Thomas Mair, the killer of Jo Cox, when asked in court to state his name, gave it as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. You couldn’t find a stronger way to identify yourself as British.
In all the debates on the European Union, we have heard over and over again that ‘we’ are the British. For some, ‘we’ are also Europeans. For others, Europeans are the ‘they’ against whom we identify ourselves as British.
Christianity has a lot to say about how we identify ourselves, but I haven’t come across any reference to it in the debate. When the voting is over it may still help heal the wounds.
It matters to me personally and it probably matters to you in a similar way. I was born and bred in Somerset and have a Somerset surname. Somerset, like Liverpool, is part of Britain. Why are they both part of the same nation? Because some early medieval king, I think it might have been Athelstan, won a few battles and extended his kingdom. Historical circumstance. It might have been otherwise.
But I am only one thirty-second English. My Somerset ancestor moved to Wales when the coal mines were opening up. He married a Welsh girl, and a few generations later my Welsh father moved to Somerset.
He was an army chaplain in the Second World War. His regiment ended up in Athens. One day, he witnessed some sniping across a street. A little girl was trapped in the middle. He ran across the street, picked her up and carried her to safety. He was hit by a bullet and lost the tip of one finger. He went to hospital. One of the nurses was called Morfoula Vasiliou. One thing led to another, and so, although I have a Somerset name, my brothers and I are half Welsh and half Greek. Am I British? I say I am when it suits me.
If you have ever done your family tree, you have probably found that somewhere along the line you are a bit of a mixture too. So how can we identify ourselves in a way that is true to the facts?
This is where Christianity gave the world an influential vision. It’s breaking down now, and we need to reclaim it.
To understand the difference it helps to understand the situation before Christianity began. Ancient Israel was a small nation surrounded by large empires. Sometimes it was independent but most of the time it was swallowed up into one of these big empires.
Each empire had its chief god. Sometimes people thought: our nation has been created by our god, other nations have been created by other gods, and so we have absolutely nothing in common with them. We have no reason for looking after them, any more than we look after wild animals.
At other times they thought: our god is the god of the whole world, so we have a duty to conquer the whole world. The kings of Assyria were particularly keen on this idea. They had a reputation for being specially cruel in the way they treated foreigners.
Some of the prophets of Israel came up with a different idea again. They said their god was the god of the whole world, but a god who wanted peace not victory. The people of Israel were the chosen people of this god, but chosen to serve, not to fight. The main texts are in the book of Isaiah.
That was the contribution made by the Jews: monotheism for peace and unity. All people, all over the world, have been made by the same god, who wants everybody to live in peace and harmony, and God has chosen the Jews to tell the world.
Corollaries were worked out over the centuries. As long as a society believes in gods of war, war seems inevitable so tragedy, destruction, homelessness and starvation also seem inevitable. But if there is just one god who has created us for peace and harmony, we have different expectations. The first chapter of Genesis stresses that God created humanity as a blessing. The word ‘Adam’ just means ‘humanity’. God tells humanity to be fruitful and multiply. God has provided enough to meet everybody’s needs. We could live together in peace and harmony and all flourish.
The first Christians inherited this vision of a unified and harmonious world, but made one important change. They abolished the idea of a chosen race. You can be a member of this community of people serving the one and only god, whatever race you belong to.
It was a logical next step. It doesn’t matter what race you belong to because all races have been created by the same god. God has created all of us just the same, and loves us, and wants the best for us.
So therefore, if you want to live in the kind of way God wants for you, you align your desires with God’s desires. Just as God loves everybody and wants the best for everybody, we also should want the best for everybody, regardless of race or identity.
It hardly needs saying that Christians have often failed to live up to this vision. Christianity has often been turned into its opposite, an excuse for divisiveness. People have often said ‘We are Christians, they don’t accept the divinity of Christ, so we are against them’. In the seventh century Christians were fighting each other so much that Mohammed tried to bring them together in a united submission to the one god; but his movement also got turned into a cause of division.
Today there is a different threat to the Christian vision. It comes from secular society. The underlying theory of secularism is that if you want to believe in God you can but you must keep it separate from public questions about how society should be run. So public political and economic debate excludes God, and therefore excludes the vision that Christianity provides.
Secularism abandons the idea that God provides enough wealth to meet everybody’s needs. All the evidence indicates that there is enough food for everybody, and there are enough resources for everybody to have enough housing and clothing; but secularism tells us there is always shortage, and we ought to be constantly striving after more material resouces.
This puts us under pressure in two ways. Firstly it tells us that we need, and always will need, to create more wealth. So we have to work harder and harder. Secondly it tells us that there isn’t enough to go round, so we have to compete against each other and the losers will have to go without.
This produces a culture of competitiveness. On an individual level people have to compete for jobs and money. On a national level Britain competes against other nations. This competitiveness sets us against each other.
Now that this culture of competitiveness has been proclaimed by governments for a generation, it has sunk deep into our culture. We have been losing the sense that our well-being is tied up with the well-being of our neighbours. We have been losing the sense that Britain can only be prosperous and confident when other nations are prosperous and confident too. We have been losing the internationalist vision that Christianity gave the world, and we need to reclaim it.
You are three things. You are a human being. You are a member of a family. And you are a member of the human race. Everything in between – being British, or European, or Scouse – is a political construct. We need our political constructs, but they do not tell us who we are.