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There is neither Leaver nor Remainer...

Like many Brits (and not just the 16.1 million who voted as I did), I am sad for my country right now. I am sad because I believe that Brexit spells economic disaster which will hit the poorest hardest, isolation from a wider community which I consider myself a part of, and the probable eventual break-up of the UK. But aside from the actual outcome of the referendum, I am sad at the deep divisions that the campaign process uncovered, exploited and exacerbated; the "tribalization and polarization of Britain, a bruising clash of two narratives that pitted London against the regions, Scotland against England, the young against the elderly, and the lower middle-class against the metropolitan elites" (Austen Ivereigh writing for ABC Religion and Ethics). I am appalled at the hostility, mistrust, deceit and turmoil; the upsurge in racist abuse and the reflection that it is only the outward manifestation of something pre-existent, erstwhile latent. Even if the departure goes ahead and is as damaging as I fear, I worry the social incohesion and unrest that have been triggered will cause yet bigger and more frightening harm [1].

I am also sad at my own complicity in creating and sustaining such disunity. When it began to emerge that the result would likely be close, I found myself face-to-face with the realisation that a far larger proportion felt disenfranchised under the prevailing status quo than I had ever bargained for. I know there's inequality; I know there's people without work or doing jobs they hate, struggling to find an opportunity to 'get on' in the world; I know that there are those who feel deeply betrayed by the system, stuck and frustrated and as though any chance at change at all would be a gamble worth taking because they do not count what they have as all that much to lose. I know all this theoretically, but I don't know it experientially, because I've not had to go through it nor have I engaged personally enough with enough people who have. So when sensationalist media and a self-serving fringe elite set out to hijack that collective sense of disenfranchisement for political gain I'm not too worried, at first, because in my head it's still a minority problem. But then the polls start suggesting things could go either way and the markets start getting nervous and I'm like "oh...". There are worlds within my world that I am blind to.

Anecdotes emerged during the run-up about Leave voters who didn't know anyone who was planning to vote Remain, and vice versa. It was like there was an 'us' and 'them' and that we hadn't been on speaking terms for years – hadn't, in fact, even known of each others' existence, still less comparable size. And by the time we realised, it was (or felt) too late to try to start the conversation; we just bounced our frustrations and convictions and Guardian/Daily Mail articles around in our respective disconnected echo chambers, getting thoroughly agitated and changing nobody's minds because there was barely anybody in our bubbles who didn't agree with us already. And then, we voted.

The Sunday afterwards our church held a time of prayer which touched (among other things) on healing the rifts between the various demographics who had exercised their votes so strikingly differently. And it hit me, then, that actually church is one place where I do mix regularly with people who think and experience life contrastingly to me ... including, almost certainly, Leave voters. Not that the matter was something we'd dared to discuss openly – neither from the front (my guess would be that the leadership hadn't wanted to inadvertently influence our votes) nor (that I noticed) in our post-service tea-and-coffee small talk. Perhaps the lack of dialogue in the run-up was a missed opportunity. Certainly I regret having made so little attempt to deepen more (and broader) of my church friendships over the years.

Right now, the UK is crying out for the church to "be herself" in a way which, as per Hauerwas, models healing, life-giving alternatives in this climate of division, resentment and suspicion. I wrote a few weeks back about his vision "to exhibit in our common life the kind of community possible when trust, and not fear, rules our lives" [2; p85]. This, he says, is the church's foremost political task. "A people so formed are particularly important for the continued existence of a society like ours, as they can provide the experience and skills necessary for me to recognize the difference of my neighbour not as a threat but as essential for my very life." [2; p86]

Within church, this means embodying boundless diversity whilst founding relationship upon that which profoundly unites us:
"...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:26-28)
Incidentally, if you think "Leavers" and "Remainers" are far removed, just imagine what it meant for first century Jews to embrace Gentiles as "one in Christ"! I am grateful that church exposes me to, and unites me with, people not like me and I would like to experience the reality of that more often and with more intentionality on my part.

Becoming a community of trust also means corporately and actively extending acceptance and hospitality to all those in the wider communities that we are part of:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)
"Love your neighbour as yourself" ... it couldn't be simpler to grasp, however contrary to habit to enact. When Jesus is asked to clarify "who is my neighbour?", he tells a story which seems designed to illustrate the impoverishment of the question (Luke 10:29-37). So I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that yes, it includes people who voted differently to you in the referendum; it includes migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from anywhere in the world; it includes British people whom other British people have taken a bigoted dislike to for whatever horrific reason of choice.

Angus Ritchie, Executive Director of the Centre for Theology and Community, has some good stuff to say about some of the ways this love might work out in practice in the months ahead:
The challenge for Christians (however we voted in the referendum) is to listen to their genuine and justified grievances, and to help them organise for justice - making common cause with the migrant communities which the worst of the Leave campaign encouraged them to scapegoat. ... [T]he church remains, for now at least, present and engaged in the poorest neighbourhoods, among the communities worst served by our current economic arrangements. It can play a crucial role in our nation's reconciliation. This will not be achieved with vague appeals for niceness, but by listening deeply to those communities' anxieties, and helping the very people now encouraged to see each other as rivals to discover their common interests - organising together for affordable housing, an end to predatory lending, and a Living Wage. (Angus Ritchie, writing for ABC Religion and Ethics)
I admit I struggle to see my own part in this. I'm a shy and immensely socially awkward person. I often feel as though my presence and engagement with other people does more harm than good – a worry by which I have conveniently excused myself from many an opportunity for proactive socio-political engagement. But now feels like a time for doing more than getting upset on social media, pushing money in apparently-useful directions, and smiling extra warmly at anyone who speaks to me in a foreign accent. Come to think of it, the fearsome reality of my "extra warm smile" is enough to send most into hasty retreat. I'm clearly smiling at the wrong people; what might my grimace effect upon Nigel, for instance, or Boris (though that may not now be needed)?

If I seem to again be evading the question of practical action with self-deprecatory humour ... well, I am. One thing I do know I can and should do is to pray – to pray willing to feel to the point that I am moved to be a part of the answer in spite of myself (it can happen; I've seen it). There's an oft-quoted verse which resonates for many at the moment. It's actually about physical land under God's covenant relationship with ancient Israel; the contexts don't really compare. But God is the same today, in His mercy, and we are the same in our need of it:
...if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)



[1] Which is one reason I am uncertain how to feel about campaigns to halt Brexit; might not the sense of betrayal and the perceived failure of democracy associated with such a reversal cause more problems than it solves? Perhaps I’m underestimating the difficulties ahead if we do leave, or (which would be nice) overestimating those if we don’t…

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, "The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity", from A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, 1981.

[Thumbnail image cc from Gwydion M. Williams on Flickr.]

Comments

Mike Banks said…
Did you see https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2016/06/statement-from-archbishops-on-eu-referendum-result.aspx? Not all church leaders were silent;-)
Ah, wise and remarkably succinct. I do like them Anglicans! I hope I didn’t appear to be accusing the church of silence; I’ve read lots of thoughtful comment in the days since. I just hope and pray that we can live it out in practice…

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