Christians must make the first move to bridge the divide over Brexit

(Photo: Unsplash/Nick Paige)

So many words have already been spoken and written about Brexit. Do you really need to hear any more? I firmly believe that whichever viewpoint we are coming from, throwing our hands in the air is not an option, especially with the European Parliament elections next week. So here are some words from my (admittedly limited) perspective.

Politics has always been polarised but what we are experiencing at the moment in the UK is something beyond that. I believe we are genuinely in danger of stumbling (for most of us unintentionally) towards a future where not just politics but our very culture is polarised, and in effect operates as two separate cultures. If you think that couldn't possibly happen, then just take even the shortest glance across the pond to the USA.

I write this as someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, where two separate cultures inhabited a single space. Believe me, it is very possible to live in blissful ignorance of the other side of a cultural divide even existing. And without that contact with 'the other', in that vacuum grows prejudice, hatred and even violence.

As an 18-year-old I sat down in a lecture room (right at the back I must confess, as I was a few minutes late) on the first day of medical school in Belfast and was joined a few minutes later by a fellow dawdler. "How're you doing?", I asked. "Fine, thanks", came the reply. Next - "I'm Andy" "Nice to meet you. I'm Gerry". Then a subtle but firm handshake.

We continued our hushed small-talk for the next fifteen minutes to discover that we had for example both: 1) done the same A-levels 2) got the same A-level results 3) supported Liverpool FC 4) liked the same bands and had in fact been at some of the same gigs over the past 12 months etc.

I won't bore you with the details. Suffice to say that we laughed about the fact that we could have been brothers.

I then innocently asked, "So where are you from?" and Gerry said "Portadown". My jaw dropped and I mouthed quietly, "So am I!" as I tried to process this bizarre new information.

I will never forget how I felt at that moment. It crystallised and personalised for me the problem of Northern Ireland. These two lads from the same town who studied the same books had never met, simply because one was a Catholic and one was a Protestant.

That experience inspired me to spend my student days intentionally dwelling on the other side of Northern Ireland's divide. Much folk music was played and much eye-opening occurred. Most importantly, much love, understanding and appreciation developed.

That might be partly why I make it my habit to browse the headlines and articles of the breadth of newspapers and blogs online, rather than just read mostly from one stable. Of course there have always been large differences in interpretation of current events, but what we are seeing now is taking things to a whole new level. Positions are becoming so entrenched that it is hard to recognise the same story told by different people.

More importantly, and more insidiously, the editorial decisions that are made about what constitutes 'news' have monstrously diverged. If you are waking up in Islington reading the Guardian, you may start your day believing the biggest challenges facing our country are poverty or gender identity issues, but if you are in East Anglia reading the Mail you may start your day believing that it's immigration and the EU.

Influencing our priorities is as important as influencing our policy positions. We are increasingly watching separate Youtube channels rather than the same national news. We are increasingly reading blogs and articles proffered by social media algorithms designed to sell us 'more of the same' rather than anything from outside our preferences. This dangerous path leaves us less and less common ground for conversation, let alone compromise.

This increasing gap is why Christians in Politics are calling people to do some intentional relationship building to cross the cultural divide. It's all very well to talk about coming together but how can we come together if we never meet? This is not a messaging problem. This is a relationships vacuum.

The church is one of the few places where folks from different ethnicities, socio-economic groups, and political persuasions come together for shared purpose. There are also some wonderful projects and organic expressions all over the country where believers are intentionally living in areas very different to the areas they were brought up in. So the church is increasingly in a good place to be able to lead in this work of reconciliation. This forms the crux of the call in our new video here designed for showing at churches or other events.

As the video says, the cross sits at the centre of history because it makes possible the reconciliation between us and God, between us and the rest of creation and between us and those who may not feel like 'us' anymore.

You may be sitting just yards from someone who fundamentally disagrees with you about Brexit. At this moment in the UK, there is a real danger of a cultural divide becoming a cultural chasm. So could you make the first move in reconciliation? Could you extend a hand beyond your comfort zone to engage with people who are different to you?

It certainly won't happen through social media.

We cry out for unity, but unity is very easy to talk about and very hard to do.

It's because it needs humility.

Christians have a wonderful gift to bring to the public square at this time - we know a way to that humility. We still speak what we believe to be true, but we also know how we might just start to believe that we don't see the whole picture – it's from being in the presence of the one who does. It's from being on our knees in prayer at that cross and realising that we only see in part.

Then we might be able to join hands with those from the other side who have also discovered that perhaps they don't have all the answers in the light of his glory. In truth, we know very little. But we know someone who knows it all.

So being on our knees won't just change the Brexit situation. It will change us. And that might give us just a chance to be peacemakers and bridge-builders, to be the glue that prevents a country tearing itself apart.

Andy Flannagan is executive director of Christians in Politics and author of "Those Who Show Up"