As theological debates on sexuality and marriage become more and more central, many Christian denominations are being asked to clarify their views.
Putting to one side the hermeneutical questions around the identification of the EU with Bablyon, what is clear is that the demonization of the “other” inspires hatred not love.
For the last seven years I have been researching and lecturing on mission in Europe at Redcliffe College. In the months leading up to the referendum vote I was invited to help the UK Evangelical Alliance to prepare materials1 to help UK Christians think through the issues. In April I gave a public lecture at Redcliffe College called: In or Out? How should Christians approach the EU Referendum? (read written version here). And during May and June I delivered this material on ten further occasions at churches of many different denominations around the UK.
I tried to represent the Leave and Remain campaigns fairly, to pierce through the misrepresentation of facts (on both sides) and give a balanced consideration of the arguments for and against the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU from the perspective of Christian mission. In the end I just wanted to help Christians, and anyone else who cared to listen, to understand the issues and make an informed and prayerful decision.
What I learned though, particularly in the Q&A times after my presentation and in subsequent conversations, was that many Christians who said they were going to vote Leave had narratives that dominated their perspective.
They didn’t all use the same language but three distinct controlling narratives were repeated over and over again.
1. “We are a Christian country”. Many UK Christians continue to believe that Britain’s history sets it apart from the rest of Europe. Christianity, the Bible and the Reformation have shaped its identity and institutions.
Furthermore, its sovereignty and borders have remained intact for the best part of a thousand years. Yet alongside this there is a narrative about the EU. Many of the Christians I spoke to saw the EU as a threat to Christian Britain: “The EU is secularist. As a Christian country we should have nothing to do with it”.
2. “The EU is Babylon” David Hathaway2 is not the only Christian author to draw eschatological parallels between Babylon and the EU but he is probably the best known. It was clear to me that some Christians have incorporated his ideas into their thinking.
Several people I spoke to were convinced that the European Parliament Building in Strasbourghad been constructed according to the exact design of the Tower of Babel. Whereas the “We are a Christian Country” narrative emphasises Britain’s unique identity this parallel narrative draws on prophecies of Daniel and Revelation to portray the EU as a demonic “other”, a revived Roman empire that will pave the way for the Antichrist.
3. “The nation-state is a God-given institution”. A third narrative was put forward by others who observed that the Bible is supportive of nations but critical of centralised power. Michael Schluter3 argues this point in his writings: “In both Old and New Testaments, people are differentiated by culture, language and national identity; this is seen positively as God’s will, and thus we should not discard it lightly”. At the same time, the dangers of concentrating political and economic power in the hands of a king or controlling elite are made repeatedly in the Old Testament. This narrative argues that the EU fails on both counts, in that it wrests sovereignty from the nation-state and centralises power in Brussels.
Evidently not all British Christians support these narratives nor were they the main reasons why the general British populace voted Leave. However my impression was that they were operating as controlling narratives for some Christians. What do I mean by that? Firstly, a controlling narrative is a dominant narrative, one which in some sense trumps all other considerations.
And secondly, it is a narrative that controls the other stories that we tell, frequently distorting our perspectives so that all other stories fit our controlling narrative, even to the extent of affecting our perspectives on mission in Europe. Let’s take each of the narratives in turn. I am not going to critique them per se but rather consider how when they operate as controlling narratives they distort our perspective.
1. “We are a Christian Country”. Evidently this Anglocentric view of history downplays the impact that Christianity, the Bible and the Reformation has had on the rest of Europe. Yet perhaps more significantly it ignores the reality of secularisation.
Results from the British Social Attitudes Survey4 across the last few years have consistently shown around half of Britons saying they have “no religion” as compared to 42% who say they are “Christian”. But this narrative also distorts our perspective on mission. It reinforces the old paradigm of Britain as a Christian heartland which “sends” missionaries but more importantly it undermines the mission challenge on our doorstep – Britain isn’t Christian: it needs the gospel. And furthermore it turns the arrival of migrants of other faiths into a threat rather than a tremendous opportunity.
2. “The EU is Babylon”. Very few British Christians seem to be aware that the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, was the brainchild of Christian politicians seeking to build peace in Europe.5
Putting to one side the hermeneutical questions around the identification of the EU with Bablyon, or the absurd argument on the basis of the similarity of a contemporary building with a painter’s imagination, what is clear is that the demonization of the “other” inspires hatred not love. The identification of the EU with Europe in the UK is so strong that when the EU is demonized it has an impact on many fronts.
Firstly, it distances us Brits from our fellow Europeans. Even after leaving the EU we will still be Europeans: our histories and cultures are too interconnected for us not to be. But it also has a negative effect on our attitudes to mission in Europe (something which Rosemary Caudwell’s research echoes). Other Europeans are not objects of love but of derision and fear. Rather than reaching them we want to distance ourselves from them and keep them out.
3. “The nation-state is a God-given institution”. This narrative argues against the EU but also against the integrity of the United Kingdom, as a nation of nations. The argument that “centralised power in Brussels is bad but centralised power in Westminster is OK” will be received very differently by Christians in Gloucester and Christians in Glasgow.
Yet the theological reification of the nation-state is not only historically anachronistic - nation-states didn’t exist until the early modern period; the Bible talks more often than not about ethne (tribes or peoples). It is also turns into an absolute something which is temporary. As Revelation 7 reminds us, all the peoples of the earth will come and as one, bow before the Lamb who was slain. As Christians we are called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to “all peoples” but to bring the eschatological kingdom into our present (“Here there is no Jew or Greek…but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). At a time when nationalism is on the rise again across Europe it is a concern that nationalism is becoming a controlling narrative for some British Christians too (see Chris Ducker’s article for a more detailed treatment of this).
THE STORY THAT WE LIVE BY
Of course, there is some truth in these stories. British Christians should give thanks for the historical influence of Christianity on their country. There is a place for rebellion against the demonic in all human power structures, even the EU. And we should defend the modern Western nation-state which provides structures of value to all (democracy, rule of law, human rights, etc.). Yet these must never be our controlling narratives.
Our controlling narrative as European Christians, the one which must be at the centre so that it keeps all other narratives in check, was, is and always must be, the Lamb who was slain who sits upon the Throne. To Him alone we bow. His story alone must be the story we live by.
Jim Memory is church planter and lecturer.
This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of Vista magazine.
1 The UK Evangelical Alliance “What kind of EU?” materials are still available on their website along with my article on the missiological perspectives: http:// www.eauk.org/current-affairs/politics/eu/achristian-mission-perspective-on-the-eureferendum.cfm
2 Hathaway (2016), Babylon in Europe, New Wine Press 3
3 Schluter (2016), “Brexit Unless…Three Fundamental Conditions for Staying in the EU”, Jubilee Centre, May 2016, http:// www.jubilee-centre.org/brexit-unless-threefundamental-conditions-staying-eu/
4 British Social Attitudes Survey (2016), “Change in religious affiliation among adults in Britain”, August 2016, http://www.natcen.ac.uk/ media/1236081/religious-affiliation-over-timebritish-social-attitudes.pdf
5 Jeff Fountain does an excellent job of telling this story in his book Deeply Rooted: The Forgotten Vision of Robert Schuman, Eastbourne: Seismos Press (2014)