Picture from the Baltimore Sun
Brexit is meant to happen on Halloween: the traditional day of the dead, All Hallows Eve. This solemn, and in some cultures, joyous day, has of course been reduced in some other cultures to nothing more than dressing up as a witch or a skeleton (or a superhero, or Harry Potter) and pretending to scare people. The question at the door, as this faux-tradition spreads, when the little ones are paraded around by their parents seeking sweets is: ‘trick or treat’.
‘Trick or treat’ could be the question we ask about the Brexit towards which we seem to be inexorably moving on Halloween, though it has to be said that the evidence, by almost all kinds of measures, points more towards ‘trick’ than ‘treat’. And it works as something scary.
A generation or two ago, one might have thought that an edifice built on lies, deception, racism, nationalism veering towards fascism, would not last very long: it would collapse under the weight of its own dirt and dishonesty. A generation or two on and we’ve seen the edifice remain standing, on both sides of the Atlantic (and in a few other places besides). People, Parliament, the judiciary, and anyone who knows anything are treated with contempt, seen as ‘collaborators’ with ‘the enemy’, traitors. We have a ‘war cabinet’ to see the lies and deceptions through, come what may, ‘do or die’: it’s ‘us’ or ‘them’. The ‘Ministry of Truth’ is in full flow.
In the Christian tradition it is truth that sets us free. Brexit has become the very opposite of truth and will not, therefore, set us free. Whatever reasons led people of good faith to vote to leave, Brexit will not lead us to the promised land, it will not take us to the sunny up-lands, it will not deliver freedom – no matter how often this is said with ‘optimism’ and bullish promises of living happily ever after. Its foundations are made of straw and stubble and fantasies about times that never existed, and will leave only ruin when the edifice crumbles under its own delusions.
This is bad enough but is not all. The deep and nasty divisions that have emerged in the Brexit process, divisions that have led to verbal and actual violence against those perceived to be ‘not us’, are an affront to the deepest and most profound insights of the Christian faith. Ours is not, of course, the first society to wracked with social, political, economic, and racial divisions: these have characterised most human societies since we were hunter/gatherers. The great 2000-year-old insight of St Paul, however, is that in Christ all these ‘natural’ divisions cease to matter: what held us apart before is obliterated in Christ. The only identity that fundamentally matters is that each person is freed in Christ to be who they are in Christ and with each other, whatever their colour, creed, or status. The ‘world’ against which St Paul writes is the world that makes division its point of departure and policy; the world of greed and selfishness against which the great Hebrew Prophets rail; the world of the ‘principalities and powers’ that crush the human spirit and destroy human community.
But it’s more than that too. The promise is complete joy and proper human flourishing. Our job, as those who would be Christ-like in our lives, is to work for that joy, that human flourishing. A part of that work will be to stand up and against that which kills joy and which diminishes the possibilities of human flourishing. Part of that will always be to fight injustice, lies, and deception; to fight against the ways in which people are diminished, mocked, or abused; to fight against xenophobia and racism – to stand up for the fundamental truth of faith that each person is the image of God, that all people have intrinsic value, that we are all diminished when anyone is; to stand up for the truths of human unity and worth.
Brexit has already unleashed the latent evils of lies, and racism, violence, and division, and these will all be hard to put back in the box now that it’s been opened. Our public life has descended to chaos and incompetence: we don’t know who we are anymore, our moral and spiritual compass has been shattered.
It may be that Brexit is a mirror into which we need to take a long hard look. I, for one, don’t like what I see when I look into it. I see people who think we’re exceptional, when we’re not. I see people who think we have much to teach the world, when really we have much to learn. Perhaps, as some have argued, we need to be diminished in order to see more clearly who we are. The truth can shine a very harsh light.
But the truth may well set us free: not from the supposed constraints of the EU, but from an inflated, out-dated, and fantasy understanding of who we are. Seeing the truth in the Brexit mirror might just help us see that we, as a nation, have no ‘God-given’ destiny, no right to anything, no special place in the world.
The truth might then really set us free: free from national pretence, and free to be who we are in a godly human community of equals, in need of each other, open to change, ready to embrace a future which we create one relationship at a time. Perhaps, then, Brexit will be ‘treat’ rather than ‘trick’.