Odysseus and the Sirens

It’s been four months since the UK voted to leave the European Union on 23rd June 2016. Many of the political pre-vote threats and promises (on both sides) have failed to materialise, but one thing is sure, we’re setting our course for new and unchartered seas.

I think the real reason the UK is leaving the European Union is that we can’t win the Eurovision Song Contest anymore. The last time we won it was in 1997 and every year since has been a travesty... Perhaps if they’d let us win just once or twice in the last 20 years things may have been different.

Of course I’m only joking, but there’s a grain of truth behind the banter. Britain’s identity has always been divided between European and non European (we perhaps identify more with the many English speaking nations than we do with our closer European neighbours). The telling thing is that when British people talk about ‘Europe’ they don’t include the UK, they usually mean ‘all the other European countries’.

Enough is enough...

The creeping judicial empowerment of the European Parliament over national sovereignties has been a growing source of resentment in these islands – far outweighing any appreciation of the benefits of membership. In fact, again, if you were to ask a Brit what the benefits of being in the EU were, most would shrug and might manage, ‘going on holiday is easier’. This is one of the many failings of the EU because it’s been notoriously bad at promoting itself and its benefits to its member citizens. Despite the great strides taken by the EU since the mid 20th Century in freedom, peace, law and prosperity the European Union has been conspicuously absent from our school curriculums. This has left a void for a primarily negative view of the EU because, well, that’s another part of our national identity; we do like to have something to complain about.

Before the referendum took place I listened to a resident of a highly EU subsidised Welsh district being interviewed on her street. The woman had no notion of the financial benefits which had been a lifeline to her rural community; she simply said she was voting ‘leave’ because of immigration. And similarly, for the vast majority of voters, the Brexit referendum was essentially a protest. It was a vote against ‘faceless beaurocrats’; against ‘them’ telling ‘us’ what we can and can’t do.

We currently have a  popular game show on TV called ‘Pointless’ – the idea is to get the least points by coming up with the most obscure answers. In one recent programme the contestants were asked to name obscure MEP’s (British Members of the European Parliament). The irony is that they are all obscure (even though we actually have 73 of them)... on the show most of them were ‘pointless’ answers.

So... We’re Out

So here in the UK we’re gradually getting over the shock of the referendum result. Some still can’t believe it’s actually happening; even those that voted for it. As I write our ‘ship of state’ is preparing to leave the flotilla of the EU and strike out on its own. With the humiliation and demise of Captain Cameron we now have Captain May at the helm with a new crew of lively ship mates. She has promised that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be triggered (is that a gun metaphor?) before the end of March 2017. Whether you voted in or out the referendum has declared us ‘out’, so here we are... or there we go... But the question now is: where exactly are we going?

On the morning of the referendum result Rick Joyner commented on FaceBook:

“Thank the Brits for their courage and boldness! Ultimately they voted to preserve the great British culture that has been such a blessing to so much of the world for so long.”

Rick Joyner - FaceBook 24 June 16

It’s a fascinating comment that somehow we can get back to being British in a way that has been eroded by EU conformity (I’d like to tackle the concept of ‘British Identity’ in another article). Ironically the EU motto is actually ‘united in diversity’ – a fine aspiration that sadly has begun to look more like ‘disunited in conformity’. As for courage, I believe that was displayed more by people who voted to remain. But courage is certainly something we are going to need to see Brexit through. In fact Rick also wrote in true prophetic style:

“There will bring [sic] some temporary pain and confusion, especially to self-centered business interests, but it will be far less pain in the long run.”

Rick Joyner - FaceBook 24 June 16

He wasn’t wrong about the pain and confusion. Already we are seeing pound sterling dipping and diving like a summer swallow and the Bank of England is warning that food and petrol prices will rise. Many businesses are losing contracts and there is much uncertainty in the marketplace. We’re entering the real test now... and the question is, ‘how much will our resolve to leave hold’? Will that boldness and courage continue in the face of temporary hardship or will we be tempted to compromise and follow the EU flotilla at a little distance after all?

The ‘Ship of State’ and Odysseus

Since I’m using a nautical metaphor for Brexit I’m reminded of a striking illustration my dad once used to describe the experience of the electorate. He said that they were like the Greek hero Odysseus who took on the mythical creatures called sirens. The legend has it that no sailor could hear the siren’s song and live, since it was so overpowering. The beautiful song would so enchant the sailors that they would steer their ships onto the rocks and drown.

So Odysseus came up with a cunning plan. He instructed his sailors to bind him to the mast of the ship and set a course to navigate safely past the island of the sirens. The sailors were to fill their ears with wax so they would be deaf to the songs and would not be captivated by the magical creatures. As they were exposed to the song of the sirens Odysseus was nearly driven mad with desire to go to them, but no matter how much he screamed and shouted for the crew to turn, they stolidly kept on course until the ship and all hands were safely out of harm’s way.

As the UK public enter the process of leaving the European Union we are like Odysseus strapped to the mast of the ‘ship of state’. We have instructed our government to leave the EU and to keep on rowing no matter what. We may (and probably will) holler and scream (We have already heard: ‘is this even legal?’ and ‘Perhaps we should have another vote?’); particularly when the process of Brexit hits our pockets, but we have given our orders and the governments job is to hold their nerve and keep going until we get to safe waters.

A Biblical Paradigm of emancipation

My desire is certainly not to demonise the European Union. Like all man-made governments it has its strengths and it has its weaknesses. But given that we are on this side of the vote and I am British let me dare to hope that we’re moving from one form of legal servitude to a better one.

Using a Biblical paradigm we may imagine that we’re leaving the bonds of Egypt. However, as the Israelites discovered, there’s still an awful lot of hot, dry desert between us and the Promised Land. In reality it could have been forty days hard journey for them, but the lesson is that our time in this transition could certainly end up being a lot longer and a lot harsher than it needs to be. The ‘food’ of the EU may yet begin to tempt us back...

The EU is itself on a similar journey; it too must redefine itself in the wake of such a departure. Could this be as much an opportunity for the EU to explore new liberation as it is for the UK; an opportunity for new relationships to form and prosper? Certainly it must address the relationship between globalisation and nationalism and inevitably its new relationship with the UK. The UK may be leaving the EU but it is not and never can leave Europe.

There may be trouble ahead

Jesus warns that at the point of emancipation from spiritual bondage we are in many ways in a new crisis, perhaps becoming even more vulnerable. In fact this place of crisis is also connected with ‘the dry places’ of the desert:

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

Luke 11

Perhaps this is where the phrase ‘better the devil you know’ comes from? We’ve seen this principle demonstrated in the Arabic territories of late where we’ve seen tyrants removed only to make way for five more who are even worse. Since we mentioned Odysseus this is not unlike Hydra from Hercules – chop off one serpent head and many more grow back. In Disney’s Hercules the character voiced by Danny DeVito shouts in frustration, “Will you forget the head-slicing thing?” It seems that in the Middle East that we can’t and they won't.

We may feel safe from tyrants in our western bubble but we must never forget that Europe has a rich history of them. Since our Brexit vote was fuelled by immigration fears and nationalism we have every need to be on our guard. I spoke to some good friends of ours from another European country who are currently working and living in London. They told me that the feeling of racism and rejection was palpable on the day after the election result. It was like a dark spiritual cloud.

There is only one safe remedy for the person who is a ‘house swept clean’ and that’s to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Could this nation once again experience such an outpouring? Though founded on Christianity, Europe has long abandoned Christianity for humanism and if anything the growing faith in Europe is now Islam.

If leaving of the EU is really going to restore the power of our nation’s sovereignty then perhaps it’s time to remember that our British Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II has actually sworn to serve Christ. Here’s just a small snippet from her coronation (I recommend a look at the whole thing if you get chance – link below) when the Archbishop delivers the Golden Orb into her right hand:

Receive this Orb set under the Cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer.

The Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II - 2 June 1953

You can read the whole coronation ceremony here

A time to pray

Well, as if praying wasn’t always a good idea, this must certainly, more than ever, be a time to pray. Jesus told us to pray that the will of our Father God would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6). That’s a good place to start. As believers our identity is not primarily with earthly kingdoms but with this heavenly one. We are children of God’s Kingdom and that’s an identity that far transcends and outlasts earthly borders. However, rather than an abdication of earthly responsibilities this is a call to be a salvific influence in the world; to be salt and light.

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.

1 John 2:20

Let’s pray for a new revitalised emphasis on the role of faith in the UK. Let’s pray that God will raise up men and women of wisdom and courage. I was struck listening to some of the debates in the British House of Commons lately that the language of hope and faith is coming forward in a way I’ve never heard before. Exhortations from the back benches for members to ‘keep positive’ and ‘be confident in our future’ are new sounds in the House.

Let’s also pray against opportunism, exploitation and corruption in Europe as ‘the house is swept clean’ and all parties embark on negotiating new relationships both inside and out of the EU. It’s my hope that the UK’s position outside the EU will actually help us be a greater help to our neighbours than we have been under duress.

And finally let’s pray that God gives us the grace to walk in service and faith no matter what waters we may navigate in the coming months. That we may not succumb to fear and false pride but keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Kingdom that never fails – the Kingdom of our God.

About the author:

Rob Cresswell has been in active church and ministry leadership for over 15 years and is a gifted communicator. Along with his wife Aliss he partners in pioneering ministries which seek to engage with the unchurched and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. He has a heart to help train and equip believers into their callings. He is the author of 'What Next Jesus?' - a survival guide for new Christians.