Thursday, 30 March 2017

I am an idolater

So, Theresa has signed the blasted letter. And I’d better write something too. I have been practically inactive on here since the US presidential election, and I need to have a stern word. With myself, mainly. 

The last years have seen a resurgence of nationalism across the world – or across the “West” – that has been pretty disturbing in its manifestations and consequences. From the rise of more or less overtly racist parties across Europe, to the outpouring of frustration at a complacent Westminster in the Brexit vote and its accompanying hate incidents, and on to "America first! America first!" and the petty, self-obsessed tweets from the Trump, we have seen a descent towards tribalism and barbarism that comes as a shock. 

What has been a particular source of grief, though sadly not of surprise, is the degree to which members of the Church have attached themselves to this movement. Christians I know personally and respect highly became vocal supporters of the Orange One, explicitly in the hope that he would “Make America great again.” Such thoughts are not the exclusive preserve of Unitedstatesian Christians. That slogan is merely the American outcropping of the same stratum seen in Brexit, Le Pen, AfD, the Dutch Freedom Party and the rest. Here too Christians are on board with the nationalism; in the U.K. “taking our sovereignty back” was espoused not merely as a necessary political re-balancing, but as a theologically-driven crusade. 

Now, it may possibly be faintly discernible in what I have written that I did not vote in favour of Brexit, that I find the Washington Tweetmeister utterly detestable, and all support for him perverse. If you have picked that up, you are with me so far. Which is good, because this piece is not actually a rant against Hilary-hating, Obama-bashing, Breitbart-swallowing “Christian” America, nor against Brexiteer-believers in the U.K.  

No. It’s a rant against me and my kind. Not for being “sore losers”, because actually, in a democracy, you are allowed to go on arguing for what you believe even after a decisive vote – as an 11 year old Farage started doing in 1975. No, this rant is an attempt to deal with the utter, appalled misery into which 23 June and 8 November plunged me. It is wrung out of me as a confession that our misery and fear are merely the other side of the Trump and Brexit coin. They are manifestations of the same unbelief and idolatry.

For this wave of nationalism is a wave of idolatry. I say that as a patriotic Briton, an Englishman. I love my country, and do not have any special desire that it slide into oblivion. However, the UK will pass – and much of its glory has already gone. Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a statue is as relevant today as it was in the days of the Babylonian empire. Babylon – passed away. Persia – came and went. Greece – faded. Rome – disintegrated. And the British Empire is now just the skeleton of a shadow. I would recommend to North Americans, especially to Christians, that every time they look themselves in the eye in the shaving mirror, they tell themselves, “My country will disappear”. Before the recent election, a Trump supporter stateside urged me not to look at the candidate, but to read the GOP platform. I duly did so – but the first line of the preamble was enough for me. “We believe in American exceptionalism”: that’s idolatry, right there. Whether or not any country was great, is great or will be great, all nations are merely the dust on the scales of the One who really rules, and all will be utterly eclipsed by his coming kingdom. America is no exception: it will go – is going – the way of all the others. 

And that is where those of us who oppose Brexit may fall into exactly the same sin as those with whom we disagree. For Europe too will pass. Absolutising the need to get out of it and absolutising the need to stay in it are BOTH idolatrous. The greatest issues that we face as human beings CANNOT be dealt with by either being in OR out of the EU, they cannot be solved by either a Donald or a Hilary. And to the degree to which our anguish at Brexit or our dismay at the current POTUS is the mirror image of the triumphalism and hope of those who rejoice at last year's results, we are guilty. We are not to put our trust in princes, and nor are we to fear them – rather we are to fear the One who has power over body and soul for eternity. 

When we buy into the extreme, all-eclipsing passion which has characterised the Brexit and presidential debates, we not only run the risk of seriously damaging our unity as Christians (and much damage has been done that way), but we also reveal the degree to which we have ceased to really believe the gospel. I mean, really believe it, in a way that relativises every political issue, every ideological difference, every contemporary cultural chasm. And you may say, “Ah, but the gospel has political, ideological and cultural ramifications!” And of course it does. But not in such a way that I can bemoan our exit from the EU as if the EU were in and of itself the Kingdom of God, or rejoice in Trump's election as if he were the Messiah. 

That may appear to leave a loophole. “Oh, but we didn't mourn/rejoice like THAT!” Well, you could have fooled me! I have had to preach at myself for months in order to write this, so I know how deep the rot has gone. The drip feed of this-worldly thought has taken its toll, as has the desire, in the age of aggressive “toleration”, to avoid sticking our heads above the parapet with the actual gospel. That fear is certainly killing the Salvation Army in the U.K., and I don’t think we are alone in that. Christians in other churches, even in more consistently evangelical ones, are falling into the same trap.

We have become simply more passionate, more committed, more brave, more evangelistic about our particular political hopes and fears than we are about Jesus. Christians who love the EU and Christians who hate the EU are together being diverted from the real mission. Trump-lovers and Trump-haters are together losing the plot. And, dare I say it, theological liberals and theological conservatives are identical in practice if they are not actually talking about God’s work in Christ. You may believe in the authority of scripture as a unified, God-breathed book, you may cling to the centrality of the atonement achieved at the cross, you may sign up to the awful, eternal, populated nature of hell, but you might as well be Rob Bell if you only ever talk about Brexit, and share recipes or pictures of kittens.

For all the heat and aggression generated by recent events, feeling and speaking passionately about politics is simply less scary than talking about God’s message. In a ‘church’ where believing the gospel makes you the target for derision, it is hard enough making the basic affirmations of your faith INSIDE your community, let alone outside. But for myself I know I have to do this. I have to move on from recent events, move up to the higher issues that face us all, move back to what the gospel has always really been about. We have to lay aside idolatry and fear, and live as citizens of the eternal kingdom.

So here’s my head above the parapet. Here’s my creed. Here’s what I really have to stand for:

I believe in God the Father, Creator of the heavens and of the earth. I believe that the nations are the dust in the Almighty's scales and will all pass away. I believe that the leaders of nations are set in place and pulled down by his authority. I believe that talk which absolutises the greatness or destiny of any earthly country or union of nations is intrinsically idolatrous. 

I believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered and died under the authorities of earthly kingdoms, was buried, and the third day rose from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated on the eternal throne at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the kingdoms and peoples of the earth, those who have lived and died in every era. Jesus Christ will give the verdict and pass the eternal sentence on every one of us. 

I believe in the Holy Spirit, whose transforming power in the lives of sinners is the only hope for this broken, fragmented and rebellious world.

I believe in the holy catholic church, which is the present manifestation of the eternal kingdom, the only community on earth whose continuity is assured for ever.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins, which is the best possible news, given that sin and guilt and judgement to come are the most pressing issues facing any human being. 

I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, these eternal realities so relativising all earthly goals and political concerns that my anxiety to talk about them should all but drown out any comment I may make regarding laws, treaties, unions and presidents. 


I so need God’s help!


  1. I really appreciate your comments here. You are quite right that we must be sure to make our gospel convictions primary and our political/social views secondary. Likewise, your comment about the fleeting nature of kingdoms and empires is especially important to remember - particularly when we are faced with rulers we would rather not have.

    As somebody who voted for, and has written about, Brexit - and I absolutely share the spirit of your post re gospel concerns before political ones - I surprised to be lumped together with those who support Donald Trump and far-right nationalism. Whilst I know of some who support Brexit who would incline to those other things, there are plenty of us who are vehemently against them. It (sometimes) feels as though this black and white lumping together all people who dared to vote to leave the EU as the same, and worse - as of a piece with far-right nationalism and out and out racism/xenophobia - rather undercuts the calls to unity.

    Like you, it is hard for me to disentangle my politics from my faith. Not least, having taken both History/Politics and Theology degrees - and spent much time looking for where they intersect - it has become a specific point of interest for me. It is also interesting to be lumped in nationalists, racists and xenophobes given I minister in a diverse, multicultural church reaching out to many folk from EU nations as well as non-European countries. I love both our Eastern European brothers and sisters as much as I value our Middle Eastern, Caribbean and British ones. I would gladly welcome more of them and am delighted at the number of asylum seekers we see coming to know the Lord (and I'd be far more generous than our current system permits with them too).

    I think it is oft forgotten that all the major parties had 'for Leave' groups. Long before any mention of a referendum, Tony Benn campaigned vociferously to leave the EU and, whatever anybody may feel about his politics, there can be no denying he was not in line with UKIP or far-right nationalism. Comparing the 4m votes for UKIP at the General Election to the 52% majority in favour of leaving the EU suggests we ought not to consider every, even most, Brexit voters as Trump-supporting, far-right nationalists. The lumping together of such things just feels a little lazy to me and isn't going to help the sour feelings, precisely because those feelings eminent from a base presumptions that idiot, xenophobes and racists have managed to gain traction and majority support which, if true, would be depressing indeed (even though your comments about focusing on the gospel would still hold under such circumstances)! But such is not true and it might help the general feelings of despair for those who would have preferred to see continued membership of the EU if we didn't keep propagating the fallacy, even by inference.

    1. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful and helpful balancing comment, Stephen, and for the chance to discuss the issues privately. I am going to leave it there; thanks again for your comment.

  2. Can't say any thing other than "i am with you on this". A really thoughtful piece putting matters in eternal perspective. You have brought together with coherence stuff that i have been thinking about in but ways

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Ferris. We are (I think) near neighbours; we should meet some time.