Today the UK moves to the point of no return with Brexit.
There will be no marches on the streets to stop it, and no more votes in the Houses of Parliament to delay it. The UK remains a divided kingdom on this issue; however, after the landslide victory of the Conservatives in the general election, there’s been a stoic inevitability that has perhaps dampened the zeal of both Leavers and Remainers.
To mark—not celebrate—the occasion, a commemorative 50-pence coin has been minted, with this inscription: “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.” A bold hope for the UK’s new relationship with the world? Or salt in the wounds for the 48 percent who voted to remain in the European Union?
What does Brexit mean for the church? Considering only 1 in 10 UK Christians told pollsters last month that they have prayed about Brexit, does it make any difference at all? Or does it signal a fracture for many of us between our spiritual lives and our political lives?
I believe Brexit offers us three unique opportunities to reintegrate our faith and politics:
1) An opportunity to model a unity that transcends political diversity
Too often Christians struggle to find a unity in Christ first and in culture and political ideology second. We too easily join in with the polarization of our culture, and our churches end up divided along ethnic, class, and political lines indistinguishable from those of our neighbors. We were called to something higher. We follow the Jesus who welcomed both Levi the tax collector and Simon the Zealot into his family of disciples. These men represented diametrically opposed political visions: One sought to collaborate with the Roman Empire, while the other sought to overthrow it through violent means. Both found challenge and welcome from Christ.
In Christ, there is neither blue nor red, Brexiteer or Remainer. In Christ comes a willingness to see the best in the other’s political vision and to recognize the flaws in our own. In Christ, we might agree that there is a common hope and vision, and accept that we have different tactics in order to get there. In Christ, we choose to see beyond political point scoring and prejudice and instead engage with the best articulation of our opponent’s position.
In Christ, we renounce the cheap, unhelpful stereotypes that see Brexiteers as hard-hearted xenophobes and Remainers as naïve fearmongers. In Christ, we model a unity with our brothers and sisters that overrides our position on Brexit, forgives mistakes in the past, and looks together to the future. In Christ, we can—and should—pray for our political leaders and our political opponents, especially when they are also our spiritual brothers and sisters.
2) An opportunity to model a generous internationalism
Traveling within Europe since the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the EU, I have felt the need to apologize. The referendum result has given the impression that the UK wants a divorce from the wider continent so it can pursue new global bedfellows. Some of the rhetoric has demonized Europe, while the UK has been portrayed as a lone ranger with no interest in contributing to the wider collective good of the European project. The final European Parliament meeting that UK members were eligible to attend saw some colleagues in tears, while others in a group led by Nigel Farage bid farewell by breaking the rules on flag waving and chanting “no more being bullied.” Have we hung our European neighbors out to dry, or have we shot ourselves in the foot? Or is there yet the possibility that the UK could initiate an improved global set of relationships where poorer nations are not excluded and all can benefit?
However it lands, the church within the UK cannot afford to be aligned with any kind of nationalistic separatism. Whatever our relationship with the European Union, we are first and foremost Christians and members of the global body of Christ. Indeed, biblically we recognize that we have more in common with brothers and sisters in Christ in Europe than we have in common with those from the UK who don’t share our Christian faith.
I have long bemoaned how the British church infrequently collaborates at wider European events—unless we are organizing them. It is also unusual for us to have speakers from across the wider continent come and speak in our churches or at our conferences. In these times, when the UK’s role in Europe is open to question and criticism, it is time to double down on our relationship with our neighbors.
This week a letter signed by the leaders of 10 UK-based denominations helpfully declared: “We greatly value the love and friendship of our sisters and brothers in other European churches, and a group of us are writing to them publicly today to assure them that these relationships will continue.” In that spirit, I believe Christians must rise above political lines to urgently and loudly declare that the UK church has not divorced itself from our European brothers and sisters in Christ.
3) An opportunity to renegotiate our relationship with the world
The UK’s foreign policy has always had a complex relationship with world missions. The British Empire on which it was said “the sun never set” was both a blessing and a curse for the church. The national church was arguably the chaplain to an exploitative, brutal conquering force. But the now-international church, with strength and indigenous leadership around the Commonwealth, has been a blessing to the UK.
So where do we go from here? While everyone else is figuring out how to renegotiate their international relationships in light of Brexit and who will have influence and bring good to the world, the church has a unique opportunity to learn from the past and ensure that we lead the way, avoiding the exploitation of others and offering blessing to all nations.
The timing of the referendum result to leave the EU alongside the news headlines of the global refugee crisis was not a coincidence. One of the most well-known advertising campaigns during the referendum was a picture of a large caravan of refugees snaking its way across the European landscape with the caption: “Breaking Point: the EU has failed to protect us all. We must break from the EU and take back control.” Separation from the EU began with the promise of guarding our borders against refugees. When the Brexit withdrawal bill went through the House of Lords, one of the agreed amendments was put forward by Lord Alf Dubs, a veteran politician who had been evacuated from the Nazis on the Kindertransport in 1939 that saw 10,000 Jewish refugee children welcomed to the UK, where they found hope and hospitality. The latest Dubs amendment sought to maintain the rights for refugee children to be reunited with their families. But this seemingly most humane of provisions was voted down in Parliament by the Conservative majority. At the same time, the UK is expressing ambition to be a world leader in the care and resettlement of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Thanks to the generosity of a Jewish philanthropist, teenagers who are currently inappropriately housed in refugee camps in Greece, France, and Italy are due to be welcomed in a first-of-its-kind initiative.
Many of the UK’s major cities are wonderfully cosmopolitan. A friend of mine in Birmingham has seen 19 churches planted over the last 10 years with a city-wide collaboration across different denominations. They have seen a wide diversity of ethnicities join majority-white churches as well as ethnicity-specific churches such as an Ethiopian church and a Spanish-speaking congregation. I am keen to see how the UK church will continue to adapt its commitment to international ministry once the changes in our immigration policy become clearer. International student ministry has thrived in Europe in recent years: 31,727 EU nationals came to the UK and 16,561 UK students went to study on the European mainland in 2017 (the most recent data available). This has led to many opportunities, not just for cultural exchange and language learning but also the authentic sharing of Christian faith in nations where often the church is in decline.
In this new post-Brexit Britain, the question remains: Was it just a xenophobic nationalistic reaction, or are we truly ready to seek “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”? And will the church just go with the political flow, or will we—as of today—begin to seize the opportunities to promote peace and partnership, blessing the nations around us in the way we offer welcome and hope and dignity to all?
Krish Kandiah is a UK-based speaker and author.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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