Brexit, the bishops and the rich fool

The bishops’ joint statement about Brexit.

Following the events that took place in the Supreme Court and Parliament last week the Bishops of the Church of England have issued a joint statement about Brexit in which they make four key points:

  • First, that the result of the 2016 referendum ‘should be honoured.’
  • Secondly, that in debates about Brexit we ‘should speak to others with respect’ and should also listen, especially to the poor, the marginalised and ‘those whose voices are often not heard in our national conversation.’
  • Thirdly, politicians should ‘adhere rigorously to the rule of law ‘and everyone should ‘respect and uphold the impartiality of the courts and our judiciary.’
  • Fourthly, we must renew the structures in our national life that ‘enable us ‘to love one another.’ [1]

These four points are unexceptionable, if rather lacking in detail (what exactly does it mean, for example to ‘honour’ the result of the referendum, or to ‘renew’ the structures of our national life?) and one has to acknowledge that getting 118 bishops to agree a statement on Brexit was no mean feat.

The presupposition behind the Brexit debate.

Nevertheless, the statement is seriously flawed because the bishops have failed to address the most fundamental issue facing our nation at the moment, an issue which the Brexit debate has ignored ever since the original referendum campaign back in 2016.

To understand why this is the case we need to note that the presupposition shared by those on both sides of the debate about Brexit is that the key issue facing our country at the moment has to do with economics.

Although the debate has also touched on issues of national identity and national sovereignty, at the heart of the Brexit debate is a division of opinion about what will be most economically beneficial for the future of this country. On the one hand there are those who think we have the best chance of economic prosperity if we leave the European Union and make our own new trading arrangements with other nations, and on the other hand there are those who think we have the best chance of economic prosperity in both the short and long term if we remain within it.

From a Christian perspective the question of what future political arrangements are most like to bring about economic prosperity is an important one. This is because people in this country, as in all countries, need food, clothing, housing, education, jobs, healthcare and so forth, and we need the means to enable them to have these things. In particular, we need to take whatever steps we can to ensure that these things are available to those who are in especial need because of the place where they live, or because of their personal circumstances.

However, the problem is that in contemporary discussions about the future of our country, including the debate about Brexit, it is generally assumed that the most important thing that people need is material prosperity. The current divisions in our political system are not about whether this is the case. All sides assume that it is. What they differ over is the best way for material prosperity to be achieved.

Jesus’ teaching about the rich fool and its relevance to Brexit debate.

From a Christian viewpoint, however, the assumption that material prosperity is the highest good for human beings is one that needs to be challenged. This is made clear in the teaching of Jesus in Luke 12:13-21 which runs as follows:

‘One of the multitude said to him, ‘Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.’  But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’

The key point Jesus is making is that ‘a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’  However many possessions (or however much money) we manage to acquire during the course of our life in this world, at the end of our life they will be taken away from us. As the Spanish proverb puts it ‘there are no pockets in a shroud.’ What matters at the point of death is therefore what we can take with us into the world to come, namely our relationship with God.

When we die all that will be of importance is whether or not we have a right relationship with God, whether, in Jesus’ words, we are ‘rich towards God.’  This is because it is only if we have such a relationship that we will be happy with God for ever in his eternal kingdom. If, like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, we chose to focus on ourselves and our possessions and turn our back on God we shall instead suffer what the Bible calls the ‘second death’ (Revelation 21:8), alienation from God and all good for ever. In the words of J I Packer, ‘the unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his choice.’ [2]

The most fundamental issue facing our nation at the moment is that we have collectively come to take the attitude of the rich fool. Historically, as the historical records show, the inhabitants of what is now the United Kingdom have acknowledged that the most important thing in human existence is to be rightly prepared for the world to come. In the words of the Prayer Book funeral service, they have acknowledged that ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live’ and they have therefore prayed:

‘We meekly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our brother doth; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight, and receive that blessing, which thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce to all that love and fear thee, saying, Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world: Grant this, we beseech thee, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer.’

Today, however, most people in this country no longer see the need to prepare for life after death. They no longer seek the mercy of God through Jesus Christ in order that they may have a blessed eternity. Like the rich fool, they see life in this world as all that matters and that is why they see achieving material prosperity in this life as the top political priority. That, in turn, is why the pitch made to voters by the political parties is that they the one who are best able to provide material prosperity and that is why in the Brexit debate both side have proclaimed that their approach is that one that will guarantee material prosperity in the future.

What the bishops need to do.

All this being the case, it is not sufficient to do as the bishops have done and tell politicians and others that they can carry on the same debate, but need to dial back the rhetoric a bit.

What the bishops need to do instead is to go back to basics and produce a much more radical document designed to reframe the whole national conversation.

In this document they need to challenge the way in which the issue of whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union has come to be given absolute importance. They need to remind people that, whatever happens to Britain’s relationship with the European Union, God will still be God and people will still need to be properly related to him if they want to avoid a lost eternity.

They also need to remind people that the issue facing the nation is not just about not giving overmuch weight to the Brexit debate. More basically it is about not attaching too much importance to the quest for material prosperity in general. Jesus is quite clear. ‘You cannot serve God and mammon’ (Matthew 6:24). Mammon means ‘wealth’ or ‘riches’ and what Jesus is saying is we have to choose who we will give our allegiance to. If the focus of our life lies in acquiring money or material possessions then we have necessarily rejected God, even if we acknowledge that God exists and sometimes give him some attention. As John Stott writes:

‘…anybody who divides his allegiance between God and mammon has already given it to mammon, since God can only be served with an entire and exclusive devotion. This is simply because he is God: ‘I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other [Isaiah 42:8, 48:11]. To try to share him with other loyalties is to have opted for idolatry.’ [3]

From this perspective the Brexit debate illustrates the fact that we have become an idolatrous nation and the bishops need to say so.

Finally, they need to urge people to turn back to God while there is still time. God is patient and merciful and allows people time to come back to him. However, his patience will not last forever. One day, like the rich fool, we will find that time has run out and at that point all that will matter is where we stand with God.

It will be said that there is no way that the bishops will be prepared to issue such a radically counter cultural statement, or that the nation will listen if they do. Both these points may well be true, but, if they are, what this shows is just how far the Church and the nation have turned away from the Christian faith.  If this is the case then the calling of faithful Christians is not be silent, but rather to be courageous in reminding the Church and the nation of Jesus’ warning about the fate of the rich fool and to pray that God will send a revival that will turn the Church and nation back to him.

M B Davie 30.9.19

[1] ‘Bishops call for respect on all sides amid Brexit debate,’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/bishops-call-respect-all-sides-amid-brexit-debate.

[2] J I Packer, Knowing God, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975, p.170.

[3] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, Leicester: IVP, 1978, pp.158-159.

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