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12 May 2016

What kind of EU? Freedom

Ahead of the EU referendum on 23 June the Evangelical Alliance is publishing a series of pieces exploring key issues relating to membership of the EU and how Christians might approach the vote. 

As an organisation we take no view on whether the UK should remain or leave the EU and the pieces represent the personal opinions of the authors. Last week identity was under the microscope and future articles will consider democracy, economics, as well as the missionary context of Europe. 

Everyone cares about freedom. Whether it's our personal freedom, or our collective civil and religious freedoms, they are fundamental to our understanding of a fair and plural society. One of the central functions of a democratic government is to manage in some way the freedoms of its citizens. In almost every civilization and society, some degree of personal freedom is surrendered to the rule of law, and some sort of governance for the wider common good. On an even larger scale almost every nation surrenders some degree of its national sovereignty for the global common good through institutions like the UN.

If all freedoms were absolute we would be in a state of anarchy, and that's why freedom is often conditional, mediated, and constrained. In fact when personal freedom is abused it often leads to injustices against others.

Freedom is also a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith. Believers may differ in how their theology understands personal freedom but will all agree freedom is a gift from God that is to be stewarded wisely. Beyond followers of the Christian faith, people have generally agreed that boundaries like harm and consent should temper our freedom for the common good.

Freedom cannot be ignored in the ongoing debate about membership of the European Union. Some advocating to leave have called it 'a vote for freedom'. At the same time a number of freedoms (of people, goods, capital etc) have been central to the development of the European project. Many of the same freedoms are framed as both advantages and disadvantages of EU membership by the respective campaigns.

Although freedom is generally considered a good thing which is prized and celebrated, it is a very wide term. Almost every cause could be argued as being fought on the grounds of freedom, from the IRA in Northern Ireland, to those seeking lower taxes, to the decriminalisation of abortion. Freedom has been central to European thought for millennia, from Aristotle and Plato to the reformation and the French Revolution, to the Second World War and the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights.

But this history isn't the Christian's starting point when thinking about freedom. We begin with the absolute sovereignty of God. He is all powerful: the heavens and the earth are His. We know that freedom is a gift and in two vital ways is God's ultimate gift to us. First, we are offered freedom from slavery and from sin through His son Jesus; the whole story of God's people is a movement from slavery to freedom. The second way we have the gift of freedom is in the choice to believe and follow God, or not to; that gift of free will. The freedom we receive in Jesus Christ is not a set of rules, it's not about a place or a life-style, but it is about a person and a relationship. The truth of this relationship is what gives us freedom.

There is a fallen form of freedom at the heart of original sin – the desire for autonomy, for freedom, from God and His rule. A desire for freedom to do what we think we want to do. The way Christians understand freedom is very different to the world around us – we reflect on the paradox that the ultimate freedom is found in being a slave to Jesus, we find our freedom in our conformity to His image and will. If we try to hold onto our freedom we lose everything.

Our pursuit of freedom is also tempered by the pursuit of justice. When we abandon God and others in the name of our own freedom we open the door to injustices and damaged relationships with other people. Freedom and justice are both vitally important, and as Christians we should advocate for both. In order to ensure any form of community-wide justice some sacrifice of individual freedom is always required.

The overarching story of the Bible tells this same story, and offers us the same caution, if we want to have freedom at any cost, that cost will usually be to justice. Israel is taken from a place of captivity to a place of freedom. They were given their freedom to worship God, to keep His laws and His covenant. They were to be God's people and God would be their God. They took this freedom, they insisted on being governed by kings like the nations around them. God gave them freedom and let them use their freedom. This poses deep theological questions like; how much freedom does God give to the nations which He holds in His hands? And how much freedom do we want our rulers to have?

However, freedom of religious belief, conscience and worship are central to the evangelical understanding of faith. This echoes back to the reformation – right at the heart of Europe – and as well as shaping Christian belief has affected wider society and Western philosophical thinking.

If we care about freedom, and balancing it with justice and community cohesion, we take an interest in the European Union.

Europe is right now at the centre of one of the greatest mass movements of people in the history of the planet. The free movement of people has become critical as both an idea and a reality. Christians care deeply about people, whether they are refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants or whoever. What happens matters, and how they are treated matters. But so too do prudence, wisdom and long-term solutions that encourage peace and prosperity in homelands to avoid further displacement of civilian populations.

For Christians the protections of the poor and vulnerable alongside the freedom of religion and belief must shape our thinking. These issues are incredibly complex. Is the direction of public discourse in the UK likely to lead to greater protections for religious freedoms whether we remain in or out, or are the terms of the debate unlikely to change regardless? Can the UK better look after the poor and vulnerable here and abroad, as part of Europe or by itself?

These are hugely complex questions and at their heart is the 'freedom for what' question? Freedom to pursue internal nationalistic ends or freedom to better serve and steward the wider global community?

Assessing freedom

Regardless of whether we vote to leave or remain we will still be part of Europe the continent and the community of nations. We will still have the same neighbours and many of the same obligations towards them – through legal treaties and moral codes – as well as to our fellow British citizens.

We must consider how much freedom is really up for grabs with this vote, within the narrow confines of a certain post-modern, consumeristic, individual way of thinking? There is a call for realism and understanding that across the wider western world, far beyond the boundaries of the EU there are trends that threaten our freedom and liberty in much more fundamental ways.

Consumerism appears to offer the freedom of choice, but it actually enslaves. Capitalism promises the freedom to pursue money, secularism the freedom from religion, individualism the freedom from control by others. But these all still bind people in new forms of constraint.

We live out our freedoms in complex and ever changing communities, they become real in the relationships, fueled by ever-changing interests, and in tension with consistent power struggles. Christians are rightly concerned with the freedoms of religion, of speech, assembly, the freedom to preach the gospel, as well as the freedoms these are fundamentally linked to, the civil freedoms crucial to a plural and democratic society. But these freedoms cannot be guaranteed or secured for eternity by either the UK or the EU. As abolitionist Wendell Phillips said: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."  

Perhaps it comes down to a question of trust - who do we trust more with our freedoms? Do we trust the UK enough to break from the protections which Europe gives? Do we trust Europe enough to protect the freedoms most important to citizens the UK?

Pointers for prayer and reflection

Christians might want to ask themselves the following questions about freedom and membership of the EU, these also may provide helpful pointers for prayer and reflection:

  • What freedoms do you cherish most?
  • As Christian citizens, what additional freedoms do we want that are currently prevented by our membership of the EU?
  • What freedoms do we currently have protected, because of our membership of the EU, that we risk losing?
  • What are we seeking freedom from? And what, and who, are we seeking freedom for?

Note: The European Court of Human Rights is not a European Union institution. It was set up by the Council of Europe, which has 47 members including Russia and Ukraine. So quitting the EU would not exempt the UK from its decisions.

Take a look at our  May/June special issue of idea focusing on Europe, and more information about the EU referendum can be found here.