Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Bible and the European Union

I've been challenged to outline how I would defend Britain's membership of the European Union from a biblical viewpoint.

The first thing to say is that you can't read a modern institution like the EU out of the pages of scripture. So it's futile simply to quote texts as if to say, argument won. (I also doubt whether you can argue for the modern nation state like that either, but maybe that's another story.) It's a case of tracing the direction in which the Bible leads our thinking and our prayer. So while I don't at all believe that the EU is a sign of the kingdom of God, Jesus' teaching about the kingdom will certainly have something to say about how we order our lives, not only as individuals but as communities, societies and peoples. 

Where to begin? Let me go first to the very foundations of Jewish faith that Christians all affirm. When Jesus is asked in the gospels which commandment is the greatest, his answer is to quote the Jewish Torah. The first is to love God with all our heart. The second is to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22: 37-40). It's this love of neighbour that seems to me to lie at the heart of the founding vision of the EU. It's a family of peoples who are pledged to seek one another's welfare and pursue the common good. We must remember that the love command in the Torah especially emphasises the poor, the needy and the marginalised (Leviticus 19.18). To me, any human association that follows these ideals deserves to be supported. It's the exact opposite of the kind of rhetoric we hear in the noise of the current EU referendum debate: "think what's best for the UK, what's best for you!" The kingdom of God requires us to be outward-facing, generous, inclusive and compassionate. That's why I believe that despite its flaws, the EU is still a great institution.

Following the noble idea that peoples should be pledged to seek one another's welfare, I turn to another fundamental biblical concept, that of the covenant. We've heard a lot in recent days about treaties and whether or not they are legally binding. That partly misses the biblical insight that covenanted relationships belong to the very heart of human life. Marriage, business contracts, articles of association are all covenantal in character. But what makes them work is that they are based on promise and trust. When God makes a covenant with Israel (Exodus 19-24), he promises that they will be his people and he their God. Christian faith takes the new covenant in Jeremiah and applies it to the relationship Jesus has with his church, his body. In turn, he commands, the members of his body are to "love one another, as I have loved you" (John 15.12). In the Upper Room in St John, that new covenant relationship is expressed in mutual service symbolised by the washing of feet. His vision of a "society of friends" takes us straight back to loving our neighbour. As a formal, treaty-based association of nations joined together in covenant, the EU, like the federation we call the United Kingdom, is precisely an instance of living together in friendship and mutual service. You might even call it love.

Let's pursue this further in the New Testament. There, the church is portrayed as a "household of faith" that is at one in its witness to the grace of God and its common life. The work of Christ has been to "create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace" (Ephesians 2.15). Of this new humanity, the church is called to be a foretaste and sign. All my instincts tell me that it is always better to follow the path that brings human beings together and reconciles them rather than fragments and divides. For in this "single new humanity", St Paul famously says, "there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). I know he is speaking of the church here. But if the church is a symbol of what will one day become true of the whole human family, how can we not see this covenanted, collaborative vision as worth pursuing in our ordinary human life as well as in the church? It is never good for a man or a woman to be alone, says Genesis. But that's what lies behind the emotional appeal of Brexit just as it lay behind the idea of an independent Scotland. It's why I want to stand up for both unions, the UK and the EU, as beneficent human structures of reconciliation, friendship and human flourishing, ideas that are so big in the New Testament as I've tried to show. 

These are simply some thoughts to start with. You'll see how I'm trying to argue this on the basis of an intelligent and holistic reading of scripture. What we need to do is to discern the broad streams of Torah instruction, prophetic utterance, wisdom insight, gospel proclamation and apostolic reflection that have shaped our faith. At their heart, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures testify to God's everlasting love for the human race, and the obedient response of faith that looks to order human life for the good of all. I see the Bible pointing unambiguously towards life together, rather than life apart. The EU is an instance of this. It does not carry any divine mandate, and it is far from perfect. But it exists because good people, largely inspired by a Christian vision of the world, wanted to galvanise the peoples of Europe to work together in pursuit of values that are so prominent in the Bible: reconciliation, peace, freedom, social justice, solidarity with the poor and needy, and seeking the common good. To this we must today add our care of the environment. We can't make as big a difference to these things on our own. Together, so much is possible.

I believe this was the biblical case for the UK to join the EU in the first place. To me, it still stands. It's only a start. So I'll no doubt have more to say on this in the coming months.... 

1 comment:

  1. Some helpful insights here Michael-I'll need to think more on this perspective..