The cure for Brexit hypertension

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Britain collapsed into Easter, exhausted by our broken politics. Easter was a strange lull. Whole news bulletins went by without any mention of Brexit. Laura Kuennsberg had a holiday. John Bercow cleared the lobbies. Christians humbled themselves before their crucified Lord, and then celebrated his resurrection, even as we mourned the senseless murder of Sri Lankan Christians. In our church, one of our much loved members died of cancer in the early hours of Good Friday, and my daughter’s church mourned the death of a young Christian couple on holiday. These are the really great things of life and death.

Then after Easter, with a six month delay in place, and all combatants hanging on the ropes battered and bruised, we tried to build up for the next round, but it was all about St Theresa leaving the ring – when, and how soon. April and May have been the Brexit phoney war, but our national identify crisis is soon to be back upon us.

Can I then make a plea, to myself and to all my friends, to listen, and to try and empathise with the other side?

The leave and remain camps are arguing their cases for different reasons. Both do so sincerely. Where the argument goes wrong is where they try to explain the other side.

The leave argument is a constitutional case. Leave to take back control of our money, laws and borders, to renew the parliamentary life of government and shift power back from Brussels. It is to do something wholly new, radical and risky – to run ourselves, even when that is out of step with the international consensus. It is not fundamentally an economic argument, except in regard to being free traders. The bus slogan was not what it was about. It is a revolt against globalisation and a desire to pursue nationhood.

I may be wrong but I think the Remain argument is mostly an economic one. Leaving will damage the economy, which is on the precipice, jobs will go on a large scale, EU tariffs will destroy our exports. The current system works for us pragmatically so why chuck it all in the bin?  It is a view expounded by captains of industry, the CBI and the TUC. Many academics fear it will threaten their academic links with continental universities, and cut research funding. We never seem to hear any remainers saying they want to stay in the EU to gain some great influence at the heart of Europe, or because the EU is the great guardian of democratic accountability.

Is there any point in either side pounding each other with these arguments? They leave the other saying ‘So what, but….’ and flinging their counter-argument back. It is like listening to two grown men comparing football and rugby. What’s the point?

How should Christians negotiate this divide? Can I suggest we take hold of two virtues – humility and contentment – and rediscover a biblical idea we lost at the Enlightenment – a biblical understanding of nationhood.

The problem is that we are being pulled two ways, by nationalism and globalism. Nationalism idolises our nation above all others, sees us as being blessed by some kind of exceptionalism and the rest of the world ought to admire us. Classic examples are imperial Britain, Apartheid South Africa, Jim Crow American white supremacy (though the American Dream is still nationalism), not to mention the BJP in India, or the new attitude in China.

Globalism fights against nationalism, but is equally doctrinaire. In the name of progress, especially economic growth, we need to supersede borders and pursue a world order, or should that be ‘our world order’ in the west,  because globalisation looks very different if you come from Peru or Burkina Faso. Imperial languages and cultures dominate, multinational corporations overpower developing governments, or indeed any government that wants to stand up to them. Towers of Babel are built by oppression and domination, but the globalist says ‘That is the way things are now. If you can’t beat em, you’d better join em!’

Nationalism lacks humility, but so does globalism. Both of them are possessed by the same ‘but we know better’ attitude. Nations should live under God with humility, esteeming other cultures as rich and diverse compared to their own, at ease with the fact that they are just one nation of many, that nations rise and fall in God’s providence, and that we have much to learn from each other, that we are small and just passing through. ‘The Lord looks down from heaven. He sees all the children of man. From where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.’ Ps.33:13-15.

Both nationalism and globalism lack contentment. Nationalism will blame the other for all our woes, without realising that the nations of the earth have been exploring and trading with each other ever since the sons of Gomer climbed into a boat and sailed down the Mediterranean in search of other coasts (Gen. 10:3-4). Nationalists are possessed by a discontented hatefulness towards other nations that so often spills over into war. If we could only live at ease with ourselves under God, and recognise that Germans will build better cars, Italians will perform better operas, Guineans will grow the best mangoes, Indians will grow better spices and Filipinos will make better Kleenex, we could contentedly trade our whisky and Land Rovers and costume dramas and play our part in the world. But does that require us to be bound into some regional or global power block purely for economic reasons? Must we be part of the globalist juggernaut because economic growth is all that matters? If it gives us oceans filled with plastic and skies filled with CO2 vapour trails, because we think secular western wealth is everything, what have we missed? We have missed the truth that every nation should live ‘under heaven’ with humility and contentment, where our first duty is to love and worship God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to seek justice, live mercy and above all walk humbly with our God.

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‘The Crown’, the Monarchy and God

The_crown_logoOver Christmas I discovered Netflix for the first time, and enjoyed the entire first season of The Crown.[1] It is a quite remarkable piece of TV drama, most of all because of the way it explores the very basis for the British monarchy. TV dramas about the Royal family are usually cack-handedly dreadful, with ham acting, dreadful scripts and actors who look more like Bruce Forsyth than the Duke of Edinburgh. The Crown is almost entirely believable, with Lancaster House looking as opulent as Buckingham Palace, and the actors inhabiting their roles with an understated confidence and poise. It handles the death of George VI quite brilliantly (even down to the Royal embalmers!), and brings the spectacular of the coronation to life for the digital age.

What impressed me most was the dialogue in episode 4, where a frail but impressively matriarchal Queen Mary, herself with not long to live, advises the young Queen about her calling under God.

‘Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth. To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you are crowned in an abbey, not a government building. Why you are anointed, not appointed. It’s an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or public servant, which means that you are answerable to God in your duty, not the public.’

There is plenty to disagree with here, such as the dreadfully class-ridden assumption that the common people lead ‘wretched lives’, and it has to be said that the aristocracy have often provided a shocking example of debauchery and excess rather than ‘an example of nobility.’ However, behind the exalted language is a much derided idea that I think Christians need to rediscover: the biblical idea of nationhood includes the idea of kingdom rule under God. This is in stark contrast to the secular Enlightenment’s view that the people, the body politic, are sovereign, and our rulers answer to the voters above everything else. Continue reading “‘The Crown’, the Monarchy and God”

Race and the fear of the other

racismThe West needs to abandon its doctrine of race. Race is an Enlightenment category that continues to separate and divide people, and the consequences run deep and continue to make their presence felt. NFL players cannot bring themselves to stand for the US national anthem, and would rather kneel to make the point that the race divide still runs deep in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In Britain, we may not have had the history of Jim Crow laws in our past, but we have been as much to blame for the same thinking that makes race such a problem in the modern world.

The concept of race is has its roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as modern science studied and categorised other species, and sought to do the same with humans. Writers such as Adam Smith, David Hume and Emmanuel Kant held a patronising view of more primitive human societies, and all used the term ‘race’ for the first time in its modern usage (compare and contrast with Luither and Calvin, though beware of poor modern translations in English that may include ‘race’). The early years of the colonial age threw together people of widely different cultures and languages. It was also the height of the Atlantic slave trade, an evil built on the understanding that Africans were from an inferior race. Continue reading “Race and the fear of the other”

The Porous boundaries of nationhood

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‘We are going to build a wall.’

But can you? Can you really make a nation’s borders as absolute as a wall? Can a nation be sealed off in that way? Even Britain as a group of islands discovered what a border is like when Ireland was partitioned, and realised at the height of the troubles that the best guarded borders are still porous. So what are we to make of Mr Trump’s wall, and how should our thinking be shaped by what Scripture has to say about nationhood and migration?

I have mixed feelings about the Trump wall and the reaction to it. On the one hand countries have to regulate their own immigration, to prevent illegal immigration and protect national security. Those who have been running the ‘bridges not walls’ campaign need to think through the logical conclusions of their arguments. Can a country guarantee its own security without knowing who is passing through its borders? When one of their citizens goes to another country, don’t they need a passport for their own protection and identity? If borders did not exist and there were completely unregulated immigration, the overload on the big destination countries and the loss of key skills in the countries of origin would both be massive problems. That is why we have national boundaries, and controlled immigration, and why America has a rather different border with Mexico to what it has with Canada. The Trump wall is only strengthening an already heavily patrolled and fenced border, on a frontier where illegal immigration is a regular occurrence.

On the other hand, there is a fear of the ‘other’ that motivates the building of the Trump wall. Too many of America’s problems are being blamed on other countries, as though if ‘we’ could only keep ‘them’ troublemakers out, we righteous Americans could enjoy unblemished life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The UKIP segment of the Brexit vote labours under similar faulty thinking about Brexit, as though our problems can all be blamed on Europe and left to itself the British are righteous and better than the rest. That is Continue reading “The Porous boundaries of nationhood”

5 priorities for 2017

2016-2017So 2016 comes to its foundation-rattling end, and so many people want to forget it as the collective nervous breakdown in the West continues. A New Year is a moment for Christians to reflect on how we can be different in the year to come. Here are five pleas I want to make for Christians and Churches to consider putting central in the coming year.

1.  Hope in God. In the two great psalms that explore despair and hope, Ps 42 and 43, the psalm writer repeats the exhortation to himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’ At the end of the year that has seen some great political earthquakes, an appalling civil war in Syria, and massive terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, do you have real hope? I ask this because I have heard so many Christians say as the next upheaval or calamity happens, ‘But still, God is sovereign’, almost as though this is our last ditch hope. We have our own plans and our routine, and we plug on through life seduced by the certainties of a daily working routine, a stable stock market and a quiet suburban life. But when everything is thrown up in the air, whether in a referendum result, a presidential election, or the more visceral and desperate aftermath of a terror attack, then and only then do we clutch hold of the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God should not be our last and desperate refuge. He is our salvation and our God! We should be close to him, united through the daily fellowship of prayer, looking at the world as his world, and every aspect of our lives as lived for his glory. Our confidence should be in him, whatever happens, and whatever foes we face, knowing that in life and in death he is our salvation. Continue reading “5 priorities for 2017”

Will there be nations in the New Creation?

S0051361The Rio Olympic Games have finished. I love the spirit of the Olympics, the absence of the ‘winner takes all’ culture of so much competitive sport, and the ability to celebrate every level of achievement. Competitors who have just run what appear to be the most brutally competitive of races turn at the finishing line to congratulate each other as friends and celebrate the achievements even of the person who came twelfth. While the Olympic movement has its own moral challenges and can occasionally show the worst in human nature, this peaceful gathering of nations can make us look forward with longing to a much, much more glorious gathering of nations, when the redeemed gather in the New Creation.

Which raises a question: will there still be nations in the New Creation? My instinctive reaction is to say that if we will not marry or be given in marriage at the resurrection, surely nations will be a thing of the past as well. But I am not so sure. The Book of Revelation makes some extraordinary statements that we have to reckon with. While we must always be guarded over prophetic statements in Scripture that have yet to be fulfilled, we should still wrestle with the text and read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. There are four statements in Revelation 21-22 that I believe are significant clues about nationhood in the New Creation. Continue reading “Will there be nations in the New Creation?”

Was Pentecost a global moment?

IMG_0062.JPG‘Pentecost marked the reversal of the curse of Babel.’ So goes the traditional narrative that tries to tie together these two major events in the history of the nations: Babel marked the cursing of the nations with different languages, and Pentecost marked the beginning of the reversal of that curse. Babel scattered the nations, and Pentecost marked the global moment when the scattered nations began to come together again through the gospel. While I used to hold to this view, I no longer think it is tenable from the text of both passages, and we have to relate Babel and Pentecost together more carefully. This is an issue of huge importance, not just for how we understand the world but for setting our priorities in mission.

There is no doubt that there are strong connections between the two passages. Acts 2:9-11 is a mini Table of Nations that echoes Genesis 10. Where the city of Babel came together in its rejection of God, the crowd in Jerusalem were brought together to worship him. Where the people of Babel were ‘confused’ by what they heard in Gen. 11:7,9, in Acts 2:6,12 they are ‘bewildered’ and ‘amazed’ because they can understand. There is no question that Luke is aware of the words used in Gen. 10-11 when he writes Acts 2, and that the terminology is reflected in what he writes. So what is the connection between the two events? In what sense was this a ‘global moment’ causing the gospel to spread around the world? Continue reading “Was Pentecost a global moment?”

Murder, race hatred, and nationalism

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The tragic death of Jo Cox MP has had a cauterising effect on political debate over the last couple of days. Politicians seem embarrassed for the way they have been treating each other in the referendum debate. Perhaps now, cooled tempers can allow us to think respectfully and with humility about the great judgement we each have to make this week. So far the debate has focused mainly on three issues: the future trajectory of the economy, democracy, and immigration. You can read the tea leaves how you please on the first, have a reasoned argument about accountability on the second, but it is immigration that really raises the blood pressure. So let me here make my contribution to the debate as a Christian who believes passionately in biblical nationhood, but who is appalled by racism and nationalism.

Is it true that the opposite of internationalism must be racial hatred? Is the only way to avoid racial hatred to have open borders and not to care about our own culture, language and history? Continue reading “Murder, race hatred, and nationalism”

What is a nation?

What an old-fashioned question! In a globalised world, hasn’t the concept of a nation become threadbare and obsolete? Among academics and the political class, the nation-state is seen as a fairly recent innovation and one whose purpose has already failed in modern history. They argue that nation-states emerged in the American and French revolutions, spread in the 19th and 20th centuries across Europe, especially after Versailles, and then spread to the developing world in the wake of empire. However, the nation-state has seen its place eroded by the growth of international institutions and multinational companies, the advance of international law and the spread of global communications. Nations have served only to fuel violent nationalism, so the argument goes, in which case we are better off sitting loose to our national identity and pooling our sovereignty for the sake of a wider peace.

This is the argument of the liberal secularist establishment. It is based on two false assumptions. First, that the nation-state began around 1780, and is an entirely secular concept. It is assumed that by ‘nation’ we mean simply a defined territory, with a citizenship that forms the ‘body politic’, that sovereignty is vested ultimately in the people, and that nationhood consists purely in terms of political power, economics and the workings of government. Second, it assumes that nations spawn nationalism and that the wretched wars of the twentieth century that tore Europe apart in two world wars are the inevitable result. I will try to show over several blog posts that both these assumptions are wrong, and that the biblical concept of nationhood is much, much older than the French revolution.

I wish to argue that there is a biblical concept of nationhood that is part of God’s creation order, that it is a much richer idea than the secular nation-state and not to be confused with it, and that nations are still part of God’s plan and (surprisingly) will be part of the New Creation. Understanding nationhood is essential, among other things, to understanding Christian mission. Continue reading “What is a nation?”