Pastoral Letter – EU Referendum – Sunday 12th June 2016
On Thursday 23rd June 2016, we face a once-in-a-generation decision when as citizens of the United Kingdom we vote on whether to remain with or to leave the European Union. How as Christians should we decide on which way to vote? Is there a right or wrong decision for a Christian to make? What guidance does the bible offer us as we consider our political future?
I want to take a few moments to share with you all how my thinking has developed over the past few months as I have read and prayerfully considered the issue. I began with the gut-instinct to vote ‘Remain’, but then spent some time considering the arguments for ‘Leave’ (for which I have some sympathy), and finally have concluded that, on-balance, I still believe we should remain in the European Union.
Having shared with you my decision about how I will be voting on 23rd June, I want to emphasize that this is my considered opinion only, and that you may come to different conclusions. That’s okay – what matters is that we give the issue proper prayerful consideration, and that we don’t just cast our vote based on narrow personal interest or through fear caused by some of the scaremongering tactics of both sides!
There is a great deal of literature available with details of how the European Union works, and indeed some great articles written from a Christian perspective, but I want to consider five brief bible passages, and suggest a few theological reflections for us to consider.
- Tower of Babel: Too Big For Their Boots
In the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, we see a form of political unity in undertaking an exercise of human industry and collaboration so as to ‘make a name for ourselves’ for fear that otherwise fragmentation will occur. The venture seems to be motivated by a desire for mutual protection, but v6 has ‘the Lord’ saying that this could lead to other, more malign, mutual enterprises. This kind of political unity is perceived as being a threat to the sovereignty of God - and results in the dispersal of the people through confused languages.
- Pentecost: A Common Language
The classic reversal of the Tower of Babel is seen to occur in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Here, the languages are not unified as one by human endeavour or enterprise, but rather are united in all their glorious diversity by the action of the Holy Spirit who enables the assembled peoples to hear declared ‘the wonders of God’ each in their own tongue. The passage, and its interpretation, suggests a new community in which social, national and linguistics divisions may be overcome - but not by a common language, but rather the common bond is the koinonia (Greek word for communion / fellowship) of the Holy Spirit of God.
- Acts: The New Community in Christ
In the same chapter as the account of Pentecost, we also see the establishment of the first Christian community. Acts 2:42-47 is famously heralded as the passage which provides a Christian vision of a radical new society in which goods are held in common and distributed to each as they have need. It is a vision admired but rarely practiced!! However, it has remained important in the construction of a political understanding of ‘common goods’: resources held and shared for mutual benefit. We operate this principle in local authorities, through national government, and indeed in the European Union. Shared goods, mutuality and solidarity are commended in the bible.
- Corinthians: Members of One Body
In another important passage, St Paul reflect on what it means to be constituted as a new humanity in Jesus Christ. Central to his vision is the reality that we are inter-dependent: that is, we’re not all the same – but we all depend on and need one another for our mutual flourishing. We’re accustomed to this idea in the constitution of the church as one body made up of diverse members, but it can also inspire us to think more widely about social, economic and political inter-dependence with other nations.
- Revelation: Many Nations Gathered
Again, in the final book of the bible, the Revelation of St John, we see people of every tribe, nation and language gathered together to worship before the throne of the Lamb. The Old Testament prefigures this with its account of the the glory of different nations being bought into God’s kingdom (Isaiah 60:9, Jeremiah 10:9, Psalm 86:9). The idea is that the diverse beauty of different nations and cultures will be brought before the throne of God to celebrate his majesty over all.
1. Danger of Idolatry and Imperialism: The bible certainly warns against any power which sets itself up against the sovereignty of God. It is clear about the risk of idolatry associated with imperial powers and forces. This is an appropriate warning about the dangers of political unions ‘over-reaching’ and acting in ways which oppress and stifle local culture and expression.
2. Provisional Nature of Nations: Christians know that there is only one ultimate authority – that of the Jesus Christ. As such, all other authorities – political, economic, national – are intended to be subservient to God’s rule. Nations and political rulers rise and fall, and may be used by God for his purposes. As such, we should not seek a permanence for national autonomy or local culture – things change! Equally, we should not be given to scaremongering about change – rather we engage with the issues seriously and for the sake of enabling greater social justice, compassion and mutuality.
3. Common Good: Jeremiah 29 gives the Israelites in exile a mandate to work for the flourishing of Babylon. They are to seek its welfare. And Jesus instructs Christians to seek the welfare of all their neighbours – whether local, national or international. Common bonds and shared goods enable us to give to each as they have need.
4. Resist Economic Reductionism: Finally, we live in a society not an economy! We should certainly resist the current strain of economic reductionism which suggests that the most important question in the referendum debate is whether our economy will grow or shrink. While the questions are not unimportant, so far as they relate to employment and provision of shared goods, this verges on becoming an idolatrous approach to economic outcomes.
If I were to make one final comment, I suppose it would be to remind us that the political union of the EU was formed in the wake of two horrendous wars which tore Europe apart. The common bonds of political, cultural, trade, travel and economic co-operation make it far less likely that we will go to war against one another. This I believe is welcomed by Jesus, our Prince of Peace.
However you vote, please consider these issues prayerfully, and be generous to others who reach different conclusions from you!
With peace and love,