Thursday, 16 June 2016

Ten Reflections on BREXIT

Obviously the issues are highly complex - and we should guard against being armchair experts. My knowledge of politics and economics is extremely limited, but as a minister I do have responsibility to try to bring some more biblical reflection. So, for what they're worth, these are some of my thoughts.

(1) Where people live, and the nature of nations that result, is fluid and determined ultimately by God. Strikingly, a reason Paul gives for this is the access it gives people to God through the gospel (Acts 17v26-27). So we should reject any hard nationalism that simply wants to maintain the status quo or return to some past era. There is much to learn from and maintain from British history, but it has always developed through the influx of immigrants and its relationship to Europe. Our heritage is important, and we should call those with that heritage to re-embrace Christ as we should call everyone to him. We should also seek to bring Biblical truth to bear on our culture and government. But today's UK is a temporary entity as all nations are. And as its population becomes more diverse and its influence expanded within the EU, rather than battening down the hatches to protect what vestiges of Christianity remain, a missionary heart sees a God-given opportunity to impact more peoples and nations for Christ - just as the Roman Empire benefited the spread of the early church. This is a significant argument for remaining in, and although it may have some negative consequences in tolerating the EU’s faults, prioritising mission always has its costs. Having said this, although exit will lessen missionary opportunity, in our global village much would still remain.

(2) God's original and ultimate intent for humanity was to fill the world under the one government of the Lord Jesus. There is therefore no a priori reason for rejecting closer union. Indeed, one might say that just as a more Christianized nation would seek to better conform its laws to this universal rule of Christ, so it would seek to conform its structures in greater unity with other nations. Any vote to exit should not therefore be seen as a vote to essentially withdraw from Europe, but a vote to redefine the terms of our relationship.

(3) Sin has, however, corrupted this ultimate intent, causing humanity to unite in doing evil, whether self-glorifying and idolatrous projects as at Babel (Gen 11v1-9) or self-serving and hostile alliances as against Abraham (Gen 14). This should make us especially nervous of trans-national politics. God explicitly confused language so that humanity would scatter and be limited in the evil they could do, whereas the EU would seem to undermine this. Striking too is how the Bible ends with God judging the city of “Babylon.” She is considered great because of her wealth and trade, which cast a sort of spell over the rulers of the nations who trade with her. Wanting to benefit from her prosperity, they are drawn to share in her idolatry, sin and persecution of God’s people. And it is at this point that God calls his people to “come out” from her, so they are rescued from the humiliation and destruction God is about to bring (Rev 18). To simply equate the EU with Babylon would be a naïve and simplistic interpretation of the Bible. She represents wicked society in the service of Satan just as Jerusalem in the book represents the church in service of Christ. One could actually argue that the UK displays her traits in how it leads other nations to share its secular humanism and redefined morality. However, Revelation 18 surely warns us against allowing a desire for prosperity through trade to place us under the influence of others. Indeed, I can think of nowhere in scripture that the uniting of different nations is actually encouraged, but for in the gospel itself. Rather, what is commended is the principle of rejecting powerful alliances in order to do what is right even if one stands alone. Israel were to trust God and not compromise with surrounding nations for the sake of a security or prosperity that they should have looked to God to give. Each nation is responsible for shaping its own life before God and placing that before other concerns. And if a political union of nations leads to oppression, independence means a nation can provide sanctuary for those fleeing it. To my mind all this is a significant argument for exit, but makes it a step of faith in God to protect and provide. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that in already being part of the EU we should leave at this point. There is a biblical principle of remaining as one is until one has to change (1 Cor 7v17-20). The utopian vision of the EU is idolatrous, but so is the presumption of the UK government in redefining morality. If idolatrous or self-serving government required Christians to withdraw from involvement, Joseph would never have served in Egypt nor Daniel in the original Babylon.

(4) The British heritage of democratically accountable and limited government is, however, one of proved wisdom in checking these tendencies and flows from the democratic governance of ancient Israel. Sin means that no-one is entirely trustworthy to govern, and especially those who lack biblical wisdom or the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Democracy should therefore be a key concern in the EU, and is I think the biggest reason to leave. More than anything else it enables us to check bad policy, change legislation or oust leaders, and so better ensure our own government fulfils the role God has granted it – something that is to some extent beyond our control whilst we belong to the EU. Influencing laws on the environment, trade and industry is one thing. But the EU also has some influence in areas of criminal justice, which is the sphere God is most concerned aligns with his will as to what is truly good and evil. However, I do feel claims that the EU is undemocratic have been overstated. What they express is the limit of having to agree EU policy with the democratically elected leaders of other countries. The council that comprises these leaders agrees the direction for the EU. And laws drafted by commissioners are only agreed after negotiation with this council and the elected European parliament. Because of Britain’s size and economy, alongside France, Germany and Italy, we have the greatest influence on the council with a substantial 29 of the 352 votes (compared to Malta’s 3 for example). Moreover, if EU laws were passed that were considered wholly unacceptable in Britain, our parliament could still refuse to adopt them. The reality is that by remaining we could at least keep a concern for democracy to the fore as a particularly British contribution to the EU. We could also maintain our influence over its direction, which would continue to affect us if we withdrew but wanted to keep trading with it. The alternative is to be a small independent nation on the edge of an overbearing EU without such a democratic conscience. What is clear is that any vote to remain should not be an acceptance of the EU's tendency towards centralization and integration, nor any lack of accountability and proneness to corruption.

(5) Trans-national political bodies can, however, be used for good or evil, as with the varied experiences of Judah under the Persian Empire recorded in Ezra-Nehemiah. Ultimately it is God who governs this. And in our day there could be benefits to the EU providing a check on the rapidly secularising UK, as nations with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox influence add to the EU mix. Romans 13v1 should lead us to see God's providential hand in this, causing us to consider whether he intends it for our benefit. However, we should not be naive. The EU’s constitution acknowledges Europe’s “cultural, religious and humanist” heritage, but glaringly omits the huge influence of Christianity. And its member states include those of numerous worldviews, including Islam and communism. Moreover, the EU has already shown itself ready to curtail freedom of speech and reject a commissioner because of his Christian views on sexuality. If an overtly secular consensus was gained within the EU, it could become very oppressive. At such a time exit would be essential, but it doesn't follow that we should exit now in anticipation of it. Only God knows the future, and he’s the one who determines it.

(6) The Persian attitude to the nation of Judah depended much on who was king, displaying how rule by a few is more prone to descend into tyranny than rule by many. This argues for the slow check of coalition government in more godless societies, and implies that the snail’s pace of change within the EU because of its many members could provide a check against localized tyranny where one party usually dominates as in the UK. It also means that a consensus that could oppress Christians is unlikely to form within the EU as it stands. Indeed, the idea of ever-closer political union itself seems rather a pipe-dream when considering the increasing and diverse member nations involved.

(7) Believers exiled in this world are to seek the prosperity and peace of where they live, and reject a rebellious hostility to the ungodly culture they live in (Jer 29v4-9). The focus is on the city in Jeremiah 29 because it was the geographical unit one benefited from. But the principle applies more broadly in justifying a concern for prosperity and peace if one can ascertain what would most promote it. Although there has been huge exaggeration on both sides of the debate, the consensus on these particular issues seems to be for remaining in - and not just for the benefits this would bring the UK, but the benefits our remaining in can bring to other nations. I find this the most significant argument for remaining in the EU for the Christian. We should not be driven by the self-centeredness that has marked so many of the arguments we’ve been hearing, but display a concern for others. And the principle of faithfulness should give us pause before withdrawing from a commitment we currently have to other nations. There is of course worry about the impact on our peace from the influx of Muslims and those not sharing our values. But none are advocating keeping out people on the basis of their faith or culture. Indeed, Muslims come from all over the world, whilst many European immigrants have a latent Christian worldview. One issue with regard to prosperity, however, is the impact of the EU's tariffs on those in the developing world outside the EU. These would seem to be unjust and unjustifiable. There is something deeply distasteful about favouring the European club when one considers the poverty elsewhere.

(8) God seems more concerned in scripture with the role of government than its form. Christians should therefore hold a particular concern for promoting government what will best punish evil, commend good, and enable them to live out and share their faith in peace (Rom 13v3-5, 1 Tim 2v1-4). My understanding is that there are significant concerns here about the compatibility of the EU and British legal systems, and the authority the EU has to override British laws. However we should not idealize British culture which is deeply broken and immoral. The influence of more conservative countries in Europe may actually provide a check to liberal humanist tendencies in the UK and their increasing expression in our legal system. Moreover, there could be real benefits for the influence of the gospel on our society's values from the sort of cultural mix resulting from European immigration and involvement. Churches report a much greater openness to Christ amongst immigrants. And the freedom of travel can only aid the spread of the gospel within Europe.

(9) Immigration is a key issue in the debate. It is mentioned throughout the Bible, enabling God's people to gain their land, but also leading to their corruption from others. It cannot be resisted on the grounds of owning any country as God is the one who determines where people live. Indeed, we are encouraged to welcome and care for the stranger. Nor can immigration be resisted because it might corrupt. England is not called to maintain its purity by exclusion in the way Israel was as God’s chosen nation. Rather, the primary reasons for prohibiting immigration would seem to be to protect prosperity and peace or the wellbeing of the weak and needy. Here we might support the idea of open borders so those in real need might face less barriers in seeking the help they need, whilst questioning a policy that gives preference to European immigrants over those from elsewhere. In particular this has led to it being harder for church leaders or missionaries from outside the EU to come here to train or serve. Against supporting such easy immigration is the fact that it drives down wages, drives up house prices, and puts pressure on infrastructure - all of which causes our country's poor to suffer and social strife to result. Unlimited immigration cannot therefore be supported. But these problems could and should be lessened by using the increase in taxes immigrants bring to ensure wages are sufficient and infrastructure is developed. Moreover, the Christian should at least be ready in principle to share the good God has blessed our nation with, and even if that means things aren't quite as good as they once were for us. However, the immigration issue is not, to my mind, critical for deciding the referendum. Any trade relationship that is maintained with the EU is likely to require the free movement of peoples. And even if not, immigration would continue to some extent from inside and outside the EU. Moreover, inside the EU, we can already reduce those coming from other continents if we really want to. We should also consider that as the EU itself benefits eastern European countries, migration to England may become less attractive. And it could be argued that as more scantly populated parts of the country increase in their population through immigration, so their quality of life could increase too. The problems of immigration are felt quickly. Its benefits take longer to become evident.

(10) Given all the above we must end noting how consistently God in scripture urges the wise to heed good advice. "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed" (Prov 15v22). "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers" (Prov 11v14). "The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice" (Prof 12v15). It is possible the majority of politicians, business leaders and economists who favour remaining in are blinkered and self-serving. But scripture would urge us to great caution in rejecting what they have to say. At the very least, it encourages us not to make a decision on the basis of instinct, but because we have properly considered the arguments of such "advisers" on both sides of the debate.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the question of in or out is between how “in” might benefit prosperity and peace and how “out” would uphold sovereignty and democracy. Staying in is a more pragmatic choice and would almost certainly benefit the UK and the gospel more in the foreseeable future. Coming out is a more principled choice, but less certain in its benefits, which would be to protect us in the long term against possible bad lawmaking and government from the EU.