Taking sides on Brexit

by Jonathan Tame, 29th January 2019

We’ve been asked to end a relative radio silence from Jubilee Centre about Brexit, ever since Mrs May came back from Brussels with a negotiated exit deal with the EU in November. What is a Christian response to the bewildering parliamentary pantomime we’re currently watching of MPs trying to deal with Brexit?  And is it possible to think biblically about all this in any constructive way?

It should go without saying that the first and greatest Christian imperative is to pray for our government and MPs, for this is surely one of the most difficult and challenging times in recent British political history. We should pray especially for the Prime Minister whose predicament, in leading Britain out of the EU with a minority government of a hopelessly divided party, in a framework of fixed term parliaments, and having enshrined the leaving date in law, makes David Blaine’s escapes look like child’s play.  In the office we have started using the wonderful prayer that is said by the Chaplain to the Speaker at the start of business each day in the House of Commons.

As I have considered the divisiveness of Brexit, I’ve been reflecting on the tribe vs nation tension through the Old Testament. Israel grew as a nation from the family of Abraham, but was divided into 12 ancestral tribes. After their deliverance from Egypt, a rift began to emerge when some tribes wanted to settle on the ‘wrong’ side of the Jordan (Numbers 32). A compromise was made, and Moses permitted the Reubenites, Gadites and half tribe of Manasseh to stay put on the east of the river provided their fighting men accompanied the other tribes until the whole land was subdued. This was later put to the test when the minority tribes built an imposing altar once they had returned home – but civil war was averted through careful listening and the art of diplomacy (Joshua 22).

Around 300 years later, an atrocity by some Benjamites led to the other 11 tribes fighting against them and nearly wiping them out (Judges 20).  The 12 tribes continued to hold together until Rehoboam, the grandson of King David, rejected the pleas of the people to lighten the burden of forced labour his father Solomon had placed on them. From that day forth, the nation was split into the kingdoms of Israel (10 tribes) and Judah (the other two tribes). The division was never healed.

What did these events have in common? Each one represented a conflict between different interests, which in turn were informed by different narratives, which led to a tension between tribal and national loyalties. Until the split under Rehoboam, such conflicts were resolved by an appeal to Israel’s common national identity and vocation. 

Since 2016, the people of Britain have become divided into two new tribes: not the old tribes of class or wealth, nor the political left and right, but into Leavers and Remainers on the issue of EU membership. Each tribe has its own narrative, informing how they view the EU, the costs and benefits of membership, the nature of Brexit, and where our future economic and political hopes lie. The problem is that these narratives are threatening to eclipse the older narrative and identity around being British – which itself has lost momentum and meaning in recent decades. This leaves us in a vulnerable place.

From the title of this blog you will see that I’m going to take sides. First though, let me say something to each of the tribes. To Brexiteers, I say that yes, you won the Referendum, but if you’re honest you will know that leaving the EU must come with many costs in the short term at least – which you are hoping will be outweighed by the benefits of political and economic freedom in the long term. Your job now is to work hard to minimise those costs, and make a success of Brexit.  And when those costs begin to bite, you mustn’t blame Remainers for negotiating a bad deal. No doubt a better deal could have been negotiated, but it was always going to be limited by the time constraints of Article 50 and the realities of the Irish border. There is no perfect way to extricate Britain from 40 years of purposeful European integration without a lot of compromise. 

When the New Testament church was threatened with a split over whether the followers of Jesus had to obey the Law of Moses, the Council of Jerusalem met (Acts 15) and came to a compromise deal. The result was put in writing, and then Judas and Silas, who were perhaps on the opposite side of the debate initially to Paul and Barnabas, went with them to Antioch where the dispute had arisen, in order to explain the decision and help the church there put the new policy into practice. What they didn’t do was just sit comfortably in Jerusalem, having won the debate, and expect everyone else to get on with the consequences.

Now to Remainers, I say that in the long term it’s more important to live in a working democracy than for Britain to remain in the EU. If you try to thwart the decision of the Referendum, notwithstanding all the imperfections of the Leave campaign, then it will undermine our democracy in a dangerous way. Britain can be a successful nation inside or outside the EU; although there will be significant losses initially, you also need to work hard at making the best of a bad job, as you see it. It’s not the end of the world if we leave the EU, and you mustn’t keep blaming Brexiteers for their decision. That’s the price of living in a democracy.

So which side am I on, you may ask? I started out as a firm Remainer, convinced that Britain needed to keep working towards much needed reform of the EU. However, in recent months I have come to realise that the most important outcome is that Britain stays united as a nation, and that our democratic institutions survive this period of hard testing.

I see a profound biblical concept at play here. It’s rooted in the Creation mandate, whereby human beings were given responsibility for this amazing planet. It is developed in the way God shaped the social and political institutions of ancient Israel in the Mosaic Law. A vital element was the Israelites got to choose their own leaders and judges.  Likewise the New Testament churches were to select their own leaders – and in both cases, they had to live with the consequences, whether good or bad. So the concept is that God wants human beings to grow into the image we bear, and be self-governing, both personally and corporately. Sin is rebellion against the government of God; redemption means learning how to govern ourselves under his gracious Lordship. By being responsible for our decisions, over time we discover what goes well and what doesn’t go well with our lives, families, churches, organisations, businesses and especially our government.

I don’t want these toxic tribal fault lines around Brexit to run any deeper, so when it comes to taking sides, I’m with the narrative which seeks to strengthen our sense of cohesion as a nation, that rebuilds trust and relational capital, that works to bridge the divisions in society which the Brexit vote brought into sharp relief. This is the agenda to pursue – all the while seeking other ways to build friendship and cooperation with our European neighbours, but outside the present framework of membership of the EU. Maybe I want to have my cake and eat it? 

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January, 2019

Comments (21)

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  1. Ranji says:

    Thank you Jonathan for this refreshingly balanced and inspiring, biblically grounded reflection. The emphasis on harmony and neighbourly civility could be useful to extend to trumpian America or indeed any nation.

  2. AJ Lee says:

    Thanks, interesting. I agree with some of your points, although I would argue that God was ultimately sovereign over his creation of the nation Israel and its subsequent appointment of Kingship. In my simple head I have always seen the EU as an institution which undermines nationhood, and therefore a way of life established by God which seems to continue post new heaven and new earth (see Rev 21). I have also seen at first hand the economic suffering the EU has caused in countries like Greece and I’m far from convinced about any serious financial hit; indeed, if we did have one, it would surely be less than £39bn. Finally I think you have bought the lie that there really is a problem in Ireland/NI. There isn’t, its just being used rather cunningly for leverage. I do agree we need to come together but we need to do so based on truth. Andrew.

    • Margaret Kerry says:

      I agree with you Andrew. Also there is more to the whole issue than each side being civil and compromising.I see the division as being a shadow of the spiritual battle that’s going on.

    • Stephen says:

      Jonathan, thanks for such a thought-provoking article. Important to highlight that we really ought to pursue harmony at such a time as this. Andrew, intrigued by your assertion that there isn’t a problem in Ireland/NI. I live just north of Belfast and can confirm that a multitude are very worried about what the coming months hold for political stability and peace here!

  3. Anton says:

    The following points deserve to be kept in mind:

    * If we voted for Brexit as the EU is now, how much more would we desire it as “ever closer union” proceeds? We are not exiting a status quo but a moving train. Already a EU Army is proposed that Nick Clegg insisted would never happen and that will confuse lines of command with NATO. Who wants Britain to be reduced to part of a United States of Europe? We invented the notion of political freedom of the individual under the law (not the French revolutionaries, who Burke explained had no idea how to implement their slogans), and we still understand it much better than our trading partners on the continent – read Daniel Hannan’s book “How we invented freedom and why it matters”.

    * To get a decent deal from Brussels, we have to be willing to countenance no-deal and make sure that Brussels knows it. Who ever went into a car showroom, said to the salesman, “I *must* buy a car today”, and came out with a good deal? Much of the action in the negotiation is going to happen at the last minute. Keep your nerve – and remember that WTO tariffs, which are the worst that Brussels could impose in the event of no-deal, are probably going to be compensated by a fall in the pound.

    * The EU is on its last legs anyway as Islamic terrorism and mass migration makes unpatrolled borders unviable and the Eurocurrency finally crumbles under the tension of monetary without fiscal union. If not because of Italian debt this year, then somewhere else within a decade. I have no idea whether the conspiratorialists are correct that this tension was recognised at the start as eventually bringing a crisis that would trigger fiscal unity (ie, a superstate), or whether it was hoped that the Euro could bumble through; but the latter is false and the former impossible as “populist” (aka democratic) movements arise in multiple major EU nations. Those are the two flagship policies. Soon this controlling gravy train by which failed politicians from minor European countries tell a great continent what to do will be gone. If Britain were to stay in and take part in the elections to the European Parliament this May, then the resulting landslide of British eurosceptic MEPS together with the rise of euroscepticism in other nations could actually generate a majority in the European Parliament that would simply vote to wind the whole project up – something I would gladly celebrate with French champagne.

    * The fallen human race was divided by God at Babel using language as the means, and that is the main biblical argument against the EU.

    • Anton says:

      PS The Referendum asked a simple in/out question and kept clear of the details for the simple reason that the UK government is able to deliver the outcome unilaterally, unlike the details of a Brexit which everybody understood would involve a counterparty, namely Brussels. And we were also promised that the result would be implemented. If it isn’t, I at least would demonstrate peaceably on the streets.

  4. Colin says:

    I think this is an incredibly thoughtful and insightful article, so thank you for refocussing us. If the Christian community cannot help to steer our nation to better ways, then we have surely forgotten our calling.

    The whole debate reminds me of Joshua 5:13-14. It takes a brave Joshua to stand up to the Angel of the Lord and for Christians to essentially do the same today, on either side of the debate. This is frankly arrogance within our own thinking and we need to bow our knee as Joshua recognised. It is about His kingdom and how we extend that: not about the UK staying or leaving the EU. This is a sideshow that marginalises the Church further when we neglect our responsibility as peacemakers. I see this playing out in my own fellowship as much as between Christians from wider ones.

    BREXIT is an opportunity for the Church to put aside our own thoughts (and I have strong ones too) and reach deeper into the individual and corporate lives around us, extending love and tolerance, and particularly to those with opposite views.

    • Anton says:

      The Church of England’s bishops would do well to have your wisdom. They are all but one openly for Brexit, thereby alienating more than 50% of Anglicans according to a breakdown of the Brexit vote.

  5. Martin says:

    A balanced article, although I wonder about its conclusion. Why, biblically, is it “that the most important outcome is that Britain stays united as a nation.” Why is this the most important thing? Britishness is a complex thing. It is no older than 1707, and even then always contested. Is there a reason, biblically, why staying together as Britain is more important than staying together as the EU? I’m not saying one or the other is right, I’m just probing why Christians would necessarily endorse the absolute priority of keeping together a recently formed hybrid four-nation state? Wouldn’t 45% of Scotland say the most important thing is staying together as Scotland? Isn’t the most important thing staying together as the international body of Christ?

  6. Mike Walters says:

    Interesting program on History Channel couple of days ago about Moses the military leader and his ethnic cleansing. What a contradiction from the man who delivered the ten commandments. Anyway as for Brexit I am so fed up with hearing about Brexit I started a petition to ban the media from reporting anything but the facts. As for praying for the politicians Er no I won’t.

    • Anton says:

      You should… at any instant they are the only leaders we have, so pray that they be better leaders whether you like them or not.

  7. Andy Mayo says:

    I think your old testament analysis is really interesting, the issue of tribalism in the British Isles is not new.

    However your assertion that somehow the UK is a nation in the same way that Israel was is where this analogy breaks down fataly. Britain is not a nation in any way that is recognisably parallel to old testament Israel. That’s the problem.

    The population of Great Britain (the island) is now larger than the population of Europe in Old Testament times. It is by that measure a superstate. The very thing feared by some escatologists. The roots of the “British” hail from all four corners of the world. Forget the commonwealth, we were mixed up kids way before then.

    We are a composite superstate of tribes. You are conflating ideas by seeing a current political system (just one of many we have had over 3000 years on this island) as equivalent to the forms of leadership Israel was given. Democracy was a Greek philosophical invention. Representational democracy is a bastardised, weatherworn, grown-up, compromised, un-proportionate and disproportionate, great-grand-daughter of feudalism. Which in turn was a consequence of Norman overlordship over beaten Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which had been ravaged and then intermingled with Danish/viking systems, and which previously had overthrown the remnant Romano-British who as a Celtic nation had been ruled for 400 years from Rome (the first time the UK was Christian in any meaningful way was Roman adherence).

    If you are looking for a Christian root in the UK as a defined nation it is lost somewhere in the Welsh hills or Yorkshire where the Britons live, and frankly their Druid roots are stronger.

    The Brit-ish are not a nation, the UK is a country built of four “nations” none of which is a tribal nation proper. A similar litany of overthrow leading to the unique Scottish government and legal system runs in parallel. So the issue is one of identity. Leave and Remain are two nations by that definition. I am a Christian, British, European. My genes are from all-over, and everyone on this planet has a common ancestor born later than Jesus. I am happy to render unto Ceasar, and retain my unique identity in Christ. The rise of Nationalism is dangerous, and any conflation of that with Biblical tribal narrative is risky.

    I get you are advocating compromise, a conservative (small “c”) approach to government and reversion to the mean with respect to political process (established as we know it over no more than 190 years – rotten boroughs, female emancipation, the supremacy of the commons etc).

    I respect your proposition, however I think it is flawed.

  8. Roger Sewell says:

    The difficulty I have with this 2016 referendum is that (a) it gave only a tiny majority and (b) sticking rigidly to that outcome assumes that nobody can change their mind when given more information.

    Re (a), in the 1800s de Tocqueville wrote “On true and false democracy: representation of the people, or representation only of the majority” as the title of an essay; his point is well made, but totally unheeded by our current electoral methods.

    Re (b), it has been known at least since the days of Thomas Bayes that what we think should be modified by new data arriving – and there has been plenty of that since 2016.

    These questions are really complicated, and I am not even convinced that many of us understand the issues very well. My major regret over the whole matter is that the UK population seems unable to elect governments composed of serious thinking people as opposed to soundbite oriented performers.

    • Anton says:

      …because they are not put before us on the ballot papers.

      Both sides agreed to the rules of the game in advance of the Referendum. Only after they lost did Remainers become unhappy – a telling fact. It was known, moreover, that any withdrawal process would take more than two years, during which the situation was hardly going to be static.

    • Roger Sewell says:

      Correction: essay reference in (a) should be to John Stuart Mill rather than to Alexis de Tocqueville.

  9. Professor Andrew Henley says:

    This is a helpful piece, and I fully support your conclusion that there is an urgent need for a narrative that will strength national cohesion (but in a way that turns away, I would argue, from making an idol of national sovereignty). However the premise that this can be achieved by coalescing around a plan for Brexit is false. I say this for two reasons: the first is a political one – that the “delivery” of Brexit is likely to hasten demands for a further referendum on Scottish independence, and, depending on the form of that Brexit, likely to hasten an inevitably reunification vote in Ireland. (This will happen eventually but might not have happened in my lifetime). The second reason is a socio-economic one: that the economic and social reasons for the Leave vote in June 2016 are thought to be well understood, relating to the acute sense of being “left behind” in towns and cities across the UK away from the capital. The UK is the most spatially unequal nation of any in the developed world. However politicians since have signally failed to get to grips with these acute regional disparities. This was very foolish.

    What the June 2016 vote showed was that referenda are peculiarly bad means to reaching national decisions on important topics – because (aside from risk of manipulation by nefarious external forces) people conflate all sorts of concerns into a single cross on a ballot paper. The UK has a constitution based on parliamentary democracy – we elect individuals and trust them then to take decisions for our common good. At least that is the theory and it is a good theory for which one might draw on biblical material in support. Surely it is the breakdown of trust in politicians to behave as for the common good that is at the heart of the problem.

    One final comment on the Irish question. I fully expected in the run up to June 2016 that Ireland would become the single most difficult problem for Brexit. My view is clear – as co-sponsors of the Irish Good Friday Agreement, the people of the UK have a *moral* responsibility to remain within a minimum of the EU customs union in order to protect peace for the people of Ireland. That to my mind trumps all other political and economic considerations.

  10. Simon Teague says:

    A wonderfully balanced article. At the end of the day we must have absolute trust that our Lord is in control. He is in charge. Let His will be done so that it can restore the moral compass of our Nation and that of the EU. Let both parties and all Nations know that Christ is Lord. Let us strongly advocate and demonstrate His love. Leaving the EU does NOT have to be a divorce. It can be a friendly restructure and supportive change. This should not become an economic war or bring any threat of unrest. Let the peacemakers arise and Christs name be glorified.

  11. Doug Flett says:

    The constitution and direction of EU leadership as reflected in its publications is of a secular state intent upon the blanking of the Chistian community and faith, and tippexing-out its rich Chistian history. So biblical reasons for Brexit include – 1. Nationhood as described by commentator above. 2. Anti Christian stance of EU leaders.

  12. Colin says:

    I think I would tend to agree with the concerns outlined above re the comparison of the UK with Israel as nation states. These are fundamentally different. I think too that it misses the wider point that I made above, but equally I recognise that some Christians will not share this view and will respect that we hold these differences.

    If we are to make a comparison with Israel, surely it should be about the Christian community (Church) rather than the nation, which as a whole has little respect for God’s ways? God intended Israel to be a witness of Him into a fallen world and the conflicts between tribes did little to reveal this true rulership of which we are also image bearers. Ultimately it was a significant part of their downfall.

    Hence I feel we have little to add from a remain or leave perspective, but as an image bearer of the King of Kings how I speak about these issues and what I choose not to say to those who hold opposing views is in part how I show wisdom in a chaotic situation. If I turn on my brothers, I lose respect outside of the Church as non-Christians look on. If I behave as the world to the world then my witness of Jesus is tarnished.

    Proverbs 12:18 reminds us that “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

    As Christians we should be slow to engage in the world’s antics and ask wider questions about the Kingdom. How can I bring healing in a fallen world, even through BREXIT?

    When I get to eternity, I think there will be no talk about the UK or the EU and likewise BREXIT. If this is the case, then why do we consume ourselves in tearing each other down now, when I will spend eternity with brothers and sisters who hold a different view on this one issue?

  13. Jeannie Cobbold says:

    As Christians we have the Lord’s wisdom to seek and to pray for His will to be done. Whilst praying about how to vote in the referendum the words “unholy covenant” came into my mind concerning the EU. I voted to leave and believe that a No Deal is the answer. If this causes difficult times for Britain or the EU can’t we hope this could be when more people will cry out to God and turn to Him for help? It is so important to pray for our nation and its leaders.

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