Groucho Marx was once heard to say something along the lines of “Why would I want to join a club that would admit someone like me?”
Many of us share a little of this reticence when it comes to joining things, although we may not express it quite so candidly. The question may even be inverted, so as to disguise its true meaning.
Then, it acquires a sort of codex: “I have enough trouble meeting my own needs, so why should I involve myself in the needs of others? How would I benefit from joining their club?” We all, as individuals and as a society, wonder what’s in it for us when it comes to joining things.
There are two underlying problems with this approach to sociality, the one affecting the individual and the other society itself. The selfish individual always ends up alone, and a society disintegrates, morally, spiritually and financially, when its survival depends on mean-spiritedness stemming from a fundamental tendency to distrust those it does not understand and to believe that it can manage quite well without them.
As our own society ages, we are feeling the financial, as well as the social, effects of a growing number of individuals who find themselves alone in old age because they have not worked well at their relationships earlier in life. Many of them did not believe they needed to. There are also plenty of statistics pointing to the longer term effects of a disintegrating and increasingly xenophobic society. These have been used to persuade the disenchanted and cynical to reach back to a mythic past when everyone looked more or less the same, knew their place and supposedly upheld the same ‘values’, along with the often cruel social constraints which went with them. They are seldom reminded that it was also a society emerging from the second of the two Eurocentric wars.
When it comes to the way we vote on 23rd June, to dream of a future built on selfishness, myth and fear is to build on quicksand. To opt out of taking responsibility for a shared European future, a future whose foundations were laid in the rubble of the Second World War, is to build on the sands of despair. To give up on the peace and prosperity which we have created over the past seventy years alongside our European neighbours, is to court the kind of fragmentation otherwise known as ‘meltdown’. Added to this, if Brexit gets its way, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will inevitably experience further political meltdown with possibly dire consequences for all of our lives. The peace and relative prosperity which we have known since the end of the last time Europe went into meltdown, in the form of the second of two world wars, will only be maintained through a collective will to make the EU work. Those of us who vote ‘remain’ are voicing that will.
Christian teaching brings much wisdom to the question of how we vote on Europe, and how we go about rebuilding a fragile but precious kingdom, so that it can withstand future meltdown. The Gospel suggests that the kingdom’s fragility, and the fragility of Europe as a kingdom modelled on the Kingdom of heaven, is in fact its strength. It can bend to God’s Spirit, if the political system allows it. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom he is not talking about the sovereignty of any one nation, however that is interpreted in the context of the times. He is not talking about systems either. He is talking about peoples and the kind of faith it takes to believe that it is possible for peoples to work together for the common good.
We have rather lost sight of the idea of the common good, and we often lose faith in a God who wills it. As a result, our politics have become selfish, and those who wield political power, do so in a selfish and often arbitrary manner. Promises are broken and policies change to suit party and individual group interests, so it is not surprising that those who promise autonomy and freedom from bureaucracies and systems created by others gain in political popularity. They appeal to those who feel disenfranchised. It seems that is the only kind of ‘freedom’ on offer. Since we have largely forgotten how to relate to God, how to pray, the proponents of this pseudo-freedom are on to a winning ticket. Added to this, the general thinness of our spiritual life makes it even more difficult to know who to believe and where to turn when it comes to engaging with this historic vote.
But this year has seen some visionary leadership which may help all of us to vote with greater confidence when it comes to staying in Europe. As a result of Archbishop Justin Welby’s #Thykingdomcome initiative, our nation has been praying that God’s Kingdom may come about on Earth in accordance with His will. At the moment we are also praying that the European Cup Final will be played out in the same spirit (A Prayer for #EURO2016)
There is a profound connection between the unity of purpose which many of us yearn for in the context of the future of the European Union and the unity of purpose which drives healthy sport and competition. The ‘beautiful game’ lends energy and drive to an underlying unity of purpose among all its players. It is fuelled by the same divine energy which builds the loving sociality that all peoples depend on for survival.