The Modern Church Conference in July this year is exploring ‘Theology in the Public Square’. When the theme of the conference was agreed, I was to speak on ‘Theology after Brexit’, and I should have been frantically writing now trying to make theological sense of what had happened. Brexit, of course, hasn’t happened.
And as much as the Brexit Party would like to pretend that no one’s view have changed since June 2016, public opinion is all over the place; views have changed; it’s even possible that facts have impinged on the thinking of many.
What we have achieved by the Brexit process has been pretty catastrophic: unsteady Pound and a steady flow of companies leaving the country or setting up in Continental Europe (or Ireland), xenophobia, lies masquerading as fact, the children in Parliament throwing their toys out of the pram in every direction. As some have observed, our politics seems broken, our democratic institutions not fit for purpose, our political parties more worried by their own internal divisions than by the good of the country. It is an embarrassing, and potentially damaging, mess.
Responding theologically to all this is challenging. Episcopal responses have been – dare I say it – rather anodyne: we must pray for everyone and hope that everyone is nice to each other (there have been thoughtful individual episcopal responses, but not many). We’ve even had spurious comparisons of Brexit with the Reformation. But the theology has been thin, as if the present context doesn’t really matter; as if a country tearing itself apart doesn’t mean anything; as if the dark forces unleashed by the Brexit ‘process’ don’t mean anything theologically. This, too, is embarrassing.
Context is everything in theology. The eternal Good News of God’s love in Christ for the world has to mean something here and now, in this time and place, in these circumstances, in answer to these questions, or it doesn’t mean anything at all. Taking seriously the Incarnation of our God in human form means that theology has to be embodied, earthed in the realities of the material world our God chose to inhabit. It means taking everything we experience, as Jesus did, as potentially revealing of the love of God for that world. It means taking the great themes of God’s love, as seen in Christ, as expressed by the great Hebrew prophets, as seen in great Christian women and men and understanding the ways and will of God through them. A dis-embodied theology of shallow ‘eternal truths’, as we have seen to our demographic cost, means very little and does nothing for our mission to be the Body of Christ in the world.
The inner dynamic of the Christian faith is to drive us away from mere individualism and towards community. John Donne, of course, put it beautifully:
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God drives us away from things that divide us and towards those things that bring us together. The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude have no part of the Christian vision.
The inner dynamic of the Christian faith also demands that we work for justice, peace and reconciliation in this world, in this time and in this place. Reconciliation is the ministry to which we are called: reconciliation between ourselves and God, reconciliation between each of us and all others, reconciliation between people and nations. But that reconciliation needs to be done on the basis of justice: justice that takes the part of the poorest, that brings down the mighty from their thrones, that lifts up the lowly.
Theologically we seem to have lost sight of the fact that those who felt they had the least to lose by coming out of the EU will be hit the hardest by doing so. Our bias to the poor has become pretty empty (except on the ground, of course, where work is being done all over the country trying to make up for the political and moral vacuum). Theologians and politicians have lost sight of this and have failed those who have the most to lose.
There is a lot of pretend politics going on: lies masquerading as truth, promises that can never be fulfilled, harking back to pretend versions of history pretending that the problems facing our world – the serious ones – can somehow be improved by isolation, by pretending to ‘take back control’ of laws, money, immigration when all of those are global issues requiring global co-operation and solutions. We mustn’t add pretend theology to that. Christianity that isn’t about the common good and mutual human flourishing at a time of climate crisis and global threats but pretends that it’s all about the individual and her or his salvation, or (even worse) about hastening the ‘end times’, is neither Christian nor theology.
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. (Matt. 25: 37-40)
And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.