Who are we? Minding the culture gap.

Far from settling, the dust continues to swirl in the wake of the EU referendum vote. We continue to be in uncharted waters. There is a vacuum of political leadership in both main parties, and a lack of inspiring candidates who might be able to assume the mantle.

There’s a great analysis of some of the lessons to be drawn from the Brexit vote here. In summary, our culture has been shaped over years by the popular press, which has managed to use the best storytellers to put over their chosen narrative. Myth-busting is not enough to sway people whose views and opinions have already been formed by their culture. Facts are not enough either – when facts are at best contestable, people are always predisposed to select the ones that favour their position and discount or deny the others. So the most important thing  is the culture which nurtures and feeds people, within which they are formed. And shaping and changing a culture happens over the long term, not in a matter of hours or days.

Most of us take our culture, for granted. We don’t see it, in the same way that fish don’t see the water that they live in. But we cannot escape its influence; we are all formed by the cultures that we inhabit. We only tend to see them when they bump up against a different one. It’s the dissonance, the clash, that makes them visible.

But once something causes us to see them, we have an opportunity to stand back and assess them. Do we want to live like this? Is this the kind of people we want to be? What are our values and our principles? Where do we find them? There is a chance for us to reflect and, in the light of our reflections, to make a choice to live differently, more intentionally.

Being grown up is about accepting responsibility for our actions and decisions. And being Christian is about abandoning fantasy and facing reality, as Nick Baines reminds us here.

The culture of the liberal intelligentsia has bumped up hard against that of the poorer and less educated parts of Britain, illustrated here. We need to understand the values that are important in each culture – what is different, what is the same. We need to listen, and learn. And we need to commit to the long-term hard work of choosing what kind of people we want to be, and cultivating the values which we want to live by.



Power and control

Control keyDuring the recent EU referendum campaign, one of the Leave campaign’s relentless mantras was the need for the UK to ‘take back control’. It sounds very attractive, doesn’t it? Who wants to be controlled by someone else?

There’s a link between control and power. If you have power over something or somebody, you can control them. So power is very attractive. It enables you to exercise your will and to have your desires satisfied. Without power, you are the mercy of others.

So by leaving the EU, have we increased our power? Have we taken back control? Are we able to exercise our will and have our desires satisfied?

Clearly not. If we lived in a self-sufficient bubble, able to meet all our own needs without looking to anyone else, then perhaps talk of ‘taking back control’ would mean something. But we don’t. We are dependent on our neighbours for so much: for people to do the jobs we don’t want or lack the skills to do, for the food we cannot produce and the goods we don’t make, for the mutual protection of our peace and security. The idea that we are independent is a myth. We are highly interdependent. And so, because we look to others to meet our needs, they have power over us. They are able to control us.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. We exercise power and control over them too. That’s how interdependence works. Human beings, whether as individuals or as nations, are built to be in relationship. It is not good for humans to be alone.

Mutuality of power and control helps to provide accountability. When power accrues in one set of hands, oppression and exploitation usually follows.

The extent to which the UK will be able in practice to ‘take back control’ whilst maintaining vital international relationships is therefore highly open to question. But even if it does accrue more power to itself, where will that power be located? Not, for practical purposes, in the hands of the millions who voted for it. It will make no real difference to the lives of those who already feel powerless and dispossessed, who are bearing the brunt of the recent years of austerity, the unemployed, the disabled who have seen their benefits reduced or withdrawn, the people living in fear of draconian benefits sanctions, relying on foodbanks and the kindness of strangers. It will be in the hands of the rich and powerful. And how will they use it?

Power, and the control it offers, are seductive and tempting. They are necessary, and dangerous. Without them, we can do nothing. But when we desire them, we are tempted to put ourselves in a place which rightly belongs to God, who is the ultimate source of all power. Handling power rightly requires great maturity and wisdom.

When we look at God, the source of all power, we see a picture of power given away freely. In soaring poetry, Genesis describes God using power to bring everything that there is into being – and then giving power over the created order to humanity. And when humanity screws things up, and continues to do so again and again, does God wield his power to sort things out? On the contrary. God divests Himself of His power, lays it aside, and comes amongst us as one of us. God is born as one of the most powerless of things, a human baby. And when the powers and principalities come against Jesus, he does not seize back control. Instead he allows himself to be put to death on a cross.


Painting on the wall of a cave on Davaar Island, Kintyre. Entitled ‘Christ on the Cross’ and painted by Archibald MacKinnon.

  © Copyright Gary Sutherland and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

And when the power of sin and death proved unequal to the power of the resurrection, Jesus once again gave away power. He returned to his Father in heaven, and then poured out his power on his followers. It was power for a purpose – to enable them, and us, to witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God. Not power for our own purposes. Not even a power recognized by most of the world. But a power that enables us to go out into God’s world, to tell and show people that God loves and cares for them deeply.