16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John 4:16-21)
Fear is a powerful emotion. It transforms the way we perceive the world around us: strangers become threats, generosity must be treated with suspicion, we are always on the lookout for hidden agendas. This basic emotion may have served our ancient forebears well when the need to escape wild animals was a daily reality, but it necessarily distorts our feelings and thinking to achieve a specific end.
In this series of blogs, we will be looking at the key words that have been thrown up by the debate on Brexit and we begin with FEAR. During the debate leading up to the vote in 2016, both sides were accused of stoking fears and engaging in the politics of negativity. The public may criticise politicians for going negative but the truth is that it is the most effective way to campaign. Voters tells themselves that they want positive politics but tend to respond more reliably to fear than to hope.
So why are love and fear incompatible? Fear is about survival and it is when we perceive ourselves to be deeply threatened that all our energies are focussed in escape or fight. This means that our ability to relate to others is severely curtailed, we cut ourselves off and go into lock-down in order to face the threat. Love, on the other hand, necessitates vulnerability, an openness to others. All our lovers begin as strangers and love only becomes possible when we are willing to risk and trust. Where fear relies on its own strength to survive, love knows that it can only truly live with the help of others.
It is reckoned that the majority of Christians who took part in the referendum voted to leave the European Union. I was - and am - firmly in the remain camp. This series is not an attempt to convince leavers that they are wrong but to reflect on the issues that are at the heart of Brexit and offer Christians a way to engage with them. I recognise that many decent people, including Christians, are reluctant to weigh in to the public debate where emotions are high and there is a danger of creating deeper divisions. But there is a greater danger of leaving the public square to the extremist voices whose only purpose is victory at all costs. That’s why politics is a vocation which must be embraced by people of good will, including faithful Christians.
So how can Christians engage in the politics of Brexit? We can begin by applying the same principles to policies and rhetoric, regardless of where they come from. Our political system encourages us to focus on where policies originate - is it coming from the Left or the Right or the Centre? - rather than on where they are going. We look at who is saying it rather than what is being said. I want to suggest that Christians need to listen more carefully and judge the content, not the person.
Inspired by the words of 1 John, how about evaluating what is being said by whether it is based on LOVE or FEAR? Is the intention to promote the common good or a particular vested interest? Can we discern whether the outcome will be greater reconciliation or deeper division? Will we see life flourishing as a result or being diminished?
This analysis goes beyond the party politics of left and right to the very heart of the gospel - life in all its fullness. More than this, it allows Church leaders a firm foundation on which to stand when engaging in the Brexit debate. The UK is rapidly heading to the exit of the EU and still we have little idea about what life beyond will look like. It is time for Christians to stand up and speak out for the politics of love and the defeat of fear.