What do Justin Welby and Eddie Izzard have in common? Welby believes in God. Izzard is an atheist. Welby is an archbishop. Izzard is an archcomedian. That’s not to say that the two roles aren’t interchangeable. Izzard often uses his podium to preach. Welby often uses his pulpit to make comical pronouncements. Izzard paints his nails a bright red. Welby whitewashes pungent biblical passages painting them a sepulchral white. “I may look confusing but I have a clear message,” says Izzard, alluding to his sexuality. “I may look clear but I have a confusing message,” Welby may well say speaking of his theology.
While watching Izzard on David Dimbleby’s Question Time I was struck by the similarities between the archbishop and the archcomedian. Both sport comical caps. Eddie wears a pink beret—the pink taking on a shade of episcopal purple as he pontificates. Justin wears a mitre of diverse colours depending on the liturgical season and which theological position he has decided to support that day. Both Justin and Eddie are evangelists preaching the gospel of Remain. Both appear on the same page in a Guardian article featuring religious leaders who warn that Brexit would jeopardise peace in Europe. That The Guardian comes close to identifying Izzard as a ‘religious leader’ speaks volumes about the religious nature of the debate. It also begs the question as to why the Archbishop of Cant and his fellow bishops have been so reluctant to draw on their foundational religious text—the Bible—in addressing the central issues in the debate.
Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, asked his students ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible,’ he urged. Instead of presenting a robust biblical case for his position, the archbishop like the archcomedian, draws on the mushy vocabulary of motherhood and apple pie. We can forgive Eddie for saying he loves humanity but can’t stand his next-door neighbour, but surely we must prod Justin to present a biblical argument for his position instead of hymn-singing ‘All you need is love’ and preaching from the fifth gospel according to St Marx.
If the Bible cannot speak to such significant matters as a national referendum, the Bible should be consigned to the dustbin of history. After all, the God of the Bible is a God who has spoken and acted in history and in the rise and fall of nations. If such a God no longer speaks or acts in the political vicissitudes of the nations, he is not the God of the Bible but a consumerist God of private devotion. So how might a preacher approach the Brexit debate from a biblical perspective?
I would suggest that the biblical story of Babel (Genesis 9:1-11) is pivotal to the debate. Babel is the story of man’s failed attempt to create one world by using one language. The globalisation of the world begins with the McDonaldisation of language. The chapter before the story of Babel, i.e. Gen 10, delights in the diversity of languages and nations. Now, in Genesis 11, a one-world government is seeking to end this diversity and establish its hegemony.
The story of Babel, like the story of George Orwell’s 1984, is the story of a society in which people exchange freedom for slavery by acquiescing to a centralised governance facilitated by a centralised language. This is not the kind of unity God wishes humankind to possess, despite what the bishops would have us believe. The story of hubris culminates with God confusing the language of Babel so that they no longer understand each other.
Perhaps the bishops could take this narrative of Babel to the Brexit table and ask: Has the European Union mutated from an economic union into a parliament with pretensions to power? If Europe was rooted in the heritage of Athens and Jerusalem—Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures—has the EU acknowledged this heritage or fiercely resisted it? Has the EU attempted to impose an artificial standardisation on the diverse peoples of Europe to the extent that farmers are forced to dispose of bendy bananas or has the EU celebrated the God-given diversity of its European constituents?
The theme of Babel runs in tandem with the biblical suspicion of empire. Biblical Israel lives in the shadow of empire—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Each empire seeks to co-opt and domesticate Israel. Israel is tempted to make alliances with these empires and lured by their imperialistic pretensions. But God’s ideal for Israel is a tribal confederation of 12 independent tribes—loosely associated but never joined under a single government. When the Israelites aspire to become like the nations and ask for a king, the prophet Samuel warns them that their kings will exploit them through taxation and slave labour.
The ultimate counterpoint to a utopian monolithic Tower of Babel is the kingdom of God—God’s perfect rule on earth as in heaven. The kingdom of God must not be confused with a utopian human project. Scholars who study the history of ideas argue that it is the corruption of this biblical vision that led Western political philosophy to posit utopian visions of heaven on earth—two of these being communism and fascism in the 20th century that turned into totalitarian regimes resulting in the killing fields of Europe.
Christians believe that the kingdom of God will be consummated at the Second Coming of Jesus the Messiah. Archbishop Justin Welby must urge his fellow-Christians to ‘seek first the kingdom of God.’ He can leave archcomedian Eddie Izzard to offer a pretentious messianic alternative and say, “My vision would make the entire world work.” Now that is really funny.
(Image: Thijs ter Haar)