How did we get here? How is it that a nation defined by its sense of fairplay and reasonableness is now locked in the zero-sum game of Brexit? It is highly unlikely that one referendum campaign, no matter how sophisticated, caused the level of intensity of division that we have seen in the last 30 months. More likely the divisions were already there but submerged beneath the surface for a variety of reasons. When the lid was finally lifted off decades of resentment, confusion, anger and disenfranchisement, is it a surprise that it expressed itself in convulsions of polarising rhetoric that expressed itself in threats and even the murder of an MP?
Brexit has revealed a dis-United Kingdom, unsure of its place in the world, and ill at ease with the kind of multicultural, global society it has become. What will fix it? How can a community that has expressed its discontent, even rage, move beyond division to a place of unity? The question of a second referendum is dismissed out of hand as a recipe for further division, but what other solutions are being offered to get us out of the hole we find ourselves in?
I would love to be able to say that the Church has something to speak into this situation. It certainly has a gospel of reconciliation with very practical advice about relationships and community, but I wonder whether it can honestly offer it when it is loathe to live it? Our churches have imbibed the prevailing culture and struggle to express anything that might result in disagreement or division. So things tend to be left unspoken, petty grievances left to fester. No wonder then that when we finally arrive at a place where things must be said, it is hard to express them in reasonable ways. We go from zero to maximum in a very short period of time and confirm all our worst fears about our ability to disagree well. What would it look like if we were able to practice disagreeing more often? If we managed to sort out our differences as soon as they arose, as commended in the New Testament, perhaps we wouldn’t be so frightened of issues that divide us.
We live in a world just waiting to be offended. One wrong word on social media results in a torrent of unfettered abuse. It is no longer what is said, but who says it, that matters. Inconvenient truths can be discounted if they come from the ‘wrong side’ of the argument. Getting beyond this toxic discourse that is destroying our politics and our institutions will not be easy, but seeking after truth will be be part of the answer. In the church, as well as wider society, truth and honesty are often sacrificed to expedience or, worse, niceness. We don’t say what we really think, nor do we defend the truth, when it does not serve our purpose or might cause upset or embarassment. Short-term gains are won at the expense of long-term progress.
For me, the Church’s role in society is to be a place where people can be sure of the honesty, openness, where words spoken can be trusted.
‘those who do the truth come to the light’ (John 3:21).
In a post-truth world, a recommitment to doing the truth is radical and necessary. Seeking a truth that is complex, nuanced, multilayered, verifiable, authentic and multivocal is the only truth worthy of the name. We dare not trust peddlers of simplistic solutions and must learn to love complexities. Let us listen, not to those who seem pure, but those who are honest about their mistakes and willing to admit their limitations. The truth we seek will not be found in any one ideology or tradition or culture. We catch glimpses of the truth in our own traditions and must search for it in others to gain a fuller picture.
Truth is relational and dialogical, discovered in the midst of human discourse and disagreement, in the company of our opponents. Rarely does life offer us 'winner-takes-all' opportunities and most of us have learnt that the hard way.Unless we are prepared to admit that there is truth to be found with our opponents, then our quest for unity will be in vain.