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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‘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”

Cherish the national conversation

Placeholder ImageThe Great British Bake Off is over and gone for ever from the BBC. It is the only cookery programme that has ever made me dare to bake something and mostly succeed. It has made national heroes out of ordinary people, non-celebrities who we can genuinely identify with, and perhaps is the only programme that was genuinely worthy of the name ‘Reality TV’ (a term which seems to be an oxymoron in relation to the programme formats it usually describes).

The Bake Off has also been valuable for another reason: it has wonderfully embodied the Great British national conversation at so many levels. (For comparison, when the format has been sold to other countries, such as Holland for example, their versions have reflected their national conversation in all kinds of ways, and the Bake Off Italia – Dolce in Forno certainly has something about it that is all its own.) In the British Bake Off, the mother/son chemistry between Mary and Paul, the bad jokes of Sue and Mel, the idyllic country house setting in verdant Berkshire, and the wonderful range of accents and attitudes in the mix of contestants all came together to flavour this rich pork pie of British culture. In so doing, they have all helped to shape the national conversation.

What do I mean by a national conversation? It is hard to define easily, but it is a uniting conversation that typifies and expresses the life of that nation and embodies its shared life together. For it to be more than just a social conversation among a few friends, however, it needs to have some key elements.

First, a national conversation requires a common language. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this is important. When the English nation was forming in the days of Alfred the Great, it was King Alfred’s commitment to spreading the English language across the nation he sought to govern that defined England. He was committed to education, and to translating parts of the Bible into Old English. Continue reading “Cherish the national conversation”

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?”

Europe – now is the time for mission

DSCF1040.JPGSomeone suggested on Twitter that if it keeps going on like this, Britain will die of news! In three weeks we have witnessed a political earthquake: a solid-looking, confident Prime Minister stepping down the next day, the Machiavellian drama of Boris and Gove, the advent of our second woman Prime Minister, an opposition in crisis, the Iraq Inquiry report, and, let’s not forget, the murder of a keen, new MP on the streets of her constituency one lunchtime. Our mundane national life has suddenly run amuck. We are in shock. This is all real. The earth has moved beneath our feet. We need to recover a new normal. But before we do, can I ask you to look beyond Britain’s rather engaging national conversation, to a bigger and pressing context. When we have left the EU, we will still be part of the continent of Europe. Brexit will be the leaving of a European transnational institution. It should not mean that as Christians we turn our backs on the nations of Europe. On the contrary, because of current events, this is the time for mission among the nations of Europe. Let me explain why I think that, and then set out some priorities for cross-cultural mission in Europe.

The crumbling of idolatries

When life is settled, gospel progress can be slow. People are reluctant to consider change, and they settle into the comforts of a now-centred life, focussing on career, possessions and self. But God uses events to shake the nations to their foundations (Hag. 2:7; Heb. 12:26-29), and I believe that that is happening right now. What I find most striking post-Referendum is the shock of the pro-EU lobby, whether that be the liberal secular elite in Britain’s political parties, the British media, our Universities and the City of London, or their cousins in capital cities across Europe. Their prevailing narrative has crashed Continue reading “Europe – now is the time for mission”

Brexit – return to God’s plan for nations

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‘Jim, the way the British are debating the European Union is shallow and non-biblical’, said my Italian friend. ‘You are just talking about the economy, and how Brexit will affect jobs, and it’s very shallow and disappointing.’ I am not quoting him verbatim here, but that was the sense of what he said. That criticism has motivated me to start this blog. Whether the principles I am blogging here meet with his approval, I have no idea. But he was right to challenge us to think more deeply. So, having set out in previous posts the principles of a biblical understanding of nationhood, and the dangers of race-hatred and idolatrous nationalism, in this post I want to come to the big question: how do we evaluate the European Union in the light of such biblical principles?

First let me rule something out. I do not believe that the EU is the woman wearing a crown of twelve stars (like the EU flag?) on her head in Rev 12:1. That is unquestionably the church, not some evil empire, and need not distract us. The descriptions of Babylon in Rev. 17-18 have attracted more attention. Is the EU the great whore of Babylon? The characters of the vision in Rev. 17 are difficult to identify, and across the centuries Babylon has variously been identified with the Roman Empire (by the early church), the Roman Catholic Church (by the Reformers), and more modern empires in Europe by more recent interpreters. I think we should read this vision in more broadly typical terms, with Babylon as the personification of evil and rebellion against God in all its manifestations. If you are a North Korean Christian, you won’t be much worried by the EU, and likewise Zimbabwean Christians may see other regimes reflected in Rev. 17-18. It’s good to ask yourself how Christians around the world read such visions before we rush to judgement.

However, when we turn to Genesis, the history worked out in Gen. 10-11 gives us material that is clear, much less disputed, and I think can be applied to the decision we face. The EU is not the whore of Babylon, but it does manifest some characteristics of the Babel project that should alarm us.  Continue reading “Brexit – return to God’s plan for nations”

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”

Every Nation

IMG_0064Yet another blog! I know, it’s enough to make the heart sigh, and the eyeballs glaze over. But this one has been brewing for a long time, and has a set purpose, to be limited to a range of related topics in theology and mission. Let me explain what I am trying to do.

Three years ago I embarked on an M.Th. with Edinburgh Theological Seminary, funded by the Mission I work for, Grace Baptist Mission. I submitted my thesis at the end of November, and it has just been accepted. My subject was ‘Every Nation Under Heaven: The Importance of the Biblical Concept of Nations for Contemporary Evangelical Mission Practice.’ This blog will be a means of putting some of that research out there for your consideration. As I have worked, preached and studied my way through the past three years, I’ve noticed how little understanding there is of the biblical understanding of nationhood in the West. Our thinking about ourselves is shaped so extensively by post-Enlightenment individualism. Systematic theologies deal with anthropology at a purely individual level, without discussing marriage, let alone nationhood. It is absent from most confessions of faith. Yet if we are to be serious about the work of mission, understanding nationhood is crucial to the task of working out how to take the gospel into that nation and express it in a way that speaks to that nation and can be owned by that nation.

I want to challenge the secular presuppositions that shape so much of our thinking when it comes to nationhood. I am disturbed to see Christians around me in Britain discussing the Brexit referendum purely in terms of economics and the pragmatics of raw power. Continue reading “Every Nation”