Picture credit: Megan Trace
Yesterday evening, Theresa May’s Brexit deal was decisively rejected by MPs in the heaviest defeat of any government in the democratic era (230 against, including 118 Conservatives). We are entering a period of turmoil: nobody knows what will happen, and so far no consensus has emerged. Will the Prime Minister survive today’s confidence vote? Can she secure any further concessions from the EU? Will she bring back her deal to be voted on a second time? Will MPs find a way to secure a Norway-style or ‘softer’ Brexit (and would the EU agree to such a proposal)? Will there be a second referendum? Will the UK leave on March 29 without a deal at all? Uncertainty reigns.
The coarsening of political discourse
One thing, however, is certain. Over the last two and a half years, Brexit has caused deep division across the UK, contributing to the coarsening of our political discourse. In recent weeks, we have seen political protests turn into intimidation and abuse. Pro-Brexit supporters verbally attacked pro-Remain figures such as Anna Soubry, surrounding her and yelling ‘traitor’ in her face; on other occasions they chanted ‘Anna Soubry is a Nazi’. Politicians and the media have also used violent and divisive language. In October, newspapers carried quotes from unnamed MPs claiming that Theresa May was ‘entering the killing zone’ and that she should ‘bring her own noose’ to a meeting. In the media, newspaper headlines have used the language of ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’, whilst those who argue for leaving the EU without a deal have been called ‘wicked’, ‘extremists’ and ‘cultists’.
This is a wider problem than just politics: increasingly, contact between people who hold opposing views is characterised by either a refusal to engage, or by violent and inflammatory language. We increasingly seem to regard those with whom we disagree as not just wrong, but ill-intentioned, malicious or even evil.
What we appear to have lost is respect for conscience: ‘a person’s moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one’s behaviour.’ Freedom of conscience is guaranteed by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet increasingly, as manifested in the Brexit debate, we are finding it difficult to respect the role of conscience in our politics. Instead, we assume bad faith and call those with differing views ‘traitors’ or ‘wicked’.
Paul’s letter to the Romans
The role of conscience is an important theme in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In chapter 14, Paul addresses a controversial topic of the day: attitudes to food. This was a contentious issue in the early church, and is raised several times in the New Testament (Acts 10 and 15; 1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14). This was at least partly because the early church was a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles. There were several ways in which Jews lived distinctively different lives, and one of those was diet, food being categorised as clean and unclean according to Old Testament law. For this reason, as we learn from Paul’s letter, some Christians thought it important to continue to eat a restricted diet – and this created tensions with other Christians who were willing to eat everything.
What is perhaps surprising about Paul’s response to this controversy is that, rather than simply stating his opinion, he instead emphasises the importance of conscience for each individual Christian. All Christians are under God (v. 4; 10-12), and therefore Paul states that each Christian is given individual responsibility to make choices about what they eat according to their conscience (v. 14; 23). Paul instructs the Romans not to despise or pass judgement on each other for their choices based on conscience. He applies the same principle to differing attitudes to the Sabbath: each Christian should act according to conscience, honouring God (v. 5-6).
Paul, however, goes further. Not only are individuals to be respected for the decisions they make based on conscience, but their scruples should affect the choices of others: “for if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (v. 15). This is radical: not mere tolerance of others’ decisions based on conscience, but changing behaviour in order to demonstrate self-sacrificial love. This is the kind of love that Jesus was speaking about when he said: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Despite the Church’s many failures to respect conscience throughout history, Paul’s words have a great deal of wisdom for today as we think about the Brexit debate, especially as the clock continues to tick and the debate becomes ever more fractious.
A first step would be to respect conscience, and to assume that those with whom we disagree are acting in good faith. Rather than using terms such as ‘wicked’ or ‘traitor’, we should instead respect people with different views – because they too are arguing from their own convictions based on their conscience. Indeed, respect of conscience is fundamental to a democracy which recognises that every citizen can participate in politics.
More radically, Christians need to consider what the ‘way of love’ looks like in our particular context. As we saw in Paul’s teaching, Christians should not only tolerate other people’s conscience, but seek to live our lives in a way that demonstrates the self-sacrificial love of Jesus in our relationships. In Rome in the first century this meant making dietary choices that showed love to others. What might it mean for us in the UK in the 21st century?
Andrew Phillips is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. He graduated from Oxford University, with a BA in Classics and Biblical Hebrew.