your Alliance? What hindrances are you experiencing within your Alliance?
In the Spanish Evangelical Alliance we come together as believers with different perspectives on this issue of national identities and accept each other, which is rather rare, also among Evangelicals. We know about each other’s positions but avoid internal conflicts by focusing on common ground. I think, what´s most important is that we seek an open dialogue about the topic and develop an understanding for each other. And I hope we will be able to further deepen that understanding for each other in the future.
Something that also benefits our alliance work is our membership system. Despite some associated churches, members of the Evangelical Alliance in Spain are individuals with whom we have a consolidated, personal relationship based on mutual acceptance Therefore, the tensions around the sovereignty of some nations within Spain have no significant influence on the relations between members and Alliance.
Do you have any practical stories of Evangelical commitment in mind that demonstrate effectively promoted peace within your country and Alliance that you would like to share with us?
Among Evangelicals dialogue should be easy, because the conflict of national identities should be channelled through the sharing of a deeper identity, that of children of the same Father, but, as mentioned before, the reality is that dialogue on this issue is also difficult among the Evangelicals; few are sitting down before the Bible to shape their position and design ways of solution. We, as Spanish Evangelical Alliance, think that the Bible speaks quite a lot about disagreements among communities and have undertaken the difficult task to produce two statements about an appropriate response of the church to this sensitive political issue. They received general recognition from Evangelicals, and believe me, it is not so easy to get. [An excerpt of the statement on “The Church and the territorial ordering” can be read here.]
In my understanding, the Bible calls us Christians to build bridges of reconciliation in situations of conflict. But when you want to build a bridge, you have to have one foot on one side and the other foot on the other side, meaning that you need to develop an understanding for both sides. Therefore, we took the initiative of bringing together six Evangelicals from different cultural and political sensibilities at a roundtable and asking them to present their reflections based on a biblical worldview several years ago. We made some progress and we want to repeat the experience. There has not been any other forum like this in Evangelical environment, and not so many in the rest of the society, so we were pioneers in the search for solutions through dialogue.
For the last four years, the general assemblies of the Alliance have commenced with a public act outside the environment of the church. We invite several non-Evangelical speakers to a round table in which a representative of the Alliance also participates with the objective to promote an open dialogue with society. On the first occasion the assembly took place in the Basque Country and we invited politicians of various affiliations to a dialogue on the theme of reconciliation, a topic that is certainly relevant. It was a risky undertaking, but we managed to create an open atmosphere, where the speakers were able to honestly talk about the hurt on both sides and start to understand each other. It was a very satisfactory experience.
But, in my eyes, there is an even bigger threat to peace in Spain than the conflict of identities and it needs to be addressed by the Alliance, as well. I am talking about the increase of tension that affects the political class and seriously limits the possibilities of dialogue and agreement. Really this tension is not born in the political class, but it reflects the tension that exists in the general population everywhere. A change of mentality is needed; it is noticeable that Spanish society is leaving behind its attachment to the Catholic Church and people says that Spanish society is becoming more tolerant, but this is by no means the case: intolerance persists in its full harshness, the only things that have changed are the dogmas and the “priests” who issue the condemnations and excommunications. Evangelicals should be able to offer a different model that would be a reference for society, taking in mind our worldview and our culture, but we are still initiating the way here.
Spain has been severely hit by COVID-19. Does this crisis have any effects on the unity within your country and your Alliance?
COVID-19 has severely hit the population, and this has included the deaths of some Evangelical brothers and sisters, among them a dear sister, who was helping us as a volunteer in our Alliance office.
Suffering knows no national affiliation, nor does love. This crisis is producing a deepening of societal solidarity and of the fraternal bonds of believers; we will need each other to process the current traumas; for example, the demands of isolation did not allow for a proper farewell to the deceased relatives, many died alone and the family has not been able to mourn well. We will, therefore, publish a reference guide to help processing grief.
We are also thinking about the aftermath of the pandemic, which will require strengthening instruments of mutual support in the Church. According to prognoses, 20% Spaniards will be unemployed in consequence of COVID-19 and the number of people suffering from hunger will increase. As the church, we need to think ahead and establish initiatives together.
What would you want to tell other Evangelical Alliances concerning Peace?
One of the elements that most raises debate in Europe is that of the coexistence of different people. The question of national identities was crucial in the fall of the Iron Curtain; no new national identities really emerged: they had been there for a long time, but they had been drowned down; the process of the 1980s just opened windows for freedom. And was not this political recognition of national identities an instrument of peace and European construction? Let us think of the incorporation of so many Eastern European countries into this interesting process.
In the European construction, national identities, relations between the States or the integration of the immigrants are not necessarily threats to peace: they may be instruments of irresolvable conflict or instruments of construction from the fair coexistence and fellowship in freedom.
So, I propose the European Evangelical Alliance to constitute a reflection group on the subject of national identities; it is probable that within the EEA we have different sensibilities, positions and discourses, but it would be a sad collective failure if we concluded that as EEA we cannot deal with this question because we are not going to agree. We Evangelicals share a common identity that is deeper than any other; are we not able to sit down people from different national identities and cultures, to listen to each other and to build a biblically grounded common basic discourse? Few groups like ours are as capable of doing it; I firmly believe that we are capable and we must do it. The matter of how different cultural identities should coexist and produce mutual enrichment is quite relevant today in Europe. This subject includes too the question of the integration of immigration. We should not postpone our reflection and the construction of our basic shared discourse as EEA.
We believers know, no doubt, that peace is more than just non-violent cohabitation: Social peace requires the construction of a model of living together based on mutual recognition and respect, freedom and just relationships. We must combine all of them, as is described in Psalm 85.10: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed”. These are fundamental questions for the construction of Europe today. And in this we, EEA, have much to say.