In Brussels and Strasbourg – a Brexiteer on holiday

IMG_20180728_151138In any disagreement, it is good advice to go and step into the other person’s shoes. Our summer holiday provided the perfect opportunity, as we based ourselves first near Brussels and then in the Nord Vosges west of Strasbourg. We’ve had more holidays in Eastern France and the Low counties than anywhere else, because we love the culture and history of each nation, as well as the manifest beauty of each landscape. Yet I am convinced that Brexit is right for the UK, and increasingly sure that something similar would be good for many EU countries. But have I missed something? Why do dedicated Europhiles love the EU? Seeing things from the perspective of the heart of the EU might be helpful.

When you visit the Parliamentarium in Brussels, the visitor centre at the EU Parliament, you can have the whole raison d’etre of the EU explained to you. The EU exists because of Europe’s history. It is a fear of the past that drives the determination to integrate into an ever closer union. Set into the wall in a darkened room in the exhibition, screen after screen narrates the sad story of early 20th century carnage. Europe was laid waste by war, and only in the ruins of the late 1940s did a new Europe begin to be fashioned.

It is important to realise that for continental Europeans this experience goes much further back, to Napoleon and beyond. While Britain played a major part in defeating Corsica’s most famous son, we kept out of the conflicts that followed, particularly the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, because we were too busy fighting colonial wars elsewhere and were more concerned to extend our expanding empire. For the French, their war with Prussia was yet another bloodletting between neighbours, so dreadful that when it was over they commissioned a great monument to the fallen, the basilica in Paris known as La Sacré Coeur. It was completed in 1914! The killing fields of the Western Front in WW1, in which my Gt. Uncle died, another Gt. Uncle was wounded and my Grandfather also served, were yet worse for the French, especially on battlefields such as Verdun in the centre of France. In January 1918 President Woodrow Wilson made a speech setting out a new doctrine in international relations, his ‘fourteen points’ that established the principle of national self-determination. When the armistice was signed in November 1918, this let loose a wave of nationalism. The old empires of Europe – Russia, Germany and Austria Hungary – gave up territory to make way for new states such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and Poland re-emerged. Empires were to be a thing of the past, at least for the vanquished.

What Wilson had not reckoned with was the growth of National Socialism, in Germany, Italy, and Spain, and the success of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. All these countries practiced a cult of religious nationalism, idolising their leaders and their nations with rituals and parades that seem utterly absurd to us now, but which people obviously believed at the time. When such nationalism had laid Europe waste again, in a total war that killed civilians as deliberately as it killed soldiers, there was a new consensus to build something bold and new.  The Parliamentarium exhibition is filled with quotes from the founding era of the European movement, and it is fascinating to see how they explain themselves. One that struck my notice was the Geneva Draft Declaration (II) on European Federation:

‘During the lifetime of one generation Europe has twice been the centre of a world conflict whose chief cause was the existence of thirty sovereign states in Europe. It is a most urgent task to end this international anarchy by creating a European Federal Union.’

Two world wars were blamed on the existence of ‘sovereign states’ across Europe! Independence and national sovereignty must always lead to war – a claim no doubt challenged by countries like Sweden and Switzerland. For a more recent voice expressing the same view, turn to Liliane Maury Pasquier, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.[1] She said:

‘As an organisation that brings together almost all European states on the basis of common values, principles and legal standards, the Council of Europe is today best placed to help meet the challenges raised by growing nationalism and avoid the building of new walls….upholding multilateralism as an essential weapon against sovereigntist attacks on our shared values.’

Do you see the same idea being expressed? The problem with Europe is ‘sovereigntism’ and ‘nationalism’ as the inevitable causes of war, while the only way to break that is to achieve what the EU calls ‘ever closer union.’ Indeed, the European Parliament’s other new and grander home in Strasbourg is built to look like a work still in progress, its circular walls intentionally unfinished to convey the idea of a single Europe still being constructed. There is in the EU psyche a genuine conviction that they are the only means by which Europe can be spared again from another appalling war. For that reason, they see Brexit as potentially unleashing the dogs of war. If it can be frustrated, and if necessary governments that support it can be destabilised so that the British change their mind, the European project can continue on its way.

Yet I believe that the European Union is fast becoming the most likely cause of another war in Europe. The EU is becoming an empire, concentrating power at the unaccountable centre, fighting to protect its own interests, bending its own principles to ensure that it stays together at all costs. This way of going on is nothing new. It was how every empire operated, and alienated and oppressed those it dominated until they rose up against it. It happened with Napoleon’s France, and in the British, Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires, and you can see the new empires of the US, China and America learning the same character traits.

Wars are caused when empires and nationalisms collide. Both are evil. The view I seek to express on this blog is that the biblical understanding of nationhood avoids both extremes, and seeks to plough a third way, the way God intended us to live. Nations are to live together peacefully, side by side, each rejoicing in its own national conversation, cherishing its own language, culture and history, but also rejoicing in the culture, language and history of its neighbours and relating to them peacefully and generously. Each nation should be humble enough not to think of itself more highly than it ought to think. It ought to recognise that national borders are porous, not least because of marriage and migration, and thus every nation is always in a rich process of change and development. When a nation idolises itself, it always ends up hating and distrusting its neighbours. When a nation thinks so much of itself that it feels the urge to dominate all other nations around it, it has started to form an empire, which can only be achieved or maintained by oppression.  There is a close connection between nationalism and empire. One often leads to the other.

Empires caused the First World War. Woodrow Wilson saw national self-determination as the antidote to empire, thereby giving rise to nationalism, and the kind of self-obsessed idolatrous nations (Nazi and Bolshevik) that went out to build new empires by aggressive force. Empire will never be the antidote to nationalism, because idolatrous nationalism always leads to empire, given the opportunity.

At the centre of the carnage of too many European wars sits the city of Strasbourg, a city in France that sits next to the Rhine, and whose tram system crosses over into Germany. It has changed hands several times, and as a visitor one is not quite sure whether it is German or French. Staff who can tell you are not French may greet you in German then be confused to find that you are British. It is entirely understandable that the people of Strasbourg and Alsace never want to see war again. But what can keep them, and all Europe, from war? Two independent nations, humbled by the follies of the past, ought to be able to live alongside one another without ambitions that lead to war. Instead, I fear that an empire with its Parliament in Strasbourg will only serve over time to make other nations hate the place.

There are several aspects of the EU that already have the hallmarks of an empire. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg can override national legislators and tell them to think again, thereby challenging the will of the people. The rules of the Eurozone were bent to get Italy and Greece into the Eurozone, and then when it proved unsustainable, everything had to bow to the survival of the Euro, even if that meant bringing down elected governments in Athens and Rome. The Schengen treaty is also seen as essential to European unity, even when a migration crisis makes such open borders seriously questionable. The EU is also good at colonising institutions that operated quite happily without it. The European Space Agency existed separate from the EU for many years, and has member states who are not EU members, such as Switzerland and Norway, as well as relationships with Canada and Israel. For years ESA operated free from EU interference, but since 2004 the EU has been taking a closer involvement in the running of ESA, and would like it to be considered an agency of the EU. Not only that, the EU Commission is determined to prevent the UK using ESA’s Galileo GPS satellite system post-Brexit, even though the UK has chipped in £1.4bn. What this means is that the EU has colonised another institution, and is determined to push out member states that will not toe their line. Imagine what it would be like if the EU created a European army, thereby undermining the cohesion of NATO.

I understand the fear of another European total war, and why people would be motivated to pursue any grands projets to try and prevent it. However, the answer is not another European empire. Empires have done as much if not more damage in Europe that nationalism. Neither will keep the peace of Europe. There are plenty of other ways for independent sovereign nations to cooperate together peacefully without surrendering their sovereignty, and so to live together on this war-scarred continent with humility and respect.

[1] Don’t confuse the Council of Europe with the European Union. The Council of Europe is a gathering of MPs from the national parliaments of 47 European states, as a ‘pan-European forum for inter-Parliamentary dialogue’, which keeps a focus on human rights through the European Court of Human Rights and is not part of the EU. It meets in the old EU parliament building in Strasbourg.

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‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism

danger-851895_1920Pessimism is an essential element of British culture. This fact is realised by all nations on earth except the British themselves. We actually believe our own pessimism with such inevitable gullibility that we rarely notice when things turn out differently. After all, we invented the weather forecast and the shipping news. It could so easily be Britain that Salman Rushdie had in mind when he described a sad and forgetful city in Haroon and the sea of stories:

In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.

We are beset by gloom at the moment. We emerge slowly from the dark of winter, only to be assaulted by a beastly storm (blamed on the Russians!), and switch on the news to hear yet more Brexit woe. It is all going to turn out bad. The economy is going to tank. As soon as we leave we will ‘fall off a cliff’, jobs will be lost in their millions because our goods will no longer have any kind of access to vital EU markets at all, Dover and Felixstowe harbours will be filled in with concrete, and a wall that will be the envy of Donald Trump will be built along the Irish border. Meanwhile, millions of Poles and Romanians will flee immediately, leaving our care homes and hospitals entirely unstaffed. And we will be paying the bill to the EU forever, and it will turn out to be much bigger than we ever agreed to. ‘We’re all doomed.’ It is all too dreadful to contemplate.

Before this all gets too much, allow me to review some projects of the recent past that had the misfortune to be enveloped by this British cloud of pessimism. Let’s start with Heathrow Terminal 5. Continue reading “‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism”

Martin Luther’s masterstroke

wartburg-castle-2269144_1920Martin Luther left the Diet of Worms in a wagon, guaranteed safe passage home to Wittenberg by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He needed a pledge of safe passage. The diet (the occasional session of the Parliament of the empire) declared him to be a heretic, and there was a price on his head. As the wagon passed through a forest near Eisenach, several knights appeared on horseback, surrounding the wagon, and challenged the terrified men to reveal which one was Luther. His companions, dumbstruck, pointed to Luther immediately, and he was snatched away on horseback. By nightfall, he was safely installed in the Wartburg, the castle of Frederick the Wise, his royal protector. Here Luther was able to lay low, growing a beard and becoming known as ‘Junker Jorg’ (Knight George), though he did not enjoy the rich food and copious wine of the Knights among whom he lived, or their more worldly attitudes. Yet it was in this mountaintop hideout that Luther was able to deliver his most subversive masterstroke.

As he had been taken from the wagon in the forest, Luther had managed to grab his Hebrew Old Testament and his Greek New Testament. Hidden away in his castle garret, he set to translating the Bible into German from the original languages. This was radical in several ways. First, any previous translation had been from the Latin Vulgate, not directly translated from the original languages. This had led to several mistranslations, especially in the understanding of justification. The Vulgate translated it as ‘make righteous’, rather than ‘declare righteous’, thereby confusing the forensic acquittal that is justification with the ongoing process of inner transformation that is sanctification. Second, Luther honoured the people’s language when he translating the Bible directly into German. His translation not only reflected the vernacular; it shaped and standardised it. This is normal in many Bible translation projects. Where literacy is low, giving people the Bible in their own language gives the literate the opportunity to read it to the illiterate, and the written language begins to shape the oral use of the language across the whole national conversation. Just as Tyndale was doing the same for the definition and standardisation of English, so Luther’s Bible shaped the language and conversation of Germany. It is only as secularism has moved people away from the Bible, a movement that coincided with the broadcasting revolution, that language has become anchored elsewhere, or, should I say, swept along in the currents of the mass media.

Luther’s Bible translation was radical for a third reason. In his early books, especially his Address to the German Nobility, he had taught the priesthood of all believers. The Roman Catholic Church focussed all power in the local priest, above him the bishops and Cardinals, with the Pope having ultimate authority. In the lives of everyday people, the priest held an unchallengeable position. He heard your confession, administered the sacraments, and read the Bible in Latin in Church, thereby keeping it from being understood by the common people. The priest stood between God and the people, those in monastic orders were near him in spiritual importance, while the laity was kept at a distance. But if every believer is a ‘royal priest’ (1 Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6) then we are all equal, and what Luther called ‘little Christs’ to one another. This means that the Bible is not to be locked up in Latin so that only an educated priest could understand it. It belongs to everyone, and should not just be read in church but studied personally at home. The Church had been keeping the Bible from the people. Now it must be read and taught everywhere.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this masterstroke. Across the Protestant parts of Europe, societies and systems of government were massively changed by the truths contained in the Bible. On my summer holiday this year, I read Vishal Mangalwadi’s brilliant book, The Book that made your world, a fascinating study in the way western culture at its height was shaped by, and produced by, the truths of the Bible. While it contains one or two glaring historical inaccuracies, the central argument is brilliantly made, and carries more weight coming from someone who was converted from an Indian Buddhist background. It is worth reading in the year of the Luther anniversary.  Our culture was shaped by the Bible, leading the West to value humanity, rationality, technology, language, literature, science, morality, compassion, and so much more. The very roots of modern democratic, parliamentary government owe their existence to the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine that brings down tyrants, elites and special interests, and empowers the everyday people of society, holding to account those in power. As our society increasingly seeks to drive the Bible out of our everyday life, to plaster over any hint of its influences, and to take for granted the institutions and values it has given to us, so we head back into a world of class divides, elitism and oppression at the hands of the new priesthoods: the secular humanists, the academics in their exalted ivory towers, and the media moguls and famous celebrities who live in a world above us and hold such huge influence over our lives. Without the Bible, truth, rational thought, and the needs of the soul rather than just the body, are all endangered and steadily being eroded.

This leaves me wondering: why do so few churches go out of their way to give away Bibles? Some do well in giving out gospels of Mark, Luke or John, but most just wait for people to enter their building before they get near a Bible. UCCF has done some sterling work in getting the ‘Uncover’ gospels out into the hands of thousands of students. Great work is still done by the Gideons. But we are not keeping up. Britain is going backwards into biblical illiteracy, and fast. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the panic on a train in Wimbledon station recently when a Christian started reading the Bible aloud may have been partly caused by the fact that most people wouldn’t recognise the difference between the Bible and the Koran, or indeed any other religious Scripture, so ignorant are they of the Bible’s content. Christians need to rediscover confidence in the Bible as God’s Word written. We should have the passion and determination of Luther to see the Word of God in the hands of everyone, in their own vernacular language. If we do, it will transform the moral and spiritual malaise of the West.

The death of Diana – a cultural watershed

640px-Diana's_funeralThe death of Diana marked a watershed in our culture, an event so visceral in nature that it shook our British life to the core. Some ‘earthquake’ events change a nation’s life because a key figure is gone: Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Chairman Mao, or, most obviously, JFK. When they are the person whose power drives the nation’s life, their passing changes everything. Diana was different. She had no power, and yet she became a defining character of the 1980s and 90s, a fairly blank canvas onto which people projected their own hopes, dreams, and ideologies. Whether Diana herself believed half of what is claimed for her now is so hard to know. She died young and so she became the stuff of myth and legend, though not ‘the stuff of which fairy tales are made.’ While much will be made of Diana over the next few days, allow me to draw attention to that culture shifting week between her death and her funeral. It tells us little about Diana herself, but so much more about British life now, as it flowed from that watershed moment.

The watershed of paganism

The way the public responded to tragedy was extraordinary. Flowers and candles spread from Kensington Palace down to Kensington High Street, and they extended out from the railings of Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill. As Diana’s coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey out of London up the Edgware Road onto the M1, people stood on bridges to drop carnations onto the hearse, and the undertakers had to use the windscreen wipers to clear their view. This seems normal now, but at the time it was still quite a new phenomenon (perhaps only having been seen previously after the Hillsborough disaster).

What did those evenings of candlelight and weeping in Kensington Gardens really signify? Neo-paganism came of age that week.  You could read it in the inscriptions on the flowers, describing Diana as an Angel and a gift from ‘heaven’. The spiritual ignorance and folk religion on display was extraordinary. Paganism worships created things, and begins to attribute to the chosen god such powers as they never had. The actual facts don’t matter. In those days all the flaws and failures of Diana’s character were ignored and she was elevated to sainthood by public opinion. Chatting with a friend a few weeks later, she said ‘I want to draw attention to the fact that if she wasn’t gallivanting round Paris with a very dodgy boyfriend, she might still be alive, but I’m not allowed to say it.’ The Diana cult expressed itself in the funeral service in two ways: in Elton John singing Candle in the Wind (still the best selling UK No 1 single ever), and in Earl Spenser’s tribute, which stands as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, both for what it said and for what it tells us about the way we live and feel now.  Continue reading “The death of Diana – a cultural watershed”

Grenfell Tower and the biblical longing for home

35353492476_e6860be791_hThe desperate tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire may prove to be a defining moment in our culture, a tragic combination of events that serves to reveal so much in British society, both bad and good. The tower stands as a charred obelisk as you drive down the Westway, like some terrible gash on the face of London that reveals tooth and bone such that you don’t want to stare but cannot look away. Last Friday I went to pick up my daughter from University, and with the car loaded with possessions (a poignant fact in the context), we drove past on our way out. At one point you can see daylight right through the building, where once there were homes with all their possessions and their shared human life. There are so many strands to this terrible tragedy, so much that could be written, but I want to focus on one theme. The Grenfell Tower tragedy has much to teach us about the biblical concept of home, and to highlight the problems of making a home in a vast global city.

God designed and created the idea of home. Continue reading “Grenfell Tower and the biblical longing for home”

London – a resilient city

St Pauls in BlitzLondon is a great city. Through fifty years it has been my capital city, and I have lived my life in and out of it, walked its streets, enjoyed its parks, discovered its neighbourhoods, and bathed in its history. I’ve visited every Museum, queued up to get into Parliament, walked its art galleries, ridden almost every tube line, arrived at every major rail terminal, ridden in a black cab and numerous buses, seen the crown jewels at the Tower of London, and cheered the Queen down the mall. I was ordained in SW London twenty five years ago this September, and in recent years have enjoyed preaching in so many of London’s churches. When my work takes me away to other continents, there is no joy like the joy of flying in over the suburbs, seeing the Millennium Dome and the Shard, and coasting up the Thames to Heathrow, as I did this week. It is a wonderful city that welcomes you home.

Therefore those like President Trump who suggest that we are alarmed by what happened last night on London Bridge just do not know the place. There is something in the British spirit that looks terrorism in the face and carries on. London is a resilient city. We have lived through much worse. 351 years ago the old city of London burnt down, and the Corporation set to work to rebuild, raising the second St Pauls Cathedral from the ashes of the first. In Dickensian London, life had become unbearable in the ‘great stink’ of 1858, but London showed the way in building the great Victorian sewerage system, and in building the first underground railways as well. After the killing fields of the First World War, it was Londoners who had the vision to build ‘Metroland’, the rolling suburbs that brought the country to the city and were so celebrated by Sir John Betjeman.

Then came the Blitz. Continue reading “London – a resilient city”

Real life in rural Kenya

DSCF8254Africa has a middle class. This is a surprise to many people in the West, but in a country such as Kenya the middle class is growing rapidly. They pay their taxes, drive their cars and live in decent housing, often doing white collar jobs and generating income for the wider economy. This is very obvious in Nairobi, but it is also true in Western Kenya. In Kisumu, Kenya’s third city, life is much quieter than the throng of Nairobi, but there are a few opulent hotels, a large new high-rise University building, and suburbs where the middle class and ex-pats live in walled compounds shaded by trees, protected with heavy security. During my visit there this February, we drove home with some curiosity one day to find men digging a trench down the street to install fibre optic cables. Even in Bondo, the home town of Presidential candidate Raila Odinga to the West of Kisumu with its ‘frontier town’ atmosphere, the town now plays host to a small university. Development is changing rural Kenya, and yet life still remains in so many ways the same.

Rural Kenyan life is still organised around the land, and it is farmed in small ‘shambas’, where each family lives and eats what their land produces. Whereas British farms are organised in units of hundreds of acres, each Kenyan farms about an acre of land or less, which means that homes are spread out fairly evenly across the countryside, rather than gathered into village clusters. Most farmers grow maize and millet, along with cassava and green vegetables, and keep a few cattle and goats, with some stray chickens. Their plot may be fenced in with bushes and sticks, and pieces of board or corrugated iron fill the gaps and make for ramshackle boundaries. If this seems untidy to those who are used to large British farms with fences and thick hedgerows, as an allotment holder I felt rather at home! I chatted to several of the local pastors about what they grew on their plot, and how they made a living. Of course, everything still depends on the rain, and they rejoiced that it had rained for the first time the night I had arrived (not cause and effect, I assure you!). However, as I had come to visit a village church gathering that Saturday, half of those who would have come to the meeting were busy turning their soil as the first rains had softened it, something I could fully understand.

In the West we are told that everything in Africa is a disaster. Continue reading “Real life in rural Kenya”

Nairobi, rich and poor

dscf8189Nairobi is a thriving middle class city. It is also known for its massive slums. How can those two realities exist side by side? The inescapable fact is that they do, just as they did in Dickens’ London. The contrast reminds you to arrive in Nairobi with an open mind, not letting your preconceptions dictate what you think of the place, but to get to know the city on its own terms. It is a happening city, enjoying a building boom, with plenty of signs of spiritual life as well. At the same time, as a westerner it is advisable not to go out after dark. Living securely here is an issue. On the scale of world cities, Nairobi is not vast. Nearly 3.5 million live within its boundaries, so by comparison with Manila, Chennai or Mexico City, it is fairly average, but it is the heart of Kenya. Chosen by the British colonists for its cooler climate at altitude, Nairobi is nearly 6000 feet above sea level, making the air thinner than perhaps you realise.

I arrived in mid-February, on my way to visit missionaries in Western Kenya, and had arranged an overnight stop in Nairobi to see some of the people and places where our Mission used to be involved. I met local pastors, was taken to the ACTS bookshop on the beautiful campus of the African International University, and visited a couple of churches. For someone just passing through, the Kenyans put on a remarkable welcome, and treated me with an interest that I don’t deserve. I found Kenyan Christians warm, easy to chat with, serious about the Bible and zealous in proclaiming it. There is an earnest quality to Kenyan Church life that is lacking in Britain. Continue reading “Nairobi, rich and poor”