It is hard to deny that for a political anorak like me the last few months have been riveting. You have that sense of living through the kind of thing that my successors as undergraduate historians could be writing about in centuries to come. There are, of course, a couple of down sides- occasionally I need to get some work done and I am acutely aware that this has the potential to cause real problems in people’s lives. And apparently not everybody finds it interesting!
But what are we to make of it as Christians? I’ve struggled to write on Brexit, partly for fear of antagonising half the church but principally because the Christian position is not easy to determine. On one point though the Bible’s worldview is clear: it is inherently suspicious of grand narratives that ignore God, as though humans are able to provide peace and prosperity on their own. The story of the tower of Babel would simply be one example of that. It is why we need to be cautious about the great claims of either Brexiteers or Remainers. You can make a case for Brexit in terms of local accountability for law making being a good thing- but please don’t pretend that to extricate ourselves from forty years of economic attachment to the European Union will be painless for people, potentially those who are poorest. On the flip side though remainers need to be decidedly wary of extolling the virtues of the European Union. The single currency project reeks of a hubris that has sacrificed the younger generation of much of southern Europe. And any way of avoiding Brexit (via a second referendum for instance) will inevitably lead to some who are marginalised within this country feeling increasingly voiceless. The bottom line is that there is no pain free or ideal way out of our current impasse. The world is too complex and broken for humans always to get what we want.
It should not have required the Brexit dilemma to reveal the dangers of political hubris though. In the early part of the century, the US and UK shared a foreign policy that argued that through military might the world could be won for democracy. I don’t doubt the good intentions that lay behind that view- but there was an arrogance that assumed that we could create peace. The chaos of Iraq put an end to such grand claims. And though he possessed significantly greater dignity than his successor, Barack Obama fell into the same trap. Do you remember the cry during his early campaign- “Yes we can!”? And yet Obama’s career ended with the American electorate choosing the very antithesis of what he represented.
A reflection on recent history and present events should leave the world receptive to the message of the Bible- “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” (Psalm 146:3). Indeed this may be one of those times when we observe that the Bible’s worldview is the best reflection of reality. So beware of anybody offering breezy political promises or easy solutions for we live in a fallen world that humans are not equipped to rule alone. But we need to go one stage further for, on its own, this would simply lead us to bewail our current politicians and they are too easy a target. The problem is also with us. Before Christmas I was watching yet another political discussion programme! But on this occasion one of the panellists noted that there was a fundamental difficulty with democracy. In order to get elected politicians have to make fundamentally incompatible promises of low taxation and well resourced public services. We then vote for those promises before becoming disillusioned with the politicians who unsurprisingly fail to deliver their impossible task. But the fault is ours for insisting on such daft promises in the first place. The human race cannot save itself.
It is not that Government itself is wrong. It is simply that it needs to be realistic about what it can achieve. I would gladly vote for a politician who said something like this- “We live in an evil world so we do need to organise a police force and an armed defence. It is our job to care for the poorest in society so we do need to resource certain public services and social welfare. That does require us all to contribute taxation. These are the limits of our ambitions because we are creatures and not God.” I reckon that gets closest to the spirit of Romans 13 and Proverbs 31:1-9 (and is incidentally why I never feel entirely at home on either the left or right of politics). On Brexit, a Christian is entirely free to be in favour of either leave or remain- but always with the realism that neither represents a perfect utopia. For the Christian trusts not in leaving or second referendums, in Corbyn, Johnson or May. The Christian knows that an ideal world awaits the return of Christ and, in the meantime, we look to God. Psalm 146 continues: “Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth.”