Saturday, 28 May 2016

Europa - an Archetypal Victim to Inspire the EU

This week a pro-Brexit group was reported as posting a video suggesting that the EU is guilty of "raping" its citizens. It shows a woman fleeing from a man with the caption "Rapin". The EU flag is prominent. This was roundly accused of being offensive by Remain supporters on the grounds that it made light of sexual violence.

I tweeted on Christians for Europe: "@Vote_Leave may not know their classical myths but they are good at making up their own." This prompted a furious riposte: "What about @StrongerIn's lies, deceit, distortion, hypocrisy and insidious rhetoric of #ProjectFear?" We shall miss all this sound and fury after 23 June. Or then again, maybe we won't.

What was I on about, alleging that Brexiters don't know their classical literature? It goes back to the ancient Greek myth of Europa. Have you ever wondered how Europe got its name? The story takes various forms as most myths do. The commonest version depicted in classical and renaissance art tells how Zeus noticed the beautiful Phoenician maiden Europa in the fields with her father's herds. The god changed himself into a white bull and concealed himself among the cattle. Europa was gathering flowers when she noticed the handsome bull and started caressing it. So gentle was he that she clambered up on to his back. Zeus seized the moment and darted off with her into the sea. With her on his back, he swam to Crete where she became a queen.

My point on Twitter was simple: that in mythology, far from being the (female) perpetrator of rape, Europa was herself a victim of precisely the crime Brexit was accusing her of! In the classical tradition, she is more sinned against than sinning. It's only a myth, of course. But that "only" shouldn't mislead us into thinking too lightly about its potency. Story has a power that lies deeper than facile notions of whether or not "it really happened".

So why should Europe have a founding myth that speaks about victimhood? And why should the European Union adopt the image of Europa as one of the badges of its identity on coins, stamps and banknotes? (So its iconography is a lot more than a big football league.)

I don't know that there's an easy historical answer to the question, how did "Europa" grow from its local Greek origins to becoming, by Charlemagne's time, a significant slice of a continent. But we can play with the symbolic significance of the name as we think about the EU and Britain's place in it.

I rather like the idea that the story of a victim and her ordeal should lie at the heart of our identity as a continent. The story itself is brutal and ugly. Rape always is, always, without exception. There is no defence or special pleading that can make it otherwise. The Brexit video was a shocking lapse in taste in a campaign that has not been distinguished for its sweet reasonableness and depth of serious argument. But in Christian thought, God takes the side of the victim. Those who suffer because of the abuse of power are under his special protection. This is precisely what God himself has experienced in the passion and death of his Son Jesus.

So if we take this central aspect of Europe's founding myth seriously, we ought to find ourselves looking out for all the poor Europas of our own day: the victims of all forms of tyranny, enslavement, poverty and indeed sexual violence committed against the weak and vulnerable. You could say that Europa was the original trafficked slave who was seized against her will and made to dance to the tune of a violent, depraved master. That she was transported across the wine-dark seas of the Eastern Mediterranean only adds to the contemporary resonances. Wherever we see desperate migrants, refugees and asylum seekers looking for a place to call home, we see echoes of the Europa myth. We see images of Christ suffering in all who bear the mark of pain.

In terms of our continent and next month's referendum, what does the story say about the European Union today?

It's not hard to mythologise the threats that will continue to face the EU, whether we are part of it or not. I think there are two powers that threaten to overwhelm the Union in the future and which could all too easily "abduct" Europa and carry her off to strange, alien places or even destroy her altogether. The two words are separated by just one letter. I mean rationalism and nationalism. By rationalism I'm not thinking of the capacity for rigorous analysis, argument and thought, one of Europe's great legacies to the world through the Enlightenment. It's the deadening effect of being closed off to the spiritual inheritance of our continent that I have in mind. It was a sad day when, despite the pleas of faith communities including the Holy Father himself, the preamble to the Maastricht treaty consciously omitted any mention of the part religion has played in shaping Europe. It ignores the vast contribution made by Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the values and ideals of the EU. It's an ominous sign that the EU could be taken over by the kind of doctrinaire secularism that is opaque to the redemptive dimension of a religious vision and a lived faith.

The other threat, nationalism, is easier to see all round us in the populist politics of 2016. Patriotism and nationalism are not at all the same thing. I've constantly argued that it is a fully patriotic choice for this and every other nation to pool sovereignty in the interests of promoting the common good. It is good for nations and peoples, good for the continent and good for the human race. We should love our patria, our homeland. We owe it our loyalty. But it's not the only loyalty we have. What isn't good is to collapse our belonging down to the nation state as if that were an end in itself. This is the mantra of far-right movements across the continent not least in Greece, Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and France. It should worry us that vast numbers of people are giving up on the idea, so fundamental to the Christian founding fathers of the European Project, that we are "better together". To me, the slogan "we want our country back" is deeply sinister. It's an omen of a fragmented future that goes against everything I believe about what it means to be human and to live together and flourish in community.

The antidote to both nationalism and rationalism could be to think more carefully about the Europa myth. If she is the archetypal victim, then her story can perhaps empower us to resist the intellectual, political, cultural and spiritual tyrannies that threaten to carry us off and enslave us today. It begins, I think, with our own consciousness of who and what we are, and the dignity with which we are invested as creatures made in the image of God whose service, as the Anglican collect says, is "perfect freedom". One etymology of the name Europa is that it means "having an open face". This is why I believe our future lies in the European Union, because we want the UK to be a nation that is outward-turned, generous and inclusive in a Europe that has an "open face" to the world, and especially to its victims.

To vote to remain in the EU could be an unafraid act of joyful liberation, the very opposite of the gloomy worries that plague Brexiters. It could confidently proclaim that there is a better vision of humanity than any we have yet found. The Europa myth could inspire us to reimagine it.

1 comment:

  1. These kinky sex myths are very peculiar. Leda and the swan anyone? Why? is the question that springs to mind. I think you're right. Many of those fleeing war will have been victims of rape. But I must say, I find the lies being exchanged extremely depressing. Firstly, how can we make an informed decision, and second, it looks as though both contenders for Prime Minister, present and future, are as bad as each other. At most charitable, they are opportunists with a relaxed attitude to the truth.