6 key issues for Christians to consider on June 23rd

This summary condenses a range of recent academic Christian thinking on the European Union referendum into 6 key issues for Christians to consider.

1. Sovereignty

In the Bible, passages such as Genesis 9:7, 17:6 and Acts 17:26 show that God expected nations to be formed as a natural part of human beings existing together on the earth. Nationhood is seen as morally neutral - it is the abuse of nationhood, as warned against in 1 Samuel 8 (when Israel demands a King like the other nations), that is condemned. This means that nationhood is not presented as the only or right way for humans to be governed. In addition, the nation is not understood as holding all the answers to human problems because human sin will always affect human communities. Therefore, the nation should not be exalted or condemned in Christian thinking, but accepted as a valid form of human polity.  

The Bible also warns against the abuses of empire. The Old Testament addresses the issue through the narrative of Israel’s history, and its consistent suffering under imperial rule. For example, the Babel story of Genesis 11:1-9 and the warning against Tyre in Ezekiel 26-28 discourage transnational groups uniting without reference to God because of the tendency to create military, economic and commercial empire. These powerful images are used again in Revelation 17-19 to draw a comparison between empire and the problem of idolising anything above God.

The EU is not an imperial power but this aspect of biblical teaching should not simply be dismissed because some have uncritically deployed it by crudely identifying the EU with the beast of Revelation 13. Instead, a Christian response should continuously evaluate whether the EU’s expansion, geographically and politically has any correlation to empire-building both internally and externally, especially with regards to its effects on the poorest parts of the world. The Bible warns against exalting any nation above its temporary status as an imagined community. However, it also allows for a healthy love of the goods present in a nation’s culture and history and speaks against these goods being destroyed by a drive for uniformity that rejects diversity (Revelation 7:9).  

In Christian political thought, the task of a nation state is to pursue justice. A Christian response to the question of sovereignty must therefore ask what sort of community is required in order for nation states to seek justice effectively. The EU’s diverse member states have voluntarily agreed to participate in a shared legal and political structure, pooling sovereignty in order to work together. Will choosing not to participate in the EU impede or aid the process of seeking the common good through the pursuit of justice?

2. Solidarity

The 1950 Schuman Declaration argued that post-war Europe could only be rebuilt on the basis of ‘de facto solidarity’. At the heart of this ideology was the concept of solidarity between nations. For example, the EU budget often has a redistributive objective, taking a higher proportion of the income of richer contributors and transferring it for the benefit of poorer members. 

Catholic Social Teaching defines solidarity as the proper response to the recognition of our interdependence. It is drawn from a biblical understanding that humans are created in the image of God as social beings and rejects any notion of isolationism (Genesis 2:18). Pope John Paul II described solidarity as: ‘A firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good…the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all…A commitment to the good of one’s neighbour with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage’. (John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1988). This is an articulation of the Bible’s command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31, Lev 19:18), in recognition of humanity’s essential unity (Acts 17:26).

Many of the laws in the Old Testament exist to protect and reinforce solidarity within local communities. For example, laws on debt and interest provide a framework for healthy relationships between lenders and borrowers whilst protecting families from poverty.  

In seeking the common good, a Christian approach to solidarity will avoid the trap of thinking in terms of just what is best for the UK, instead it will also assess the impact of any decision upon other nations. For example, although in February 2016 many leaders in UK development warned that leaving the EU would hinder the UK’s efforts to end global poverty, others argue that Africa could feed itself in a generation if it was not obstructed by EU trade deals. The principle of solidarity requires that we ask whether remaining or leaving the EU will be for the good not only of UK citizens, or those of the EU, but also the nations of the world as a whole. 

3. Subsidiarity

The Bible is cautious about the over-centralisation of power because of its tendency to be distant and unaccountable. The Israelites’ years of slavery in Egypt and the exile of the southern kingdom of Judah to Babylon are examples of abuses of centralised power. Instead of an over-centralised system, Israel’s decisions were to be taken at the most local level possible. This is reflected in the idea of subsidiarity and is also one of the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

Subsidiarity is a concept that was introduced to the European project through the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. It is the idea that no group should carry out a task that could be better completed by a more local one. This means that national structures should be favoured over transnational projects. However, if the EU is better suited to addressing complex social problems at the transnational level, such as the environment, then in that instance the decision should be taken by the EU.

Within Catholic Social Teaching, subsidiarity has a much richer meaning than the EU articulates. The tradition states that within a properly ordered society, all parts should assist in perfecting the whole. Importantly, it is primarily a social rather than political principle that understands humans as relational beings, not atomised individuals but bound into social structures. It emphasises supporting families and local communities, whilst resisting centralised power.

The location and concentration of power is one of the most important aspects of the European debate. Therefore, a key question to ask is: does the EU provide a healthy and judicious balance of both subsidiarity and centralisation?

4. Economy

The EU’s economic targets have always been central to its treaties. For example, the first objective in the Maastricht Treaty is to ‘promote economic and social progress’.

The Bible gives a mandate for humanity to steward the earth’s economic and human resources both productively and responsibly (Genesis 1:28). Whether or not the EU meets this mandate must be factored into any decision.

In addition, the Bible teaches that the economy exists to serve the community, rather than short-term economic growth. Money is presented as a type of social glue because it is supposed to strengthen relationships (Deuteronomy 15:7, 23:19). However, the Bible also warns against the idolisation of economic performance because money can act as a power that escalates beyond human control, dominating and destroying human lives (Matt 6:24; 1 Tim 6:10). Therefore, economic wellbeing, while important, is not the sum of human wellbeing in the Bible. The EU’s financial policies and responses to economic crises should be scrutinised in light of this understanding of wise stewardship.

5. Migration

A biblical understanding of migration begins with an understanding that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The Bible also reveals how experiences of migration were central to the history and faith of the people of God, which is reflected in the ethics of compassion in the Old Testament law (Leviticus 19:31-34). There are broadly two categories of migrant in the Old Testament. First, the ger were on the margins of society and the Israelites were commanded to look after them. Second, the nokri were often economically independent with allegiances that lay outside of Israel. The Bible is more cautious in its treatment of the nokri. Therefore, the Old Testament emphasises circumstances and need as well as willingness to integrate.

In the New Testament, Jesus teaches the necessity to provide love, acceptance and hospitality to those in need who were excluded from society. This is most clearly articulated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10-25-37).

Therefore, the teaching of the Old Testament Law and the example of Jesus demonstrate a particular loving concern for the vulnerable and see the value and dignity of the migrant as made in the image of God. At root, it recognises that those we term migrants are people created and loved by God, and given an inalienable dignity as such.

6. Security and Peace

The European project was originally rooted in Catholic Social Teaching. It was a response by European political leaders, the majority of whom were Catholic Christian Democrats, to the devastation of the two world wars. Therefore, a central success of the EU has been to help prevent any further conflict in Europe. Although historic hostilities are now a distant memory, this achievement should not be underestimated. Greater control of borders must be weighed up against what influence might be lost in working to ensure the continued peace and security of Europe.

The Bible generally promotes peace between nations. For example, Jesus’s concern for peace is central to the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:9). However, this desire must also be compatible with the Bible’s demands for justice (Micah 6:8). Christians should encourage any system that allows productive dialogue, debate, and co-operation to occur between nation states. It therefore follows that Christians should boldly reject any ideologies of hostility or hatred towards other nations.

The European project is to some extent a successful peace project. But Christians must also acknowledge that no form of international integration can eliminate war or provide security. The obvious danger is to avoid the conclusions of those following in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, that the only way to prevent war is through the political mechanism of a ‘federation of peoples’ (Kant, Idea For a Universal History for a Cosmopolitan Point of View, 1784). It is possible to defend this argument, but it is also true that forcing groups to live within a form of federalism to which they feel isolated could equally create conflict. Christians therefore must acknowledge that because of human nature, no form of international integration or any kind of government can promise global peace and security.

Further Reading:

  • A Soul for the Union, Ben Ryan (Theos, 2015)
  • E109 The European Union: A Christian Perspective, Andrew Goddard (Grove Books Limited, 1998)
  • E181 The European Referendum: How Should We Decide? Andrew Goddard (Grove Books Limited, 2016)
  • God and the EU: Faith in the European Project ed. Jonathan Chaplin and Gary Wilton (Routledge, 2016)
  • Jubilee Centre: Biblical Thinking for Public Life – EU Referendum Resources www.jubilee-centre.org/eu_referendum_resources/
  • The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics – EU Referendum 2016 http://www.klice.co.uk/index.php/eu-referendum-2016
  • Reimagining Europe: Christian Reflections on the EU Referendum www.reimaginingeurope.co.uk