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Theos’ Senior Fellow Nick Spencer asks whether Boris Johnson’s comparison of Brexit to the Exodus is 100% justified. 25.03.2019
I’ve got to be honest with you. I’ve never seen Boris Johnson as Moses. Perhaps it’s the absence of the beard. Or the shock of unmanageable permablond hair. Or the not–having–anything–to–do–with–rescuing–his–people from slavery.
I regret to say that the front page of today’s Telegraph hasn’t changed my mind. It offers the reader a cavernously large picture of a seemingly somewhat self–satisfied Mr Johnson, besides which are written the words “We have blinked. We have baulked. We have bottled it completely. It is time for the PM to channel the spirit of Moses in Exodus and say to Pharaoh in Brussels – LET MY PEOPLE GO”.
The Bible has been foundational to our national political culture, from Alfred the Great to Cameron the Unready. As I argued in Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible (you might have been out when it was published), the Bible has been the single most influential text in British political history.
Whether it is the supposedly self–evident truth that rulers should be subject to the same laws as their subjects; or the idea that they should face judgement for the extent to which they served the cause of justice; or the question of when it is legitimate for the people to resist, or overthrow, their rulers; or even how ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ came to be political identities in the first place, the Bible was foundational.
Within this rich biblical tale, the story of the Exodus has done much of the heavy lifting. Moses and the laws were central to Alfred’s creation of Englishness. The idea of the Exodus was iconic for the early Reformers, particularly as they fled to Geneva after the accession of Queen Mary. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was conceptualised as a modern Exodus, and a century later, the abolitionists made repeated use of the story to legitimise their campaign against the slave trade. Elsewhere, as John Coffey points out in his fine study Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr., the story was used repeatedly in America from the struggle for independence in the 18th century, through the struggle against slavery in the 19th, to the struggle for civil rights in the 20th.
All of which means you might just be able to catch a glimpse of what Mr Johnson is doing in the Telegraph. It’s time for the most obvious exegesis you will read this week (possibly ever). The EU is Egypt. Our membership is slavery. Pharaoh is (presumably) Jean–Claude Juncker. Brexit is liberation. Post–Brexit Britain is the Promised Land. Post–Brexit parliamentary legislation will be like God’s Law, pure and undefiled. And Theresa May is the leader who failed to deliver, who failed to be Moses. Which means the true Moses would be… hang on, give me a minute.
This is the point at which the blogger channels his self–righteousness and begins moralising. How dare Boris Johnson appropriate the scriptures in this way? How dare he compare Brexit with Exodus? How dare he compare EU membership with slavery? And so on and so forth.
Or not. Because I don’t think any of those things. Indeed, as I said numerous times when talking about the political Bible and, more recently, about the political mis(use) of the parable of the Good Samaritan, I am all for politicians referencing the Bible even when they do it badly. (And let’s be clear: this is bad; really bad: hyperbolic, self–serving, and opportunistic.)
Nevertheless, I am glad Mr Johnson has done so because, at heart, politics is a moral business and, as such, needs deep foundations. As the early Christian Socialist F.D. Maurice once wrote to his friend John Ludlow, “economy and politics … must have ground beneath themselves.” For centuries that ground was biblical and, in a residual kind of a way, it still is. The more political rhetoric that exposes that ground (whether biblical or not), the better. Similarly, the more politics that recognises the need for inspiring, creative, existentially–deep stories the better. Good politics is rich in these. So: reference your Bible, or your Qur’an, or, for that matter, your Marx, Macbeth or Mao. Allow the texts to do their existential and rhetorical work. Open up deep questions of what we are doing, or where we are going.
But don’t expect people to agree with you. You can use these (what I have elsewhere called) “texts of authority” well, or you can use them badly. More often than not, it’ll be the latter. And when you do, be prepared for people to point out to you the inaccuracy, shallowness, inflation or sheer stupidity of your analogy. Be willing to hear that comparing the EU to the brutalising slavery of Jews under a despotic ruler might be judged ill–advised. And be prepared to be reminded that for all that the Exodus was a moment of joyous deliverance, the next 40 years didn’t go so well for the people.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.
Image by Mike Trukhachev under a Shutterstock licence.
under a Shutterstock licence.
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion
Posted 25 March 2019
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.