I begin by recommending my book The Fall of the Church (Wipf & Stock, 2013) to those who really want to understand why I feel the way I do https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Church-Roger-Haydon-Mitchell/dp/162032928X. It traces the way that a mistaken partnership of church and empire produced the modern western nation state, of which the UK is an example. At the heart of this mistaken partnership is what I call the sovereignty delusion, the idea that peace comes through a society ordered by the rich and powerful through the control of military force, law and money. Our representative democracy is simply overlaid on this delusion. The history of the British Empire reveals how ugly such a construct can be. I wrote about some of this history in the book The Sins of the Fathers back in 1999 with my friend Brian Mills. All this explains my conviction that the nation state, upheld by an underlying system of law, money and violence with all its paraphernalia of flags, anthems, war memorials and the like, is at root an oppressive construct.
This construct is what we have inherited, but it’s not all we have. My book traces what I call the love stream, which has flowed through the empire system throughout its history, relieving the oppressed, ameliorating the worst extremes of empire and war, caring for the poor, the sick and the marginalised. As a follower of Jesus, I would like to be able to say that the church can be identified with this stream of love. But of course it can’t. Instead, since the 4th century it has all too often been the partner and carrier of empire and its oppressive constructs. It was this puzzle that led me back here to Lancaster University more than ten years ago now to research the historical relationships of church and empire and how the way of Jesus was so seriously displaced. My academic theological research is contained in the book Church, Gospel and Empire: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West (Wipf & Stock 2011) and The Fall of the Church is my attempt to make it more accessible to non-academic thinkers.
I see the sovereign nation state as an ugly vehicle enabling and promoting the European Colonial project and the two horrific twentieth century World Wars. This is why I have regarded these past forty years of life within the EU as a hopeful experiment in diluting the delusion that the multiplication of sovereignty is the way to peace. Throughout my adult life I have experienced this wider context as a source of peace, freedom and encouragement to think and live more radically through learning from and embracing difference. While I know that the EU still carries empire I believe it also carries the love stream through founding fathers like Robert Schuman. He summed up the motivation behind the EU like this: “The European spirit signifies being conscious of belonging to a cultural family and to have a willingness to serve that community in the spirit of total mutuality, without any hidden motives of hegemony or the selfish exploitation of others.”
It is my conviction that the openhearted politics of love and peace are making real headway in these islands of ours. This has been despite and even because of the austerity policies of successive governments and has in part been because of open borders to Europe and beyond. Of course the EU needs reform, particularly away from market driven economics, and we need to connect with the reform movements that are germinating there. But for me the leave vote has felt like a vote away from open hearts and borders back to the imperial past of nation state and empire. So it is a very painful time. However, we cannot allow the pain to paralyse us, instead this is a moment to be gripped by love as the apostle Paul puts it (2 Cor 5:14), and to redeem this time by using every opportunity to come in an opposite spirit to empire in all we do.