I was talking recently with some Norwegian friends – fluent in English, of course, but not native speakers. So when I said ‘that would be interesting’ I was asked ‘So, which of the seventeen meanings of ‘interesting’ would that be?’ A good question in that context, and for today. ‘Interesting times’ are times of uncertainty, maybe of danger; times of change, maybe of chaos; times of new possibilities, but also unexpected fears. We are in the UK now living in interesting times.
My father was a meteorologist, which explains perhaps why I am even more interested in the weather than the average Brit (I wonder, how long will that term have its present meaning?). The weather is inherently unpredictable, but there are times when it is more difficult even than usual. The Met Office run their simulations of what might happen, and sometimes a whole range of radically different outcomes are equally possible. That’s what it feels like now to me. No-one can predict what’s going to happen – we just don’t know.
So how do we live in these ‘interesting’ times? We start from a difficult place, in a nation deeply divided after an aggressive referendum campaign marked by negativity on each side. Counting up the votes in the boroughs and districts which (more or less) reflect my own episcopal area, there were 206664 for remain, and 203611 for leave – that’s a remain majority of 50.3%. Round here we are as finely balanced as anywhere in the country.
Living with uncertainty is never easy. All the more difficult when half of us are confronted with a future we voted against, and many of those who voted to leave seem to be in a state of shock at their victory. It’s a time when Paul’s words are particularly relevant, and a little frightening. As I write, it seems as if both our main political parties are descending into the sort of civil war that Paul warns against in Galatians. The break up of the UK is again on the cards, and no-one knows what the future holds for the political settlement in Northern Ireland. There are widespread reports of racist abuse of those who look ‘foreign’. A hospital chaplain reports that staff in his hospital, from many countries in the EU and beyond, are feeling as if all their work and dedication had been rejected.
Paul’s answer is that we should instead love our neighbours as ourselves. That may be almost equally difficult for everyone. Those who voted to remain in the EU are asked to love those who voted to leave, despite everything – and vice versa. Not to agree, but to love. It’s only by doing that that we can demonstrate that we are still neighbours.
The sort of love which holds a community together is not romantic. It’s the practical act of recognising that we are responsible for one another’s well being, that my good is bound up with what is good for you. It’s part of the trust which enables us think of other people as sharing the same sorts of values as us, even if they express them differently. Both of those sorts of communal love are under threat. The referendum debate has led many people to suspect that half of their neighbours don’t share the same basic values that they have. It has left many wondering whether they have any place at all.
Neighbourliness needs rebuilding right now, from the ground up. Those who feel that they have been rejected need to know that they are still part of our community. Those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain need to reassure each other that they are still neighbours. The future is unclear, and looks likely to be a bumpy ride. The opportunities for division, recrimination and resentment are many. But we must heed Paul’s warning. Love is not an optional extra.