—British priest and poet John Donne
It was like a death: the vote last week by citizens of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, after calling the EU home for forty three years. The fallout was immediate and disastrous. The British pound plummeted in value. The Prime Minister plans to resign. World markets fell, including a 600 point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, wiping out all of its 2016 gains.
What’s next after “Brexit”? No one knows. This is unchartered political territory, a nation essentially saying to the wider world, “Thanks, but no thanks. It was good while it lasted, but we’ll be leaving you now.” UK voters have legitimate gripes about the EU: frustration with overregulation from a distant government bureaucracy, fear of unfettered immigration overwhelming their island nation, and anger at the loss of jobs due to globalization.
Yet is this really enough to justify an exit? A full scale retrenchment from Europe? The mighty British lion packs up her suitcase, buys a one way ferry ticket back home and pulls up the drawbridge as she retreats. To many in the UK, it is good riddance to their European neighbors. One “Leave” proponent, interviewed on National Public Radio, suggested the Brits fill the English Channel tunnel to France (the “Chunnel”) with cement. Just seal it up for good.
Brexit is about politics and economics. But Brexit also represents a more profound spiritual struggle that human beings have wrestled with since the world was created by God. Is the wider world a bad place, a threatening specter to be met with building ever higher walls and ever stronger barriers to protect our “home” and keep out the “foreign”? Or is the wider world a good place, filled with diverse peoples and ideas that, when encountered with generosity and curiosity, make us better as a species and planet? To lock the doors and close the windows and fearfully take shelter within, or to open the doors and open the windows and welcome the world in, with courage and commitment?
Those are questions not just for our UK friends but for us too, as Americans, as we begin the run up to the fall Presidential election. Whither the world? Is it friend or foe? Enemy or neighbor? Is the stranger a threat to be contained, even repelled, or a fellow child of God like you, like me? Brexit embodies the challenge all citizens of the planet face as we encounter people every day who are “different” than we are. People with a different skin color, a different God to worship, a different family to create, or a different language to speak.
Yet the diversity of the world is non-negotiable and God made all of it. ALL of it and ALL of us. In the Book of Genesis, after seven days of glorious Creation, God finished making the whole world and declared it not just “good” but “very good”. This truth doesn’t ignore the fact that world building is hard work. The world is a messy place and we as a planet must do our best to continually figure out how to get along with each other. Make peace. Share the wealth. Work and fight for freedom for every human being. Oppose tyrants. Protect the weak and vulnerable. The world has always been, will always be, a work in progress, but that work must continue. We can’t turn back, turn within, turn away.
I know I would be less as a human being, diminished, if in my one life I had left the rest of the world behind and stayed put in my little home. I might have felt safer but oh what I would have missed in my years of traveling this amazing planet. I never would have helped build a Habitat for Humanity house with Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants in a Belfast suburb, and helped build peace too. Never would have shared a meal of tortillas and corn meal with a Quiche Indian family in the northern highlands of Guatemala, and been touched by their generosity. Never would have been woken up in my Istanbul, Turkey hotel room at 4 am by the cacophonous calls to Muslim prayer that echoed out over that beautiful city. And all my Brazilian friends, my British friends, my Australian friends, my world friends: I might never have opened myself up to what they teach me about life as a fellow human being.
No man, no woman, no child, no one, is an island, unto themselves. Not the United States. Not the United Kingdom. Not any nation or peoples. God made just one world. One. It is up to us to continue the blessed work of planet building.