by Jonathan Tame, 17th June 2016
(This was originally a talk given at Christchurch in Guildford on 9th June last week)
How do we think biblically about the Referendum on June 23rd? What perspective does our faith give us as we weigh up the arguments for remaining in or leaving the EU? There are sincere Christians on both sides of the debate, who draw on biblical principles to support their case. So how do we go about this decision? Others have done a good job of critiquing the arguments from a biblical perspective; what I want to do is try and think about the way we look at Britain’s membership of the EU. The following is the fruit of some theological reflection, in the form of five lenses which I believe are vital to consider when voting in the Referendum.
In Luke 1:3 we read that the gospel writer carefully investigated the reports about Jesus so he could write an orderly account. We likewise should bring order by studying the context, investigating the facts and asking the right questions. The first question to ask is, what is the European Union for? The founding purpose of the ‘European Project’ was to achieve vital political ends by economic means. The project was started with the overriding goal to prevent European nations from going to war again, initially by sharing sovereignty of their coal and steel industries, and later by creating a common market. As the economic benefits were supposed to be secondary, it’s not appropriate to evaluate the success of the EU in economic terms; instead it should primarily be judged on its political achievements.
Romans 12:18 says, ‘As far as it depends on you, live at peace with all people.’ The political goal to establish lasting peace with our neighbours is a clear Christian duty. Although we have enjoyed an unprecedented 70 years of peace, in substantial part due to the EU, the possibility of returning to conflict is always there, because human nature remains fallen. Over the last decade, the financial crisis, a long recession, the increase of Islamic extremism and the migration crisis from the Middle East have helped fuel the rise of populist nationalism. One danger to the security of Europe is arguably the resurgence of nationalist movements and the possibility of a return of fascism, following an economic crisis as happened in the 1930s. Another significant danger is from Russia, which tends to exploit any weakness in the EU, by destabilising the Baltic states or Moldova, as it did in Ukraine last year.
Question: What impact would Brexit have on the overarching goal of maintaining peace in Europe through cooperation, solidarity and interdependence? How well could Britain do that from outside the EU? Alternatively, will remaining in the EU draw us down a path towards an increasingly unaccountable European superstate?
Along with all other human institutions, we should view the EU through the Creation-Fall-Redemption lens of a biblical worldview. In a nutshell, this states that all things in the world, not just human beings but also the things we have made, including culture and society, have an element of creational goodness to them. At the same time, all things are corrupted and distorted by evil through the Fall, although this does not obliterate original creational goodness; they coexist, like the wheat and tares growing up together in the parable. Finally, all things have been brought into the sphere of redemption through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and the church has been entrusted with the mission of announcing his salvation and ministering his redemption. In the light of this worldview perspective, we should neither imagine the EU is the source of political or economic salvation in Europe, nor should we view it as inevitably corrupt and doomed to fail. Instead, we should acknowledge that it has potential for good or ill. For years, national politicians and parts of the media have been blaming the EU for domestic problems at home. In the present referendum debate, it has become a scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in the eyes of some, while others over-praise it for achievements it cannot claim by itself. Both are misleading.
Question: Are the Brexiteers right to see the EU as being beyond redemption? And how much are the Remain supporters swayed by an unrealistic optimism about what the EU can achieve? Is a Brexit more likely to lead to positive reform of the EU or less?
The Referendum debate has argued over sovereignty, trade, security, immigration, policing and the economy. Yet from a biblical perspective, all these issues are played out in the context of relationships. Jesus explained that the whole of the Law and Prophets – which governed ancient Israel’s national life and institutions – could be reduced to an overriding commitment to love, or right relationships (Matt 22:37-40). This should influence all our dealings as well. We can view the EU essentially as a relational enterprise – deliberately creating interdependence between countries. So how would Brexit affect our relationships with people from other European countries – at the personal, corporate, institutional and governmental levels? The EU is not one homogenous mass – it is a collection of diverse states, each with their own needs and interests, whose government representatives negotiate to balance their national interests with the common good of the whole EU; that is what the art of politics is about. However, the campaigns on both sides seem to assume that it doesn’t matter what difference our decision makes to the other countries we have bound ourselves to by treaty. The danger of deciding on the basis of narrow personal or national self-interest is to overlook a whole range of possible consequences to the other parties in this set of relationships – which could then rebound on us. History is replete with unintended consequences.
Question: Are we thinking about this in terms of narrow self-interest, or are we making the decision to remain or leave relationally? Are we concerned about how we benefit other nations, or only about what we get out of our EU membership?
Almost everyone agrees that the EU is in something of a crisis. It’s facing immense pressure from the disadvantages of the euro for countries like Greece, massive government and corporate debt, a lack of tools for dealing with the next financial crisis, threats from Russia, the migration crisis and the risk of terrorism. These problems are shared to some extent by all the countries in Europe. Confronting these requires vision, leadership and a strong commitment to the common good and shared goals.
When any relationship that really matters gets into trouble, it’s vital for everyone’s energy to go into finding ways to solve the problems and rebuild trust; however if one party entertains the possibility of breaking away, their energy then goes into working out how to get out with minimal loss. This is why marriages, covenants and treaties are so important in a fallen world: they make it harder to walk away from troubled relationships, and help provide the discipline to work through conflicts and build stronger, more enduring and fruitful relationships – whether that is between a husband and wife, between groups of people or between sovereign nations.
Question: Over the last couple of decades, have the Eurosceptics been right to put their skills and energies into leaving the EU, rather than contributing to solving its problems? Or is it the remain camp who are unable to recognise that the dysfunctions in the relationship between Britain and the EU have brought us to the point of no return?
God distributes gifts to different members of the body of Christ (Eph 4:7-13) so they can serve and build each other up. The Bible also suggests that nations are endowed with unique cultural gifts, which will be brought into the age to come (Rev 21:24,26), but for now are intended for serving other nations. What does it mean for Britain to be a blessing to Europe? In the past we helped defeat the tyranny of Nazism, contributed to the evangelisation of the continent, and brought our healthy scepticism and inventiveness into EU decision-making.
How will Britain’s calling to bless the nations be expressed going forward? Arguably it is the followers of Jesus who will determine the answer to that question for our nation: we have a theology of servant leadership, a Church that transcends national and ethnic boundaries, and we serve the God who transforms hearts, turns enemies into friends and calls his people salt and light to the nations.
Question: Is our calling to bless and serve the nations more likely to happen by pulling away from the EU or by remaining inside? And what difference would it make to the church and the spread of the gospel if Britain were to leave the EU?