A British citizen—or should I say, a British subject—I recently acquired French nationality. This process prompted the following reflexions on how our identity as Christians meshes with our civic identity and national allegiance. I conclude with a wake-up call, warning that the Orthodox Church’s response to racism, ethnophyletism, and authoritarianism needs to be sharper and better informed.
On 24 June 2016, along with millions of my compatriots, I woke up to the shocking news that the UK had voted by a slim majority to leave the European Union. Although the Leave campaign lied and broke the law to achieve its ends, it soon became clear not only that the result would be allowed to stand, but that the type of Brexit being pursued was a “hard” one, involving a break with the European Single Market and therefore the end to freedom of movement.
And so it was that, along with the other British nationals resident in the EU 27, I was reduced to third-country status without a say in the matter. Among the emotions I felt were anger, anxiety, and a sense of shame at what my country had become. Added to this was the pain of division with the realization that certain of my friends and relatives, including fellow Orthodox, supported the Brexit cause, either through ignorance or because they had been infected by the virus of English nationalism.
Why should the Brexit and its human consequences matter to Orthodox Christians? First, because truth matters, and the Spirit who is one of the Persons of the Trinity we worship is the Spirit of Truth. The rise of lying in public life—whether in highly defective democracies such as the USA and the UK or in the dictatorships springing up all over the world—cannot be shrugged off, least of all by Christians. If we believe that the “truth sets us free” (Jn 8:32), we become more and more enslaved the more we allow lying in public life to be normalized. (In fact, the Britain of Boris Johnson, like the United States of Donald Trump, goes beyond lies and strays into fantasy, gaslighting, and the construction of “alternative” realities.)
Secondly, the EU is not the Anti-Christ, despite what many Christian fundamentalists would have you believe, and there is nothing anti-Christian about the process of European nations coming together to form a union. The “United States of Europe,” predicted in Hal Lindsey’s bestselling book about the end times first published in 1970, may have come to pass (depending on how you define “united”), but to claim it is ruled by the Anti-Christ is clearly absurd unless you hate democracy and the other benefits the EU has brought (Hal Lindsey with Carole C. Carlson, The Late, Great Planet Earth, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970). On the contrary, the EU motto “United in diversity,” in use since 2000, should strike a chord of recognition with Christians, echoing as it does St. Paul’s statement that “though we are many, we are one body in Jesus Christ” (Rom 12:5). Christianity has always valued the freedom and responsibility of the person (our diversity) while simultaneously upholding the value of community (unity). Likewise, as Europeans, we can respect the different political institutions and traditions of the member states while at the same time pooling decision-making on issues that affect the region as a whole.
The third reason Brexit should matter to Christians is the Leave campaign’s pandering to nativism. Although the motives of those who manipulated public opinion behind the scenes have primarily to do with rogue capitalism and a self-serving laissez-faire economic philosophy, it is to nationalism, to fear of immigrants and to the condemnation of a nebulous “metropolitan elite,” that they appealed in order to achieve their ends. This is in direct conflict with St. Paul’s vision of the Church, in which ethno-national categories such as “Jew or Greek” count for nothing (Gal 3:28). The essence of the Orthodox faith is to achieve the task of becoming who we are (fulfilling our divine vocation), not to raise what we are (nationality, race) into an absolute principle.
For decades UK governments, egged on and intimidated by the right-wing press, have pandered to the anti-immigrant sentiment held by a large part of the electorate. Thus former UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who as Home Secretary instigated the notorious “hostile environment” approach to immigration, was appealing to the nativist and nationalist strands in her party and country when she uttered her infamous remark (echoing Hitler, though probably unconsciously), that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
However, those of us who fall into the “everywhere/nowhere” category have nothing to be ashamed of. To feel as though you belong nowhere is a perfectly sane, Christian response to a fallen world in which mendacity is more at home than truth. Perhaps the sense of belonging nowhere is a cross that some of us are called to bear, a form of witness. Being unable to identify with any one place on earth: is this not a sign of a holy dissatisfaction with the categories of this world, and of an awareness that we are pilgrims on this earth, restlessly waiting for and working towards the only Kingdom that counts, which is not of this world? Hence the New Testament references to “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pt 2:11) and to a “better country” which is “heavenly” (Heb11:16). We may also note that one of the names given to Christ is that of “stranger” or “pilgrim.” (See for instance the liturgical chant “Come let us bless Joseph of eternal memory,” sung at the end of Vespers for Holy Friday.) Any Christian who “is waiting for the Kingdom of Heaven” cannot help being aware of the provisional, contingent nature of national boundaries.
What can the Orthodox Church learn from the Brexit saga?
We have shown that Brexit is worthy of attention because it is an object lesson in the cost of ignorance and lying. Therefore, there is no room for the comfortable “bothsidery” that has sometimes characterized the responses emanating from various church groups, as well as other institutions such as the BBC. As the Church we need to acknowledge the suffering that Brexit has caused with its lies and bigoted nationalism. We cannot stay silent as trade in goods and services dries up, even as the trading of insults and blame increases. Above all, we need to sharpen our critical response to the nationalism, nativism, and right-wing populism that is gradually taking over in many countries, and to the lies that feed it.
Sadly, however, the ship of our Church has already taken on water. Too often, Christian responses to current social and political issues seem naïve and inadequate, under the pretext that Christianity should be “above politics” and the focus should be on personal, not collective, transformation. Worse, we Orthodox need to become more aware of the extent that our Church has been infiltrated by ethnophyletism and white supremacy (see here and here), and the way ethno-cultural characteristics are often fetishized in the name of Tradition.
Anecdotal evidence leads me to suspect that support for Brexit is more common among Orthodox Christians, who are more likely to confuse nostalgia and tradition, than in other social groupings. A clear example of how ill-informed some Orthodox are about the European Union can be found in the Orthodox England blog, associated with the St. John of Shanghai Church, Colchester, England, a Moscow Patriarchate (previously ROCOR) parish. The site is a bizarre mixture of healthy patriotism and gross distortion. It celebrates the saints and spiritual heritage of England—so far, so good. However, with the entry titled Global Iona we enter an evidence-free zone. It begins: “Freed from the EU nationalist straitjacket and ghetto after 47 years of slavery and despair, as a result of the treason of ‘Norman’ (i.e., Establishment) politicians, the UK looks forward.” The post Freedom in the Air calls the EU a “tyranny”—and, needless to say, the phrase “metropolitan elite” makes its obligatory appearance. (See also the interview with Father Andrew Phillips, the rector of the parish, at Orthodox Christianity.) These remarks are the opposite of the truth about the EU, whose parliament, unlike the Westminster one, is 100% democratically elected. The views expressed at Orthodox England would surely surprise most EU citizens, who are overwhelmingly supportive of the EU, especially in view of the still-unfolding Brexit fiasco. The blog’s caricatures and falsehoods undermine its arguments. Mud slung is ground lost.
“God so loved the world,” and so should we. But how can we claim to love it if we do not try harder to know and understand it? What is lacking is a theology of governance in its broadest sense (ranging from governance of states to that of churches, schools, families, and companies) that is in harmony with a modern understanding of the world. Such a theology should dispense with anti-Western sentiment and nostalgia for an obsolete Byzantine-style church-state symphonia and gear with democracy, human rights ,and the pluralism of modern liberal states. In The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), Aristotle Papanikolaou shows us how this can be done.
Church leaders must learn to speak more boldly and with greater understanding across a wider spectrum of contemporary social and political issues. The Ecumenical Patriarch has taken a lead with his warnings about ecological breakdown, but there are many other dark areas over which the light of the Gospel needs to be shone: the attacks on truth and democracy in states such as the USA, UK, Hungary, and Poland, violence and discrimination against women, and state reprisals against whistleblowers, to name only a few.
Christians living in a pluralistic society cannot and should not expect to be able to impose their views or faith on others, but if the Church is to remain relevant it is important to pray for and work for a society that embodies Christian values, especially love, mercy, and truth.
May He who pulled Adam and Eve from the grave inspire us with the vigilance and the boldness to speak out, and work for polities and politics that better reflect the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.
James Chater was born in England and is a national of the United Kingdom, Canada and France. He attended the University of Oxford, where he graduated with an MA and a DPhil, both in music. He has lived in the USA, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, and France. In May 2021 he obtained French citizenship.