The last few days I have felt particularly ashamed to be British. Not because the country voted to leave the EU, but because of the backlash following it. I appreciate that many people felt deeply unhappy with the result – it’s natural and understandable. Many people believed that leaving the EU was the wrong decision. No problem. People thought the opposite and felt equally strongly about it.
No, what got to me instead was some of the mocking characterisation of ‘Brexiteers’ – xenophobic, racist and ignorant “Little Englanders”.
A few years ago, in one of the comedian Chris Addison’s shows, he made the point that ‘Eurosceptic’ was wrong – because ‘sceptic’ implied that people had actually bothered to think about it. I think this is a good example of the kind of tone used on Facebook and the like recently: not always offensive, but generally implying that those who voted leave were lesser people, somehow.
It really makes me think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
This seems to me to get to the heart of a lot of what is going on with moaning about Brexiteers. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – racists, xenophobes, ignoramuses – and especially not like this Brexiteer. I voted for Remain and I don’t want to sacrifice the futures of all our children for no good reason.”
The other night I had something of an epiphany: it seems to me that people who moaned about Brexiteers actually believed they were morally superior. It’s easy to treat someone else badly when you believe they are morally in the wrong (and you are in the right) – after all, they deserved it, right?
I think this attitude is linked with the decline of Christian understanding and morality in our culture. I believe that people growing up in decades past would have grown up with the language of the Book of Common Prayer – believing that mankind are “miserable offenders” and “there is no health in us”. Even people who didn’t regularly go to church would have had something of this attitude ingrained.
This has a big effect on how we see other people: if we believe that all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – then if someone else gets something wrong, something of a moral nature, then they are still fundamentally no different to us: all are human beings, all are flawed, and the only hope is the grace of God which cannot be earned – only accepted.
On the other hand, if there is no Christian understanding of humanity, then I think you end up with what we’ve just seen: people who think differently are actually perceived as morally deficient in some way. Worse than that, they are wilfully morally deficient. They should try harder and stop being morally deficient, and in the meantime we’ll treat them with disdain and contempt until they realise how morally deficient they are and change.
I wrote about this in November last year when I talked about Bigotry and legalism in our culture. That was in the context of same-sex marriage, but I think the same could be said of Brexit.
If we want to learn to disagree well, I think we have to recover a truly Christian ethic: those on different sides of a divide like this are both human, both made in the image of God, and yet both flawed. Neither is infallible. Both are in equal need of God’s mercy. If by the grace of God we are able to see others in that way, perhaps we’ll be able to make positive progress. But until then I fear for the direction of political discourse in this country.