Christmas 2016, post-Brexit/Trump: Joy to the world?
A reflection on responding to this year's shocks. By Nick Megoran
At Christmas and New Year we look back over the past 12 months. Politically, Brexit and the Donald Trump election stand out in 2016. These have provided pundits with no shortage of material for excitable reaction, much of it ludicrously over-stated: “It’s a new dawn.” “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” How can we make sense of these shocks, indeed how can we even celebrate Christmas 2016?
We’ll all have different opinions on the reasons for Brexit and Trump. Whatever we think, we must avoid what Malcom Muggeridge termed the ‘idiot hopes and idiot despair’ with which the world so often responds to radical change.
On the one hand, Brexit/Trump has produced a crop of fantastical idiot hopes. “We’ve taken back control of our country!” crow Brexiteers, as a sliding pound pushes up inflation, companies depending on the EU single market relocate out of the UK, and racist attacks on hard-working EU migrants mushroom. “We’re going to make America great again!” declares a jubilant Donald Trump, with barely the faintest hint of exactly how he plans to do that. Faced with the hard realities of limited budgets and global challenges, the idiot hopes behind these facile slogans are certainly going to be dashed.
But this suspension of reality is matched by the idiot despair of those who saw Brexit and Trump in apocalyptic terms. It’s “the self-destruction of the West,” lamented Joerg Kramer, chief economist at Commerzbank, as though the EU and Hilary Clinton somehow represented a foretaste of heaven on earth. This obscures the sheer violence of modern liberal civilisation.
The EU began life as a capitalist cartel, the European Steel and Coal Community. Awash with corporate lobbyists, Brussels continues to act in the interests of the rich. In the Greek financial crisis, it disregarded democratic procedures to protect core EU capitalist interests by imposing ruinous measures on the Greek people and decimating the country’s social infrastructure. This produced 50 per cent youth unemployment and robbed a generation of its dreams. By imposing high tariffs on processed agricultural goods yet lowering them on raw materials to enrich European food manufacturers, EU trade policies intentionally keep poor countries poor. However, when their impoverished populations attempt to migrate to Europe, its militarised border controls mean they drown in their thousands in the Mediterranean. Its dangerous geopolitical posturing has helped destabilise the post-Cold War settlement with Russia and led to war in Ukraine.
Hilary Clinton, meanwhile, has been a cheerleader for the reckless use of military violence in doomed attempts to impose US visions of capitalist democracy around the world. She infamously supported the 2003 Iraq invasion, precipitating the civil war out of which Islamic State emerged to terrorise the Middle East, Europe and the USA. Failing to learn from this, as Obama’s secretary of State she repeated the Iraq debacle by a cack-handed intervention in Libya, leading to the breakdown of the country and the spread of jihadist violence throughout North Africa.
The liberal orders represented by the EU and Hilary Clinton have been productive of astounding levels of violence and misery, and to bewail their possible demise as some sort of liberal paradise lost is truly idiotic despair.
The Kingdom of God
This is not to say that the visions presented by the EU, Brexit, Trump and Clinton are either all equally good or bad, or that as voters we can’t reasonably choose between them. But if we invest our hope for humanity in passing political projects, rather than in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and the true Saviour of the world, we are bound to be disappointed.
The Prophet Daniel reports that sixth century BC Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was troubled by a dream of “an enormous, dazzling, statue, awesome in appearance.” As Daniel explained to the King, this statue represented a succession of earthly kingdoms. Yet it was smashed to pieces by a rock which was cut out, “but not by human hands” and which eventually “became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 3: 31-5). This prophecy of the coming of Christ reminds us that although these earthly kingdoms claim to represent the best hope for humanity, they are invariably violent and will inevitably pass away. It is only the Kingdom of God which endures.
No one understood this better than Muggeridge. He was a British journalist who covered the rise and fall of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, the demise of the British Empire, and the defeat of the USA in the Vietnam War. Late in life he came to faith in Christ, impressed not by the foolish pretensions of these pompous states, but by the love of Christ as show in the winsome care Mother Theresa showed the poor of Calcutta. He wrote:
The world’s way of responding to intimations of decay is to engage equally in idiot hopes and idiot despair. On the one hand some new policy or discovery is confidently expected to put everything to rights: a new fuel, a new drug, world government. On the other hand, some disaster is as confidently expected to prove our undoing. Capitalism will break down. Fuel will run out. Atomic waste will kill us off. In Christian terms, such hopes and fears are equally beside the point. As Christians we know that here we have no continuing city, that crowns roll in the dust and every earthly kingdom must sometimes flounder. Whereas we acknowledge a king men did not crown and cannot dethrone, as we are citizens of a city of God they did not build and cannot destroy.
In Jesus’ kingdom, human greatness is folly, the last are first, and the defeat of evil was achieved by his self-giving love on the cross. Here, wealth is shared, the stranger welcomed, and the enemy loved. If we invest our hopes in human saviours, we will not only be disappointed and fearful but will perpetuate the violence of political orders, left or right wing.
So, how to respond to Brexit and Trump? As the Christmas story reminds us, the Magi found the true king in a manger, not Herod’s palace. Nor is he found today in the White House, Downing Street, or Brussels. Like Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, 2016’s successful politicians appear to dazzle, but their legacies will one day be buried under the sands of time. Instead of idiotic hope or idiotic despair over the latest batch of crooks and clowns to enter the stage before swiftly departing, we should invest our energies in building God’s peaceable kingdom. This is the only one which will endure. That is why, however we voted, our best response to the shocks of this year is to sing with Isaac Watts, as we do every Christmas:
Joy to the World! The Lord is come,
Let earth receive her king.
Picture: President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) / Wikimedia Commons
Nick Megoran is Lecturer in Political Geography at Newcastle University, and a member of Heaton Baptist Church, Newcastle