Pain of Sweden's 'peace wounded'

THE SAME prayer will be heard in all of Sweden's 3,300 churches today. Bells will ring across the nation, followed by a minute of silent prayer. For the the Church to assume such a role in this least church-going of nations is something that has not happened here in living memory; but then Sweden has never before lost so many in one accident.

Yet this turning to the Church, is a natural extension of a trend already present in Sweden before disaster struck in the Baltic: an increasing introspection, even an identity crisis.

Unlike Britain, Sweden has no experience of losing thousands on a battlefield in a single day. With its policy of neutrality enshrined in law, it stayed out of both world wars, and concentrated instead on building a welfare and safety network that was supposed to keep Swedes out of harm's way forever. That welfare and safety system has now been shaken to its core.

'As someone said the other day, we in Sweden are the 'peace wounded',' said Ingmar Strom, Bishop Emeritus of Stockholm. And this has a curious consequence, he says. 'We don't talk about death in Sweden, especially not with children. But when something like this happens, it lifts the taboo.'

It was with the assassination of Olof Palme, the prime minister, on a Stockholm street eight-and-a-half years ago that things began to change here, and people were confronted with violent death in public life.

'There are signs that questions about the meaning of life are coming more to the fore,' said Mr Strom. 'Today all the newspapers have op-ed pages that reason about existential questions.'

Or as Henrik Larsson, a theology graduate from Uppsala University, who has worked in church and social democratic movements, put it: 'In the 1960s and 1970s, we thought we could build our way out of evil. The debate was entirely political: it was about equality, work, social conditions.' Those calm, rational assumptions have been shattered.

Over the past week, remembrance services have been held nightly in churches across the country. Dog collars, otherwise rarely sighted, have been much in evidence in crisis centres and television studios. 'That does not mean that the Swedes have grown more Lutheran,' said Mr Larsson. 'It just means that they need something to turn to when the nation becomes unhinged.'

Most Swedes are born into the state Lutheran Church, and have to apply in writing to leave it. Yet only an estimated 4 per cent attend church services regularly. 'In previous centuries, people were able to get angry with God when a disaster like this happened,' said Mr Strom. 'Now, nobody believes, so they desperately try to find a scapegoat somewhere - some poor chap in the shipping line or whatever. I think it is far better to direct your anger towards God, fate or whatever you like, than at some scapegoat.

'In the Swedish farmsteads in the old days, dead people were dressed up and placed in the room, and children were able to go and say goodbye to them. They may have been sad, but at least they understood that death was part of life.'

This is a traumatic autumn for the Swedes in more ways than one. Nine days before the ferry disaster, they voted in a landmark general election; and in six weeks' time, they must vote again in a referendum - on membership of the European Union - that may change Sweden forever.

That the Swedes should have chosen to return the Social Democrats to power after three years of Conservative-led rule is not irreconcilable with an increasingly spiritual approach to life. 'The social Darwinism that has characterised the Conservative government policies - that the strongest will survive and the weakest will have less and less support - is what people want to get away from,' said Mr Strom. 'It is seen as a betrayal of humankind.'

The feverish searching for individual scapegoats in the shipping line, in the authorities or among the crew of the Estonia is evidence that Swedes have difficulty accepting that disasters are a natural part of life. 'If there had been an earthquake, people would also have found a way of claiming it was the fault of the authorities that are there to protect them,' said Mr Larsson. 'We have no experience of so many of our next of kin dying in one go. Now at least 10,000 people in Sweden know somebody who perished.'

The disaster has seen the creation overnight of thousands of 'crisis groups' - involving social workers, clergy and psychotherapists. The idea of the groups came to Sweden from Norway a few years ago, after some Swedish schoolchildren died on a bus journey to Norway.

Mr Strom believes that the acceptance of the church as a place of solace, even for those who have never attended a service, could become 'a new shape of life' in Sweden. 'They associate the room of the church with reflection and meditation. It is the only place to be near death in a natural way.'

But no one can tell whether he is right. Over time, Swedes may turn their thoughts back to unemployment, running at more than 10 per cent, and to the need to reduce overspending on social benefits.

The vicar of Hedvig's church in Norrkoping - which lost 56 pensioners on Estonia - summed it up by her choice of hymn at the first remembrance service last week. The first line of the hymn is: 'Just one day, one moment at a time.' The Rev Kerstin Myhr Ekstrom explained: 'That is what it's all about. Taking it one day at a time.'

(Photograph omitted)

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