I listened to recent discussion on the impact of Fake News pertaining to the US election on Facebook. In principle I can’t see why anyone would object to trying to screen out fiction from fact, but the assumption I never heard questioned was who defines what Fake News is? Isn’t the problem in the first place that people screen themselves against information supporting their own cause? You can’t address that unless you try and address people. It also affects both Republicans and Democrats, that’s the problem with the ‘Bubble’ Americans have been talking about since the election. If American elites are pushing companies like Facebook to get editorial are we going to be honest and admit that the company will likely, or is potentially already, experiencing an editorial bias? How Fake is too Fake? The totally untrue or do we also include half truths, rumours, speculation, whistleblowing and inconvenient truths? By which authority are such measured to be enforced? Does the Government determine fact from fiction? Or are we ok with private companies taking upon themselves to determine for us?
At University I was told that the Internet would enable us to ‘democratise’ our communications around the world. Instead of top down ‘mass media’ we’d instead get ‘micro media’ which at the time was assumed to be social media. Increasingly however these burgeoning social networks are looking like the mass media of our parents age. The Lecturers and Journalists who espoused to us relativism, post-modernity and denied the existence of Truth have now rediscovered it when the vote went the wrong way. Truth is only relative and fleeting when it’s inconvenient it turns out.
In particular the fact that the rise of fake news, ‘alternative news’ and conspiracy theories speaks not to the wicked interventions of myth-spreaders from without, but to the corrosion of reason within, right here in the West. It speaks to the declining moral and cultural authority of our own political and media class. It is the Western world’s own abandonment of objectivity, and loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its populace, that has nurtured something of a free-for-all on the facts and news front.
The worst bit about this is that it removes any possibility of the notion that people can come to any different conclusions other than that of the self-appointed opinion makers in our society. It is the attitude of a parent trying to socialise their child, and whereas it might be acceptable for a parent to act as such – it isn’t for a stranger to treat you and me as their child.
The attitude behind trying to close in on Fake News smells faintly of old Blasphemy laws. We’ve been told they’ve been dispensed with, that even God should not be above scrutiny and mockery because we living in a brave freethinking age. Yet what we’ve really done is exchange God for a set of ideas, a lifestyle, a person or particular balance of power. We still oppose their scrutiny and mockery because in reality these are our contemporary Golden Calves. The protections offered in our society before the current age; societies, guilds, organisations, churches and families have all been stripped away and we now all stand alone against the influences of not just the state but wealthy and powerful corporations intent on determining how we should live our lives and what we should think.
These circumstances are a direct result of the relativisation of truth causing the center of our societal narratives to collapse in on themselves. Instead of a public truth we increasingly have private truths to the extent that we are losing our idea of a common good. In its place we’re seeing a rise in authoritarian thinking as those in power try and course correct a society increasingly alienated from itself.
The passing of this bill is troubling but what is worse is the level of general support in the population for such a thing. If someone asked to view your private online history, your emails and location at all times most would balk and refuse out of principle. Yet when this is written on a piece of paper by politicians this behaviour is now somehow deemed acceptable in the name of security. Every terrorist attack, or threat of terrorist attack has been used to sway public support for the erosion of digital liberty and anonymity.
I wonder what the eventual destination of this trajectory is that we are on. Today there are few bodies or authorities that exist outside the state to protect the individual. Institutions that were hard fought for have been stripped back over time as the role of the state has grown largely unquestioned. Privacy isn’t a natural state and a relatively recent thing but so is the extent to which the state determines how one lives now. The image that increasingly comes to mind concerning the internet is that of the Panopticon. Foucault wrote on the subject…
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so.
In the Panopticon the idea that an individual might be being watched is enough to bring their behaviour under the desired influence of the captor. Likewise the very potential that you are being watched by the government will influence your behaviour towards the government increasing rates of self-censorship and being unwilling to step outside of mainstream opinion. This also means that when you are placed within the Panopticon you are less likely to verbalise opposition to such monitoring than had you not been monitored at all. Something that is generally known as ‘The Spiral of Silence’. This is why the power of anonymity on the internet was so important to those with minority views and beliefs. It gave them the means to speak in a fashion that wasn’t censored, not by themselves or anyone else. In some ways it’s the same reason I started to write here. I wanted to process and externalise my thoughts in a way I wouldn’t if I had to do such a thing in public. The steps of the UK government with the passing of this bill promise that this is all beginning to change.
As according to the law of nature each must be born free … many of our common people have fallen into servitude and diverse conditions which very much displease us; we, considering that our kingdom is called … the kingdom of the Franks [free men], and wishing that the fact should be truly accordant with the name … have ordered and order that … such servitudes be brought back to freedom …
Louis X of France
I do not think it a coincidence that as Britain moves away from being a society where people are sincere Christians that we increasingly live in an age in which others attempt to determine the thoughts and beliefs of others. If the popular consensus is that we are determined by our biology, that we are fleshy machines, it’s not a great step to believe that we might as well begin to determine one another. That might seem disingenuous to the sincere beliefs of determinists, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to make an argument on the basis of abstract rights. What good are principles where the mind itself is ultimately an accident of evolution? If we think we are machines we begin to treat each other like machines.
We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us
Father John Culkin
Why do the nations say,
‘Where is their God?’
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
All of this might seem hyperbolic or alarmist but I think there is a genuine reason to be unwelcoming of these changes in practice by the authorities. More so that there are grounds for a critical Christian position on these matters. The often quoted mantra is “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” but we know people are fallible and our salvation ultimately won’t come from any man-made institution, no matter the security we are promised. To give any institution so much power is to invite abuse. The pursuit of utopia consistently has lead to its very opposite.
In an age where we are increasingly living digital lives I think there’s an argument from these recent changes to moderate our interactions with the online world. An element of sobriety and vigilance online is not only a spiritual good but a practical one too. If we believe in the liberty of individuals there are also avenues here to interact with others concerned with these issues too. Not because we wish to hide who we are, but because we believe people are more than numbers to be watched and moderated by the state. Is it too much to say such an invasion into the lives of individuals is a sin? I don’t think so, by doing this we are failing to love our neighbour.
I woke up on the morning of the 9th to find the WhatsApp group for my team at work exploding with news that Donald Trump looked like he was about to win the US election. The night before I had been talking it over with my wife, I knew he had a chance but I didn’t really believe it would happen. My wife however was more certain Trump was going to win. I was just glad I wasn’t in the US to make the choice. Yet as the day went on it only became more certain and the reaction from many of my peers at work was similar to that at the time of Brexit; despondency, shock, disbelief and disparaging comments. I made a point of staying away from social media, I’d learnt that from Brexit too.
The really disquieting thing, in an immediate sense, is the increased frequency I’m seeing by those on the wrong side of the Brexit and Trump votes to argue against the democratic process. If such outcomes really are unacceptable to a nation then what validity is the democratic process if it only serves to support the conclusions we already came to? So many people are outraged by the idea of Elites dictating the direction of society. Yet cannot bring themselves to digest the results of votes that go against their own vision of society. Are these people really any different from the elites they bemoan? Is the only difference for these people their influence? Even now as I write this, in earshot I hear of people discussing the means and ways for Trump to be impeached or removed from office. How progressives should increasingly just start using propaganda to get people to fall-in. We’re outraged when the US did such things in places like Honduras but when we stand to gain its not a problem. People in the West are increasingly getting used to talking about democracy as if it was a bad idea.
Trump is an objectionable character and one that should be held accountable for his deeds. I still struggle to understand how so many Evangelical leaders threw in their support for him. If you are cynical, fine, be honest about it but the trumpeting of Trump as some Christian saviour is a cause for concern. The love felt for him in this area I fear is not reciprocated by the man himself.
In writing all this I’ve also been consciously aware of the role the internet has played in all this. The internet is increasingly becoming an echo chamber for our own opinions, social media in particular. The reason this was a surprise was because we share, like, retweet and ultimately regurgitate the content attractive to us. Its made me wonder personally, the value in writing online (the irony in writing this is not lost on me). The internet feels increasingly a vehicle of ideological segregation. Our world is getting smaller, partly because we are increasingly screening people out of daily life who aren’t like us. So when they do break into our world in a dramatic way, like in the US election the reaction is one of outrage, anger and disbelief.
The extent of this isolation, particularly by the progressives of the US to the actual populace is also something worth reflecting on. Nearly every talking head predicted a Clinton Presidency. This vote has exposed the divide between progressive institutions and the American population as a whole. Historically the more you spent on a campaign, the better your chances and Hilary outspent Trump considerably. Increasingly this isn’t the case anymore, Obama had great success online in his bid for presidency and so did Trump. The media that sways votes for these elections is increasingly in the air. In many ways the internet has contributed to a more bottom up style of campaigning that even the many endorsements of celebrities for Clinton could not budge.
To conclude, no one knows whether the Trump presidency was a vote for Trump or just a vote against Hilary. Time will tell. The whole thing is emblematic of the loss of moral authority by the powerful in American society in the eyes of the populace. I believe that division will only grow over time partly because neither Trump nor Hilary are equipped as individuals to address this divide. Many progressives marked the election as a step backwards for America but such thinking can only occur when you believe theres only one way forward. Trump I find is a disturbing character for a time equally deserving of that descriptor. I don’t know if a man I consider bad can bring about good but the next four years will be crucial for America and the world as we understand it.
As someone outside the US I feel like I can moderate my reaction to the election more so than someone who lives in the US. I know Americans both distraught and elated by the vote. Many in the UK, and I imagine the world, wanted a Clinton Presidency and truth be told I don’t know who I’d vote for given the choice. I am totally sympathetic to the large numbers of the population that stayed at home on the day of the election. I have no love for Clinton and think it mocks the idea of a democratic republic to elect a lifelong bureaucrat who was married to a prior President. I also think the idea of a Trump presidency is troubling for its own reasons. I appreciate the role America plays in the world but I also know I can’t do much about the election so regardless of outcome I can only control my reaction to it. This is a time that necessitates grace, understanding and humility on all involved.What does concern me is the growing notion that this whole election process has highlighted a fragmentary west that shows no sign of slowing its cultural break down. As a Christian it doesn’t matter who is President, Christ is my Lord and that doesn’t change. I do what he commands, not culture, nor a president on the other side of the world.
edit: I think this video, although expletive laden, is pretty on it.
Meritocracy is on the surface a thing that seems indisputably good. The idea that people should be appraised and awarded positions on competency alone seems obvious to us today. However this assertion, on closer inspection, belies the increasing narrowness that defines the competencies that we value as a society. The fact that these things we value are largely determined by those who have such attributes or means in abundance is also generally taken for granted. We use the language of merit but on consideration this sounds very close to the idea of an aristocracy.
I recently listened to an interesting discussion on the subject which was helpfully condensed in the brief article entitled ‘The New Aristocracy‘. The article in question draws on the novel ‘Animal Farm’ in which one set of elites is overthrown by a group which eventually takes up the same role as those they overthrew.
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
George Orwell, Animal Farm
In our own settings these new elites take the form of those who assert that their possession of unique sets of skills and insights position them as qualified to discern and represent the will of the majority in society. The means to obtain these skills, and their associated values, over time become stratified, hardened and protected through a mix of education, breeding and accreditation. This is nothing new in many ways but the distinguishing aspects of these elites is their cosmopolitan makeup and advocacy of what they refer to as liberalism. There are different kinds of liberalism of course but what is advocated today is of a very particular kind. Ross Douthat expands on this in a recent piece in the New York Times..
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”
This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.
They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools. They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.
What he describes reminds me in many ways of a Magpie, a bird who collects baubles of exotic or interesting items in order to construct its nest. The nest in this instance might be the mind of the cosmopolitan in question. The fundamental underlying structure however, the worldview, of the nest doesn’t change, in fact the collection of baubles from elsewhere is one of its defining characteristics. In this light the provincially minded individual is more accepting in that they recognise the existence of radical differences to their own way of life which are outside themselves, the cosmopolitan in comparison possesses a will to mould all it encounters into its own image, a colonial outlook. Douthart’s assertion of this worldview being akin a ‘liberal Christianity without Christ’ I think was particularly adept and for better or worse made me think of the liberal wings of the Anglican church today.
The idea of a cosmopolitan aristocracy isn’t new but perhaps its global scope is. We could say ‘accept it, embrace it and reform it‘ and to be honest I know little alternative. The alternative does seem to be a form of localism, a particularism of sorts. I’m conscious that I am found in a subset of this cosmopolitan class and when abroad have previously espoused a ‘ich bin ein berliner’ attitude about the cultures I encountered, which did no favours to those cultures and in reality I think distanced me from encountering them as they really were. However over time I have become acutely aware of what I missed about England and my place in it. I realise now that whatever I do I’m British, and it isn’t a decision its just a plain fact. It may not seem that much of a revelation, but it was to me. Before this I assumed everyone was ‘British’ in a fashion and we just differed on the details.
This word particularism to describe an alternative to modern cosmopolitanism is something which today has a poor reputation. Such discussion locally might turn thoughts to Football Hooligans, White Vans, the English flag, the British National Party and alcoholism. Giving a fair summation of the ‘particularly British’ is a difficult task which I won’t do here. More so because in the last century Britain has undergone dramatic changes which have left it radically different in its values and makeup on one end compared to the other. Particularism then is being used to describe a preference for the area in which you have a shared history and embrace the local narrative as part of your own. Not just the people in it but the place itself. This is generally seen as ‘provincialism’ by some when used in a rural setting but I think the same thinking is at work in the London regarding the current state of Brixton, Camden, Newham, Notting Hill and Tower Hamlets and their gentrification. It isn’t just an economic act of replacing one set of people with another, its the erosion of the character and history of place which local individuals have little to no say in. Particularism then favours giving agency to the people within the area they live and the responsibility to care for the land so that both are sustainable. It also operates with an understanding that the two are deeply connected and unique.
Particularism is reflected quite strongly in the work of J.R.R Tolkien and his depiction of the Shire in contrast to Mordor. This is particularly highlighted in the ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ found in the closing pages of the Lord of the Rings narrative. In it the wizard Saruman takes over the Shire and instead of ransacking it begins a process of administration that tears down the old landscape, pollutes the rivers and takes control of the resources in the area to be administered out as Saruman sees fit. The Hobbits as species survive but the disaster is that they have been dispossessed of their relationship with the land and external agents have robbed them of their agency as a community and character. Tolkien, its assumed, wrote this inspired by his own experience of returning to his childhood home..
[On the occasion of driving his family to visit relatives in Birmingham:] “I pass over the pangs to me of passing through Hall Green – become a huge tram-ridden meaningless suburb, where I actually lost my way – and eventually down what is left of beloved lanes of childhood, and past the very gate of our cottage, now in the midst of a sea of new red-brick. The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill; but the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool, where the bluebell lane ran down into the mill lane, is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house (which the children were excited to see) is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has not been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change
Excerpt from the diary of J.R.R Tolkien written in 1933 found in Humphrey Carpenter’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography”
Tolkien’s envy is directed towards those whose environment hasn’t been uprooted in the same way as his own. Yet the administering that brought about those changes did so at the instigation of people who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing.
Meritocracy is a popular idea which at first has little to be objected at, but in practice provides a means for a new, more invasive, aristocracy to supplant its predecessors. Governance by meritocracy has fed cosmopolitanism resulting in an a decidedly narrow and overbearing attitude at the heart of much of contemporary politics and popular social values. This thinking denigrates local knowledge and direct investment in a community in favour of increased bureaucracy. This hinders our understanding of our own local communities, our neighbours and leads to our alienation from the land itself. We outsource our responsibilities and our environmental and social ills become someone else’s problem. We solve problems increasingly through several degrees of separation from the issues themselves and no longer abide long enough, if at all, to see their consequences.
We have a God who is called Emmanuel, God with us, he came into our world and lived, suffered, died and rose again amongst us. He wasn’t far away and even now has left his spirit with us. Our God is particular, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Among other things, perhaps the rise in this homogenising attitude is that we as a nation have forgotten this.
Remove justice, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? … Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.”
St. Augustine, City of God
Several years ago I had the pleasure to read ‘Under The Black Flag‘ by David Cordingly detailing the life and origins of many of histories most notorious Pirates. Among several surprises in the book I also saw ‘Sir Francis Drake’ listed as one of the earliest entries. School had taught me he was a daring admiral, not a pirate, yet his actions in some cases seemed indistinguishable from some of his peers found in the subsequent pages. Piracy, as in many cases I learned, started off as an activity seen as permissible by various authorities until it was inevitably deployed against the state. This in turn reminded me of the concept of the ‘monopoly on violence’ that Weber puts forward as a core concept of the modern state. A state is defined largely by the area in which it can wield force unchallenged, or in St Augustine’s words “not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity”. In short, a government is legitimate when people no longer resist them and it can no longer be overcome.
For a long time I think there was an idea that Western, specifically US, power was considered dominant in the world. I don’t think we live in that time anymore, namely because the West (US et al) has been tried and found wanting. The Western sphere of influence has shrunk dramatically due to the fact that it can no longer operate with impunity, it never could but the illusion that suggested otherwise has been firmly shattered. We created pirates in the form of Jihadists to fight the Soviets in the 1980’s like we British employed Privateers against the Spanish and Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both inevitably turned against us. We are horrified by the advent of the Islamic State but ignore the reality that such events are poorly constructed mirrors pointing to how our own, and all, societies are built and maintained.
Despite this force alone isn’t enough to maintain societies, Augustine correctly points out that its when people cease to resist an authority is when its legitimacy becomes enshrined. With globalisation, the internet and the means that enable us to travel the world with ease these ‘Pirates’ are no longer confined to tiny pockets in the places like the Middle East or the Caribbean but can be found right amongst us. This means that resistance to a civil authority can be at work and that it isn’t enough for a government simply to have a greater navy or stronger army. A nation now needs more compelling narrative to offer its occupants.
Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality, but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.
Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake (2015)
Without a compelling narrative or vision to offer its people a society will increasingly turn in on itself. Today we don’t live so much in a world defined by nations, cultures or people but by international business and capital. You can’t outspend the Capitalists which means that a fundamental challenge to this society will inevitably only come from places and people that care nothing for GDP and the latest customer conveniences. They will be driven by other measures. Society devoid of a uniting narrative will inevitably fragment over time, social divisions become exacerbated and for a society to endure it will either have to rediscover a popular or dominant narrative, or if that doesn’t work rely increasingly on force and become more authoritarian in nature. Despite all the strengths of Capitalism, some things still cannot be bought.
At a national level we live in a period where society is one increasingly defined by adhering to particular ‘rights’ but otherwise largely devoid of context or history outside of its deconstruction of what has gone before. Its not so much liberal but rather progressive in nature, although it is important to give the appearance of liberalism. Gesture and appearance is increasingly important and public opinion is decidedly presentist in nature. Who you are is more important in many cases than the contents of what you have to say. The public perceives itself as the most enlightened, the most liberal, the most successful society to have ever existed and we are only becoming more so. The problem with all this however is that their is an increasing number of people in the UK who have been left behind and are increasingly disillusioned with the hand they have been dealt. This is shown in the increasing disconnect between the mainstream press, our political leadership and the great number of the increasingly cynical public.
Onward, Christian ‘Pirates’
What is a Christian to do then? We must do something in all of this. Generally speaking Christians find themselves not looking to form the equivalent of Caliphates, Jesus himself stated..
Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
So we are citizens of the Kingdom of God but collectively subscribe to no particular earthly Empire and practically speaking may be found amongst all kinds of Earthly kingdoms. We are told to be subject to governing authorities wherever we encounter them and yet the earliest followers of Christ were openly rebuked as ‘atheists’ and dissidents within the Roman Empire. We are clearly not called to be pirates in the sense that St. Augustine describes yet distinguished in some form from the Empires we find ourselves in.
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honour; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.
The Epistle to Diognetes, c. AD 130
In a sense the Church, I believe, is to display what is known as ‘prefigurative politics’. More plainly the Church is called to be a prophetic witness to whatever society it finds itself in. Reforming it from the inside until ‘The old life is gone; a new life has begun!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet the Empire is an inherently violent thing if not to protect itself from those within it but from those without. As mentioned previously I do not think their is an easy binary, yes or no, answer to the question of violence on the part of Christians. The answer is implicitly always ‘no’ to violence but I am not sure any longer that that statement is an absolute one.
As Christians we are in a sense a gentle kind of pirate. We recognise that ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it’ (Psalm 24:1) and yet that God has installed authorities to govern justly throughout it. Despite this we recognise our first loyalty is to the Kingdom of God that is already present amongst us. This is the narrative of our ‘nation’ that binds us together in our creeds, confessions and sacraments that compels us to go out into the highways and byways and invite others to come and join us in the new creation.
If our Gospel leaves us in a world much unchanged, what is it worth?
If our Gospel lacks a public and social voice, what is it worth?
If our Gospel is divorced of appropriate context (both original and current), what is it worth?
If our Gospel fails to confront the material realities of daily life, what is it worth?
I want to believe and rediscover the faith that redeemed nations and empires. I want to recite the public confessions that billions before me have done. We live in an age of private truths and the church is a public truth that the world needs to be baptised into.
Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
I’ll be honest, I voted to Leave but I did not expect us to win. I don’t ‘Begrexit’ I just assumed from listening to the media, my peers and even senior figures in the Church of England that Remain would win the day. Yet I am shocked and saddened both by the reported spike in racism and simultaneously the antagonism that has come about from my largely young and urbanite peers towards those who voted to leave. Theres an almost masochistic mood in the country currently that is revelling in the division, trying to explain away and wallow in our collective discontent. I’m uncomfortable stating my vote publicly, not because I regret the decision but because of the venom it would inevitably invite on myself. It is unmistakable that this vote has exposed very deep and serious fault lines in our society at a time where we are lacking the leadership to act in any decisive manner in any direction.
The thing that I think has shocked everyone is the distinction between the more rural, older generation and younger, urban generation. The vote isn’t as simple as this distinction, but it is noticeable. Yet I was surprised when in the weekend following the vote I travelled to the midlands, through Birmingham and saw an unprecedented amount of Union Jack and St Georges flags flying from homes, businesses and pubs. The atmosphere was palpably different to that of London which was despair bordering on hysteria in places. There is something in this distinction and it was the flag waving of the pubs in particular that stood out to me.
I wonder if the racist sentiment reported in the media is the cruel and violent edge of a ‘blood and soil’ nationalism rooted in the collective loss of community in a lot of the less urban, less individualistic communities of the UK. People feel lost and so cling to the idea of a country as the only thing greater than themselves that they believe in. Nationalism is all we have when our communities are broken apart by a government that at times has seemed positively antagonistic and apathetic towards the majority. This vote was in large part carried by a sense of disenfranchisement on the part of a large swathe of the population (that has rarely voted at all) that has largely been ignored by the movers and shakers in our country for a long time. This post on Brexit by Anna Rowland has some really powerful insights.
Despite collective (cosmopolitan) surprise at the prevalence of such a complex sense of loss and aspiration … there is not much new about this. These are pan-European (now global) trends that Tony Judt, left-wing public intellectual and self-described Euro-pessimist, wrote about two decades ago. He believed that European elites were failing to grasp that the narrative of “Europe” stood increasingly for the winners, the wealthy regions and sub-regions of existing states. The losers were “the European ‘south’, the poor, the linguistically, educationally or culturally disadvantaged, underprivileged, or despised Europeans who don’t live in golden triangles along vanished frontiers.” It turns out much of the post-industrial English North feels rather like the European “south.”
The issue in Britain is a cultural one as large parts of the population have been left behind by a top down, arguably neo-liberal corporatist, approach to both the media and government. One that has subsequently blown up with the ‘abdication’ of David Cameron and the ‘insurrection’ against Jeremy Corbyn, with no real alternatives on offer and both major parties in uproar. We are told what our country stands for, by various talking heads, but we do not really know what it stands for. Many people identify with particular ideas or subcultures more than nations today. So when we are asked to vote in such a way that is likely to define our nation in such a dramatic fashion, something so many think so little about generally, these ideological distinctions have erupted in ugly ways.
I do not know what the future holds, but I worry that this referendum is a watershed moment when we realise that our country doesn’t have a core anymore. Its been carved out, deconstructed and hollowed, in its place we have tried to manufacture something different along the ideological lines of those with power. Like an X-Factor winner in the hands of Simon Cowell. We’re a nation of strangers scowling at each other across any number of divides. Nationhood is an illusion, we are only individuals now who happen to share an abstract political union on a patch of earth we bear no connection to. At best we have our tribes. Maybe society was always like this? I doubt it, but it feels particularly appropriate now. I fear that Democracy is in danger as a result from both sides of this referendum.
As a Christian I can take comfort that God is sovereign irrespective of our present circumstances, that I am a participant in the ‘Kingdom of God’ more so than the ‘United Kingdom’. I pray the Church and its formal representatives doesn’t get sucked into partisanship and that we can disagree amicably within the church if we do so. More so I am grateful that many Christians I know personally have been some of the most gracious towards those who have voted differently to themselves despite the abuse they might of received at the hands of the enraged or emboldened elsewhere. I feel now more than ever that the church needs to rediscover what it means to make a public declaration of faith as a source of unity. Christianity is a public truth that was once a part of our national Character and it might one day be so again as a unity which can curb the excesses and dangers of nationalism and simultaneously bind us to an identity larger than any nation (or indeed anything else on this earth).
Its only a few days now until the referendum, the debate on the merits and failures of the EU have been at times inspiring or a cause for despair. I know what way I will vote but at the same time have felt inspired by the fact that this vote feels like the ‘most’ democratic thing I’ve ever done. The vote has cut right across party lines and shaken up a lot of the core parties. Things are actually different in this election and people are revealing a lot about themselves in how they articulate their reasons for voting.
Myself? I’m fairly sure now I will be voting to leave the EU. I don’t think the EU is democratic, we did well out of dodging the Euro and I think the EU’s handling of both Greece’s debt, their relationship with Ukraine and the handling of the migrant crisis have given serious cause for concern. I also think their are massive swathes of the UK that have been left neglected after the collapse of our national industries (fishing, farming, mining and manufacturing) and see a chance of that changing outside the EU which currently undercuts or legislates against it (although this is perhaps rather naive). I also see the EU as an increasingly neoliberal institution that is particularly susceptible to lobbying by multinational corporates (TTIP alone is enough to vote out for me). It is also increasingly infringing on the basic freedoms afforded to its citizens in policing ‘hate speech'(and getting technology companies to do the same). I also think its not even really done that good of a job at upholding workers rights as the existence of zero-hour contracts highlights. I also think we could better off interacting more fully with the world at large without a EU lens changing our view of trade and diplomacy.
I am a European, thats a fact not a matter of perspective. I love Europe and would gladly sign what we did in the 1970’s again but for me the issue is precisely that we didn’t sign up to anything like what we have today. Despite all of that I feel like this vote could possibly be one of the most important things I vote on in my lifetime. In some ways right now is a unnerving time of great change but it is also one of great opportunity, for society and also the church. The recent murder of MP Jo Cox highlights the deep divisions appearing our society partly as a result of this rapid change and the Church has a big job in simultaneously staying faithful to God, his word and those who laboured for the sake of the Kingdom of God before us in this country and adapting to speak into these situations. Massive debt (public and private), decreasing social liberty, broken communities, individualism, materialism, state surveillance, idolatry and heresy are abundant. We need to be conversant with these things and generally speaking I feel the church has done a good job at dealing with Brexit in a way that doesn’t give way to ‘Project Fear’ and gives me hope for these other areas.
The other thing I am grateful of is that unlike other ideologies out there, Christianity is transcultural. What started off as a minority sect of Judaism is now the worlds largest religion, and that is in no small part due to its ability to praise and emphasise the best of the cultures its encountered whilst denouncing and standing against that which would gives ground to sin and idolatry. Whatever way the vote goes, theres going to be pain and upset but the church will find a way in the UK wherever it is. Whether a state of an increasingly federal EU system of government or a independent European island nation looking to the world. The Church has evangelised Europe several times in its history, each time Europe looked fundamentally different and the approach to evangelising it changed in kind. God willing we will do so again and irrespective of the vote British christians will have a part to play in that.
For a good debate on the subject I recommend the recent Unbelievable? broadcasted debate on Brexit from a Christian perspective. Should we stay or should we go?