During his recent visit to Armenia, Pope Francis spoke of the need for Christians to be active peacemakers in the midst of conflict. Peacemaking, he said, requires reconciliation, and an effort to “heal memories and bind up past wounds”.
On the flight back to Rome, a journalist asked him whether the Church owed LGBT people an apology, especially in light of the recent terrorist attack at the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 were killed and 53 injured. In response, Francis said: “I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally.” He also said that Christians should apologise to other marginalised groups: the poor, exploited women and children, divorced families.
The aftermath of the Orlando attack has been extremely divisive. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, congratulated himself for predicting further Islamic terror attacks, and renewed his call for a blanket ban on Muslim immigration. Trump also insisted – falsely – that Muslims do not cooperate with law enforcement to turn in suspected radicals.
While many conservatives, including influential Catholics, rejected Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, most agreed that the attack should be seen primarily as the work of radical Islamic terrorists, and that the primary response should be to step up attacks on ISIS.
Democrats, however, connected the attack with the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States, including the massacre of 26 at an elementary school in Connecticut, and an attack at a cinema in Colorado that killed 12 and injured 70. Despite repeated mass shootings, Republicans have so far resisted any new gun regulations.
In response, Democrats called for banning gun sales to anyone on a terror watch list, and staged a filibuster in the Senate and a sit-in protest in the House of Representatives. However, even strong advocates of better gun control have questioned the Democrats’ use of terror watch lists, which lack any due process or oversight by the judiciary.
Within the LGBT community itself, the attack is seen by many as the worst hate crime in the movement’s history. This was exacerbated by an apparent coincidence: a few hours after the shooting in Orlando, police in Los Angeles arrested James Wesley Howell, who had automatic weapons and an improvised explosive device in his car. According to early reports, he intended to target the Los Angeles LGBT Pride festival; law enforcement sources later backed off from that claim, and now say they are unsure of his intentions. As a precaution, hundreds of additional police officers were deployed to secure the festival.
In the weeks following the attacks, security has been increased at LGBT nightclubs and Pride events around the country. While the added security may help to save lives, it also serves as a regular reminder of vulnerability. In the aftermath of the attack, most of my LGBT friends – including those who strive to follow Church teaching – reacted in a way I have not seen since 9/11. The attack made us feel profoundly vulnerable, even if we don’t go to nightclubs or Pride parades.
When my mother and I spoke about homosexuality and the family at the World Meeting of Families last year, the room was filled to overflowing and the question-and-answer session ended up stretching over two hours. Many of those who spoke had experienced terrible rejection at the hands of parents or pastors.
We listened, heartbroken, to their stories. No child should be kicked out of his or her home for being gay. No priest should yell at a teenager who seeks support in his struggles with sexuality. And saying so did not compromise any Church teaching. For many in the audience, it was the first time that anyone speaking for the Church in any official capacity had agreed that they had been treated badly, and apologised that they had not been accompanied pastorally as Pope Francis has called for.
Much of the response to Orlando has been defined by the established partisan divisions of American politics. And so, instead of bringing us together, this horrible attack all too easily leads us into deeper conflict.
The Pope invites us to embrace a different approach, to become peacemakers who are “actively engaged in building a culture of encounter and reconciliation”. In my experience, effective encounter requires listening and being listened to. In a healthy disagreement, neither of us should force the other to deny our experiences or surrender our deeply held convictions.
This may sound nice in theory, but the reality is more complicated. Peacemaking is messy, and often can only be learned by trial and error. It requires actually encountering and accompanying those we disagree with or do not understand.
Luckily, the next few months will offer us all plenty of opportunities to learn peacemaking, if we will respond to the call. And as difficult as it can be, we will also be surprised to discover that some on the “other side” are working for peace, too.
Ron Belgau is co-founder of the group blog Spiritual Friendship