What’s in a Name?

This is a big year for the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. After the preceding 306 years of union, 2014 presents the most serious challenge to the constitutional arrangements of the four nations which make up the UK, with the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 18th.

For some, it’s time to give up on what they see as an anachronistic quirk of the modern world, a hangover more suited to 1914 than 2014.

But in the UK I still see the possibility of something unique, exciting and worthwhile: in short, something I want to keep. Here’s why:

Unity brings Strength: As someone who regards himself as being on the ideological left, I’m firmly aware of the immediate impression that the word ‘Strength’ can give. Citing the UK’s membership of the United Nations Security Council or our position as an influential member within the European Union as reasons to maintain the Union, let alone the fact that we have the world’s eighth largest economy and fourth largest military spending, are derided by many as exactly the kind of 20th Century hubris that an independent Scotland could well do without.

It’s true that power politics is a too-common norm in our world and that there’s not enough empowerment downwards. If the consequence of the UK holding the power that we do is more decisions like the invasion of Iraq, then you can count me out too.

But the truth is also that power has always made the world go round. In all nations and in all eras, from the Phoenician Empire, to the Roman Empire, to the Khmer Empire, to the Spanish and British Empires, from American hegemony to the future Chinese dominance, the possession of power seems to be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to shaping the world that we live in. The question for us is not whether strong countries dominate the way the world works – we can see from the Crimea to the South China Sea that they obviously do.

There is only really one important question relating to our power and that is, how shall we use it? Because the potential of the UK’s combined economic, military, diplomatic and cultural power to be a positive force in the world is just phenomenal. The invasion of Iraq was a mistake; but what about the job our military did to stop a brutal war criminal and his militia raping and pillaging Sierra Leone? Tied-Aid was a mistake; but what about us having the second-largest international development budget in the world? 19th Century cultural imperialism was a mistake; but what about the way we hosted the Olympics in 2012?

It’s only with the collective strength that we achieve in the UK that we can make this positive difference in the world. The strength that we have in the United Kingdom can be a massive benefit not only to us, but to the rest of the world. All that matters are the choices that we make about how to use it.

Unity brings Solidarity: I am a great admirer of Co-operatives, Trade Unions and Credit Unions. These voluntary movements have for well over one hundred years sought to strengthen communities and individuals through the power of the collective. Each of them enable the pooling of resources in order to provide increased security to particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in society through using collective bargaining power in the areas of trading, employment and financial services. When part of the community falls on hard times, or faces the injustice of inequality, the rest of the collective can step in to ease their difficulties.

These institutions are all manifestations of a unity and solidarity that have been and can be reflected in the United Kingdom. Whatever stance you take on the economic viability of an independent Scotland, one thing that’s clear is that pooling our resources on this island makes it possible that areas of greater deprivation – wherever they are – can be supported by areas of greater affluence. Of course, the aim of a socially just United Kingdom should be to level out such inequality in the first place. And it’s clear that we have a long way to go in this regard.

However our ability to do so in the future comes exactly from the possibility of re-directing resources from one part of a larger pot to another. This may be possible to some degree within an independent Scotland, but not to the same degree that it’s possible within the world’s eighth largest economy. As I write, I can hear the howls of the Yes Campaign, pointing out the growing inequality that we’ve seen in the UK over the last 30 years. And they are right – we have to some degree squandered the opportunity for social justice that we have in the UK. But the solution to this missed opportunity is simply political will. Again, it’s not the resources – our wealth – we have that are the problem; it’s how we use it to make our country more equal that matters. And the economy of scale that the UK gives us makes the possibilities much more exciting, offering a solidarity that I believe we should aspire to.

Unity brings Hope: As a fundamental principle, union is always a better aspiration than disunity. Yes, the type of union that is created matters. The United States of America contains some gross economic inequalities. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had at its heart an ideology which flattened individual conscience and social freedoms. The European Union can at times have a tendency to require conformity and suppress diversity by seeking to engender a not-always-apparent common European story.

Yet there is something wonderful that happens when human beings overcome our natural inclinations to reject difference or even fear the other, and pursue connectedness. We’ve not got everything right in the United Kingdom; very far from it. But I truly love the fact that, in our difference – national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional, ideological – we have stuck with each other on this island, even when it would have been easier to give up and retrench into the familiar.

We live in in the most exciting country on earth: a truly multi-national state which has a respect for the other that, having travelled to about 40 countries of the world to date, I’ve yet to see bettered. This is not to say you can’t find bigotry or racism on these islands. But in truth we are a very tolerant nation. That comes from over 300 years of practice.

It’s this idea of hope in the possibilities of unity on this island that, above all else, makes me want to fight to keep the UK, rather than press the eject button.

Jeremy Bentham’s Lost His Head

‘Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher”, they said, ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking”, Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” “We can”, they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to whom they have already been prepared.”

‘When the ten heard about this they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As the founder of Utilitarianism, a particularly influential 19th Century political theory, you could argue that Jeremy Bentham was entitled to be proud of himself. His critique of social values, and pursuit of ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ was already beginning to shape the thinking of political leaders of his day – and as it turns out has continued to do so up to the present. But leaving instructions in his Last Will and Testament for his body to be embalmed, stuffed, dressed in a suit and placed in a glass case at University College London was perhaps a step too far.

And his acolytes have not stopped the posthumous grand-standing there. Each year this ‘auto-icon’ is rolled out for a meeting of the College Council, where Mr Bentham is recorded in the minutes as ‘Present, but not voting’. This hubristic tale is mitigated somewhat by the frequent student pranks over the years since in which his head has been repeatedly pinched and ransomed back to the University. But the impression of an ego writ large remains.

In our world, what we tend to value most are honour, power, wealth, beauty, authority, and yes, intellect. These are the things that seem to make the world go round. But these things in themselves are empty. At root, they’re an attempt to remake ourselves in the image of God, to claim even just a scintilla of his Glory.

I travel regularly to China, and it’s a fascinating country. Chinese culture values good hospitality, respect for authority and the importance of relational capital. One of the ways in which this is reflected is in the etiquette surrounding hosting guests to a meal. The table is always round so as not to offend guests by placing one person at the head of the table. And yet this nicety has been infiltrated by a convention whereby the Host is still given the ‘head’ of the table (the chair facing the door) and the most-honoured guest will sit in the seat to his right-hand side, with the second most-honoured to his left and so on. The elevation of the Host and the Honoured Guest continues with further etiquette, including serving special courses either before the other guests or to them alone, an ‘honour’ which I have at times had to face, as the picture below testifies:

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In the startling encounter from Mark’s Gospel, above, we see Jesus subverting this human will to power in his response to the egotistical aspirations of James and John. Incredibly, as the most powerful being in the universe, Jesus nevertheless submits himself to the authority of God the Father, in his assertion that even he cannot offer the right and left-hand seats to his disciples.

And, in this subversion, Jesus is not advocating a simple changing of the guard. This is not a spiritual coup d’etat in which the powerful are overthrown in order that their erstwhile subjects can take their places at the top table. It’s a root and branch revolution, a completely new way to live in the world. He is turning the world’s normative power dynamics on their head, insisting that the last should become first, and that his followers should be ‘the slave of all’. Strong words.

In a sense, I don’t blame James and John for their audacious request. In fact, it kind of reassures me. The Disciples have been lionised throughout Church history for the contribution that they made to the spread of the Gospel, and quite right too. But in encounters like this – and in basically everything that Peter did – we see the humanity of the Disciples. These were no Uber-Christians who would put us to shame with their holiness. They hadn’t got it quite yet: despite Jesus repeated teachings on his preference for the weak, the poor, the abandoned, and despite the fact that they’d actually lived alongside him for years. On a more positive note, and to their credit, you can’t fault the faith of the two brothers. They certainly believed that Jesus was who he said he was; otherwise they wouldn’t have wasted their time angling for a place at the top table.

But, ultimately, the Gospel is the great equaliser – the mountains shall be laid flat and the valleys raised up – and through it each of us become equal before God, taking on our full identity of the imago dei, the image of God. Our recognition of God’s authority goes hand in hand with our recognition of the equal and inestimable value of every human being. Yet so often we miss both.

This is not only the tragedy of the powers that be in the world; it has also been the tragedy of the Church itself. And yet again this comes back to our flawed human nature. Like the Fleetwood Mac song, we want to ‘Go our own way’ when the truth, in the words Bob Dylan so famously growled, is that you’ve gotta serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Sadly we often only realise this when the pretension that we’re in charge of our own life falls away. An illness, natural disaster or accident strikes, and suddenly we become aware of our own powerlessness. All the things that we put our stock in – intellect, beauty, wealth, even human relationships – can’t cocoon us from the messy reality of life. As the author Kurt Vonnegut sagely advises in the song ‘Everybody wear Sunscreen’, “maybe you’ll have a trust fund, maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse – but you never know when either one might run out.”

If you’ve travelled beyond Western Europe and North America, you’ll probably know what I mean. Oh what I’d sometimes give for an old-fashioned British queue in some airport arrivals halls! Everyone for themselves doesn’t cover it. Or the lifeless, mirror-shaded, eyes of the gun-toting Cameroonian immigration official who’s determined to exercise his authority before he decides to let you enter the country. Or the one on one interrogation and baggage search at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, knowing that just one mention of a visit to the wrong part of the country will see you end up in a room with nothing but a box of rubber gloves and a border guard for company. And in truth, these are relatively minor reminders of how easily our will to power is diluted.

So if, despite He-Man’s claims, we aren’t really Masters of the Universe, what are we to do? Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus dealt with a similar situation. The Disciples were once again letting their hubris get the better of them and were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Again, Jesus taught them that if anyone wanted to be first then he must become last, the servant of all. Jesus also taught that we should both have a faith like children and treat one another as we do little children. What might our world look like if we took the same approach? If politicians, journalists, soldiers, police officers, bankers, and we ourselves put others first, regardless of their status? What would it look like if we didn’t place our ultimate hope in our own power and were instead childlike in our motivation, if our attitude was innocent, simple, vulnerable even, and above all loving?

This is the world that Jesus calls us to make: it’s a world in which we serve one another, where we have a healthy distaste for the trappings of wealth and power, where each person is viewed as having inherent and equal worth, where the least and the last are lifted up by the rest and given the place of honour.

The Good News is that we are not expected to do all of this in our own power. And that’s the wonder of the Gospel: that Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3, 21-24