The EBF is an Associate Member of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). CEC does an excellent work in relating to the European Institutions on behalf of the churches, articulating their concerns on a range of issues. I have been quite involved with CEC on issues of human rights and religious freedom; and recently they asked me to offer some brief reflections 'Towards a Christian Understanding of Citizenship'. Education for good citizenship is a live issue in the EU, and CEC wants to ensure that the churches play their part in this. So here are my reflections, no doubt incomplete, so I would be glad to get some feedback:
Citizenship is about identity, belonging and (in the EU at least) how the individual plays his or her part in the building of democratic society. One helpful definition I read recently was that citizenship is the way we live together and organise our lives together despite the differences among us and between us. In the European Union there needs to be a more intentional strategy to imbue the values of citizenship because citizenship in the EU is ‘over and beyond’ the individual ‘s primary citizenship in their own EU member country.
So what is the contribution of Christian understanding to the current debate about EU citizenship? I list a few pointers:
1. The Christian belief is in a God who is personal and relational; and whose nature is to reach out beyond himself to embrace creation and all that dwells in it. This fundamental connectedness at the heart of the universe informs a Christian understanding of citizenship. It is seen in the mutuality of relationships in God as Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit. It is there in the Bible from the first anguished question of Cain after the murder of his brother Abel in the book of Genesis, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’; to the great commandment of Christian to love God and love neighbour. Building human community is not an option but part of the ‘DNA’ of the Christian.
2. This valuing of the inviolable human dignity of people ‘beyond’ ourselves is grounded in the way in which the Bible describes human beings as reflecting the image of God (imago dei). In a Christian understanding, this is where human rights and responsibilities find their foundation and the nurturing and protection of such rights and responsibilities is a primary concern of what it means to be a good citizen.
3. But what of the ‘other’ who is different from us, and whose presence in Europe can sometimes leads to xenophobia and a narrow exclusive nationalism. The Old Testament command to ‘love the stranger’ is developed in the New Testament concept of the truly global community of the church where diverse nations and cultures can love together in peace and find their unity in Christ who transcends them all. European citizenship also needs to embrace a vision of the world and its needs, and Europe’s place within it.
4. Another relevant concept from biblical theology is that of shalom, the Hebrew word often translated simply as ‘peace, but which in its use in the Old Testament embraces a vision of the healing, wholeness and harmony of relationships, personal, communal and societal. Christian theology also addresses the sin and evil which so often threatens shalom. In European society it can often take the form of a consumerist selfish greed that does not work for the common good of the whole of society. A Christian understanding insists that in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (what is sometimes called at-one-ment), the possibility of redemption and a restored harmony in society is now possible. In particular, in the Bible there is a special concern for the poor, the marginalised the refugee and the stranger. If a society is judged on how it cares for its weakest members then any concept of European citizenship must make this concern its priority.
5. Finally, there is an eschatological dimension to a Christian approach to citizenship. Christians seek to live as good citizens wholeheartedly committed to being ‘salt and light’ in whatever human society of which they are part. The perspective of the Free Churches from which I come is that there should not be any special privilege or status grated to Christians in a plural society; they work with those of other faiths or none for justice, peace and the common good of all.
At the same time the Apostle Paul reminds us that our ultimate citizenship is in the heavenly Kingdom of God. For the Christian this gives a certain ‘provisionality’ to all current political structures. This is not a reason for Christians to opt out of being good citizens of their societies; rather this dimension should often lead them to be dissatisfied with the status quo and drive them seek new creative possibilities of working with others as citizens to make human society come closer to the values of the Kingdom of God.