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.
Brexit and the Creation mandate
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?