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13 June 2016

What kind of EU? Standing at the crossroads

The decision we face on 23 June is a stark either/or choice and Christians can be found on both sides of the divide and still sitting on the fence. Some arguments on both sides need Christian critique, but a case can also be put from a Christian perspective for either remaining or leaving.

It hurts to go away: A Christian case to remain

We should stay because the EU's vision, shaped by Christianity, has led it to much good for its members and more widely. The proper response to difficulties in relationships is not to walk out but to work at them and influence others for the good by being present. The UK has modelled this through the EU after initially standing apart and we should persevere in that commitment. EU membership recognises the value of international co-operation and the need for many political questions to be addressed at a transnational level. The UK and other nations benefit from our involvement in institutions working for justice. These bodies can never be as representative as local and national political structures, but the EU ensures all nations are represented in its deliberations and respects their different histories and perspectives. Its commitment to subsidiarity gives a powerful basis for sustaining such distinctiveness.

To leave would diminish our input in conversations and decisions that will inevitably impact our lives and would isolate us from structures that bring us into regular political contact with our nearest neighbours. It would give credence to erroneous views, especially that national sovereignty is inviolable, and risk fuelling nationalistic or xenophobic attitudes. Voting to remain doesn't mean accepting the Euro or all other recent developments. Rather, it means being committed to working with our neighbours to seek our shared common good.

It's impossible to stay: A Christian case to leave

We should leave because the EU, despite Christian elements in its vision, and past successes for example in relation to peace, is now failing and damaging members and others. It is increasingly captive to contemporary, particularly economic, idols as seen in the Euro, and is developing characteristics of an imperial project that don't adequately respect national integrity. Given its history, the UK is well able to discern and to alert the EU to these trends, but attempts at reform have largely failed. Subsidiarity, for example, is honoured in word but not action as EU competences extend across so much of our lives. Particularly since the EU's expansion, the possibility of representative political authority structures has diminished.  There is even less - and far from sufficient - common identity uniting us and we shouldn't seek to engineer or impose such an identity.

The principle of free movement of EU citizens denies the importance of our locatedness and doesn't do justice to distinct national identities. It is no longer enabling solidarity, but increasing tensions and, as with other policies, leads to an unjustifiable preferential option for the EU rather than other, poorer, parts of the world. Brexit, though it will have costs, opens the possibility of creatively rethinking and reconfiguring this negative dynamic to enable the creation of a better situation not just for the UK but for the EU and wider world.

Standing calmly at the crossroads: Debating and deciding

On 24 June, Christians on both sides will, like everyone else, need to come to terms with what the UK has decided and many will be bitterly disappointed. In the final days of the campaign, perhaps one common feature of Christians engaging on both sides has to be to model good practice in how they set out their case and argue with opponents – as in places such as Reimagining Europe and KLICE. Christians, of all people, should be able to recognise that although this is perhaps the most significant political vote many of us will cast, it deals with penultimate not ultimate issues. People of good faith seeking the common good are found on both sides and we need to disagree in such a way that we are then able to accept the outcome and work together to get the best out of it, whether or not it is the result we wanted.

We need to set this referendum in the context of the bigger picture of God's whole redemptive work. In the great Messianic Psalm 2, we see the nations in turmoil, planning and plotting as "the One enthroned in heaven laughs; the LORD scoffs at them" (verse 4).  As we debate the UK's future relationship with the EU we must not lose sight of this heavenly perspective. Whatever happens will be very important for our own nation, other nations and the EU. But it will not be ultimately important. Neither the EU nor any nation, including our own, will last forever. God remains as ruler of the world. The UK and the EU may assist in the coming of God's kingdom. They may oppose it.  That is a matter for constant discernment. What is certain is that neither the EU nor any particular nation can ever itself either establish or prevent the kingdom's full and final coming because the words of Psalm 2 have been fulfilled in Christ - "I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill...You are my Son, today I have become your Father".  (verse 6 – 7, quoted in Hebrews 1:5). As Christians we are united, from every nation, in the confession that "Jesus Christ is Lord" and believe that God has said to him: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession" (v. 8).  That is why Jesus, after his resurrection, assured his disciples: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me therefore, go and make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28:18-19). However we vote on 23 June, we must not focus on this subject nor let our disagreements over it weaken the Church's united mission to be God's international people sent into every nation to warn all the rulers of the earth (verse 10), to declare that Jesus is Lord, and to promise that "blessed are all who take refuge in him" (verse 12).

This is an edited extract, used with permission, from the final chapter of Andrew Goddard's Grove Booklet - The EU Referendum: How Should We Decide?  - which is available here for £3.99 in hard copy or electronic format.

Andrew Goddard is senior research fellow at the Kirby Laing Institute For Christian Ethics and a member of the Alliance's Theology Advisory Group

 Image used under CC A crossroad from amyjane1