first published on thegospelcoalition.org - written by Bernard N. Howard
Yesterday, June 23, a national referendum was held on the question of Britain’s future within the European Union—a group of 28 nations united by free trade, freedom of movement, and institutions such as the European Commission and the European Parliament. The choice was simple: leave or remain. (“Brexit,” short for “British exit” is the popular term for the first of those options.) To the surprise of the world’s financial markets and the pollsters, the British people narrowly voted to leave the EU, by a margin of 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent.
If we’re to follow the example of the men of Issachar, who “had understanding of the times” (1 Chron. 12:32), what should we conclude about this decision? What are the likely ripple effects when the nation with the world’s fifth-biggest economy and a long history of Christian mission steps away from partnership with 27 neighboring nations?
I voted for Brexit, so the observations below will inevitably tilt toward that side of the debate. Many committed Christians were for remain, and their thoughts will be different. Rather than pouring fuel on the flames in a time of concern, this article is intended as a defense of Britain’s decision that may offer people some reassurance.
Reasons for Alarm
At first glance, the prognosis might seem gloomy. The International Monetary Fund has predicted that Brexit will lead to a British recession, which would inevitably hit poorer people hardest. Early financial indicators could be used to support that negative outlook: the British pound initially lost more than 10 percent of its value, and the FTSE 100 (the main British stock market index) fell more than 8 percent when the market opened. But snap reactions from the markets aren’t a reliable guide to long-term economic effect. And just as British trade didn’t begin in 1973 when Britain entered the EU, it won’t end in 2016 with Britain’s vote to leave. Many smaller nations trade successfully without participating in wider trading blocs; the world’s fifth-biggest economy will be able to do the same.
Aside from the economy, some have claimed that Brexit was the result of hostility toward immigrants coming to work in Britain from elsewhere in the EU. According to that analysis, Brexit fits a global narrative of rising aggressive nationalism, arguably paralleled in the United States with the Republican presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
With that in mind, any weakening of the EU—whose existence has coincided with 70 years of peace in Western Europe—looks worrying. It would, however, be more accurate to credit recent decades of peace to NATO than the EU, as demonstrated by the two organizations’ respective roles in the war in the former Yugoslavia. And tensions over immigration in the UK are actually likely to decrease thanks to Brexit, now that the United Kingdom Independence Party, often accused of stirring up hostility, no longer has a reason for being.
Turning to specifically Christian matters, Philip Moore (Acts 29’s Europe director) said before the vote,
The EU . . . offers more gospel opportunities and therefore church-planting opportunities than it denies, and [Britain] remaining in offers British citizens and British churches more scope and ease for their work.
Now that Brexit is on the way, it seems fair to say that those opportunities won’t be so readily available. British missionaries in Europe will, in time, face the administrative burden of applying for visas and a new uncertainty over their residency status. Yet Jim Sayers, who is employed by a mission agency supporting missionaries in Europe, is confident that mission will continue:
The mission agency I work for has been helping support missionaries in Europe for 50 years. We sent missionaries into Spain when Franco was in power, into Belgium and France before we entered the EEC (as it was then) and long before free movement was introduced. We sent missionaries into Austria and Latvia a decade before either of those countries joined the EU. No one had their visas refused.
So the reasons for apprehensiveness have probably been overstated. And a strong case can be made that the referendum’s result is, in fact, something Christians should positively welcome. Two main reasons for cheering Brexit particularly stand out.
Reasons to Take Heart
1. The EU’s deeply ingrained faults justify departure.
The ideals and aspirations of the EU—harmonious international co-operation and peace—are admirable. But the gap between those ideals and the actual nature of the EU has now become so wide that, arguably, it can’t be closed. While it was said during the referendum campaign that remaining in the EU would allow Britain to speak up for reform, one voice among 28 has slim influence. And the following select examples of the EU’s faults have an ingrained nature that makes it hard to see how reform could ever come about:
- According to the London Times, the European Court of Auditors has now refused to give the EU budget a clean bill of health for 21 years in a row. In the words of The Times, “More than €133.6 billion of European Union budget payments last year were ‘affected by material error,’ with official auditors expected to brand them as irregular and possibly illegal.”
- Even when money is spent legally by the EU, it’s not spent well. For example, every single month, for just four days, the whole European Parliament moves to an entirely different country, traveling from Brussels (in Belgium) to Strasbourg (in France). The estimated cost, every year, is €180 million ($200 million). Politico explains: “Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament, but Brussels is home to most of its permanent staff and committees and hosts several plenary sessions a year. The dual citizenship means that up to 10,000 people must travel twelve times a year from Brussels to Strasbourg to debate and vote on legislation.” When one considers that youth unemployment in Greece, Spain, and Italy—three of the EU’s core countries—is 48.9 percent, 45.3 percent, and 39.1 percent respectively, the wastefulness of this perpetual motion substantiates the view that a lost generation of young people is being ill-served by the EU’s wealthy bureaucrats.
- The most serious example of the harmfulness of the EU is its effect on Africa. From Africa’s perspective, the EU is a group of wealthy nations that have banded together to protect their own interests from African competition. The result is that European farmers can prosper while much needier African farmers face the unfair barriers of EU tariffs and subsidies. It’s often said that poorer people and countries should be given fishing rods rather than fish. When that proverb is translated into global economics, it suggests doing whatever possible to assist African trade. But the EU does precisely the opposite. For decades it has been, as it were, breaking African fishing rods in two. This is one of the factors leading many Africans to risk their lives sailing on rafts across the Mediterranean, desperately trying to get into the EU. They realize that everything is currently loaded in Europe’s favor. Brexit will allow Britain to form new trading partnerships with African nations without the barriers that currently get in Africa’s way.
2. The Bible takes a dim view of empires.
On the Canongate Wall in Edinburgh, these words from Alasdair Gray are carved in marble: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
It’s a powerful quote because we can all imagine the hope and energy a people would share as they begin building a new nation. Try substituting “empire” for “nation” in the quote. It doesn’t have the same ring, because we don’t relate to empires in the same way. When different nations are clustered into one empire, the people in that empire become utterly insignificant and disposable. Their voice no longer has any sway. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the world is divided between three superstates: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Great Britain has become a portion of Oceania known as Airstrip One. The sheer scale of these superstates is one of the reasons why the people in the novel are so helpless.
The Bible similarly treats empires as threatening and dangerous. In the Book of Daniel, for instance, the four successive empires that ruled over the ancient world in the 600 years before Christ are depicted as terrifying beasts. Nations, on the other hand, are portrayed as God’s invention and a means of grace. As Paul explains to the Athenians,
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26, 27)
While some might dispute the idea that the EU is an empire, it can’t be denied that its legislation takes precedence over the internal laws of its member states. And its trajectory has only ever moved in one direction: from a trading partnership, to an economic community, to a pan-national political union. Since 1999 its core nations have shared the same currency. Its leaders, the EU Commissioners, can’t be voted out of office by the people of its member states. These are all imperial traits.
Of course, those who belong to an empire must submit to it as the authority God has set in place (Rom. 13:1). And just as Paul enjoyed freedom of movement throughout the Roman Empire, pan-national union will inevitably have some advantages. But if the opportunity comes for a nation to gain freedom, to take responsibility for its own laws, and to make its leaders accountable to its own people, then from a biblical perspective that is something to be seized with both hands.
The Christian faith should make us more concerned about the health of our nation than we otherwise would be. Paul tells Timothy,
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Tim. 2:1, 2)
In the same letter, Paul points out that God’s law has been laid down not only for believers but for everyone (1 Tim. 1:8–10), which means Christians ought to know what will work best for whole societies.
We should, therefore, have more to say about politics, economics, and international relations than narrow reflections on how those things might affect the work of the gospel (as important as that question is). It’s a mistake to isolate ourselves through pietism, which is defined by Tim Keller in his book Center Church as a focus “on the inner individual experience [that] does not expect or ask how the experience of salvation will change the way we use our money, do our work, create our art, pursue our education, etc.” In pietistic Christianity, “personal salvation is offered without much thought as to how Christianity substantially changes a people’s attitude toward power and powerlessness, art and commerce, cultural ritual and symbolism.” No doubt many British Christians in recent weeks have wanted to crawl under a rock to escape all discussion of the pros and cons of Brexit, but ultimately it’s right to engage as broadly as possible in the disussion.
Yet even while our faith fuels interest in national affairs, it should also enable us to hold these developments loosely. In Psalm 2, the nations gather together in rebellion against God and his anointed one. God responds by saying to his Son,
This is the fate of all nations, so our only hope is to pay homage to the Son (Ps. 2:12). He saves us from the rod of punishment by receiving it himself, in our place, that we might receive eternal life in his perfect kingdom.