Reflections on populism and theology Joint CEC/CCEE meeting in Brussels 18-19 Nov 2019

Reflections on populism and theology

Joint CEC/CCEE meeting in Brussels 18-19 Nov 2019

(I am grateful to Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, the C of E’s Director of Mission and Public Affairs, for the  information he provided which helped in the preparation of this paper.)

I live in a fairly sedate village in Rural Leicestershire, pretty much in the middle of England, but two of my neighbouring MPs, both women, have in the last year seen members of the public jailed for making death threats against them.  And the murder of the MP Jo Cox still casts a very heavy shadow over much public campaigning.

So, what resources, theological and spiritual do we have in a climate such as this where populist language in a political system leads to increased abusive language and indeed aggressive behaviour in public life?

  • First I want to suggest that we need to listen to and recognise the voices of the marginalised even when those voices cause us discomfort

You will remember, I’m sure, Bill Clinton’s famous campaign line, “it’s the economy stupid”. Well one of the most important lessons we in the Church of England have learned from the Brexit referendum is that it is in fact not always the economy that people care about most.

Of course, a flourishing economy is necessary if civilised life is to flourish. But a profoundly unequal economy destroys many things people value. We have had 40 years in which communities and culture have been seen as serving economic growth – and been eroded as a result (I think, for example, of the former mining communities in England). Now the imperative is for the economy to be put back in its proper place as the servant of culture and community. It is a fundamental Christian insight that the great truth about being human is not our autonomy, as the market theorists insist. Rather, it is our dependency on others which, in the end is itself the incarnational out-working of our final dependency on God.

Populism in the UK (or perhaps more accurately I should say England, and maybe Wales) is one way in which communities and cultures who have felt unheard and left behind are pushing back against the subordination of human neighbourliness to the imperatives of the economy. This is not easy to hear.

So, one form of populism is the reaction of downtrodden people against those who set the terms of their existence. If our theological commitment to responding to the voices of the poor means anything at all, we must be alert to these voices and not dismiss them if they fail to use the vocabulary and conceptual frameworks we prefer.

In the UK, Brexit has shown us that people have often been given no language to speak about the dislocation they feel when sharing space with large numbers of people who embody different cultures. Instead of acknowledging that sense of dislocation, they have been branded “racist” – a knee-jerk slur from the kind of liberals for whom multiculturalism offers more promise than threat.

There is a theological theme underlying these issues which comes from the literature of exile.This is a rich theme for me personally because of my own story and journey – one of dislocation and exile from the place of my birth in Iran.  So perhaps the discomfort for me, and those like me who hold so firmly to the welcome of the stranger, is that the presence of people who are in geographical exile from their own lands has become the embodiment of an inarticulate sense of exile among those who feel their own country has abandoned their values even though they have not moved an inch. That is a very complex challenge to us. We need to reflect, I think, on the story of Naboth’s vineyard and what it tells us about people’s attachment to place rather than to the market value of land. And we need to understand that exile is not always geographical, nor are there hierarchies of exile for people are displaced in different ways.

  • Whilst recognising the importance of all this, my second point is about challenging Populism which abuses and dispossesses others

Having recognised populism as one way in which the cry of the displaced seeks to be heard, we need to be very much on our guard against a second form of populism – the populism that seeks to mobilise the anger of the dispossessed against a third party. This involves the fabrication of a mutual enemy so that the power of “the people” is deployed, not against those who oppress them but against a convenient scapegoat. Europe has too many examples of this kind of populism in its history for it to need much introduction. And that is one reason why challenging this kind of populism is so difficult today. So let us look to our Christian inheritance for some inspiration.

It is tempting to turn to the prophetic literature – to the voices who spoke truth to power in God’s name. But there is something a little self-aggrandising, perhaps in comparing ourselves to Isaiah or Hosea. Surely the most important scriptural and indeed theological reference, as we face manipulative populism orchestrated by the powerful, is the Cross. When communities and those who are powerless are being scapegoated, Jesus was there first. Scourged and rejected by a people whipped into fury against him by the powerful of the day as a way of appeasing the global power of Rome.

When asked to articulate and own the identity of the scapegoat – the pretender to Jewish Kingship – Jesus replied “You say I am.” As the scapegoats of populism are being made to carry crosses not of their making, we need to be very clear about naming those – todays Pilates and Herods - who attribute to them their hated identity. As the migrant is accused of being the source of the problems in British society, we might hear their voices echoing with Christ’s own words, “you say that I am”. Narratives created by those in power, notwithstanding that they have then been taken up by the poor and disadvantaged, must still, constantly and continually, be challenged.

In the final section of my paper, I want to suggest one theological task and one pastoral imperative, both of which the Anglican Tradition may (in common with others)  have something particular to contribute.


 As I’ve suggested, populism is not one thing – and we need to be careful to distinguish what is going on and avoid getting caught in simplistic binary analyses. The referendum in the UK forced us to decide between binary choices – the impulse to know our identity and belong on one hand (reflected in the vote to leave and emphasise our national identity), versus, on the other hand, our impulse to recognise we are part of something bigger and that we need each other (reflected in the vote to remain in the EU). For me, the breadth of the Anglican tradition means that we strive to negotiate the complexity of grey areas that exist between polar opposites. Rather than submitting to black and white binaries we struggle to hold together the many paradoxes of faith, church tradition and pastoral practice, in the midst of what is often complex and messy and indeed painful. Resisting the binaries is our gift to the world, albeit one which we often struggle to live by ourselves.


So, how shall we create the conditions where scapegoating populism can be resisted? I suspect it will not go away quickly, so we need to build resilience to resist – and so what better place to turn to for inspiration than the early church. I don’t want to talk up a persecution narrative – my own faith has been shaped by having grown up in the persecuted church in the Middle East and I know the reality of suffering for one’s faith. However, I am deeply uncomfortable with what has become, paradoxically, the motif of some Christian groups in Europe who are themselves fomenting scapegoat populism, not only against liberal societies but against Muslims and other Christians.

But we know that the earliest church of the Acts of the Apostles met together – physical proximity strengthened their mutuality and enabled them to endure in Christ. Whatever the uses of social media and today’s ultra-connectedness, it has undoubtedly become a vehicle for populism and the idea that it can easily be turned toward truth may be optimistic. In the end, the face to face is what allows us to encounter Christ in one another. So our congregations become places where, simply by meeting and breaking bread, we become subversives. And that is not about meeting just with people like ourselves. The Anglican parochial tradition is sometimes under great challenge through strategies of building homogenous communities.  But at its heart the Anglican Parish is (or should be) a place of belonging for ALL within its borders.  And every part of the land is covered by this provision of a place of welcome. 

By opening our doors (or in fact not our doors but the doors of which we are merely the door keepers) to the stranger and recognising that, in Christ, our brothers and sisters will often look nothing like us and sound nothing like us, we subvert scapegoating. And by recognising that no church knows all there is to know about Christ, we maintain the importance of the local, of community and of culture, alongside a proper relativism.

Each local church needs the bigger vision of the worldwide Church of Christ if it is to be authentic and not mistake its own face for the face of Jesus. That is one of the reasons why the work of CEC and gatherings such as this with CCEE are so important. And yet we are, supremely perhaps, local and global at once – and it is that which may enable Christian churches to avoid the binary and instead help people regain their sense of community and identity without allowing that identity to be exclusive. We must respond to the erosion of community which has prepared the ground for today’s populism, whilst holding fast to our universal vision of God’s Kingdom. In this interim between Pentecost and the Parousia, we have to hold together the local – which is where people can be their best despite their limitations – and the global, which is the ultimate mission field, the ultimate meaning of God’s Kingdom.


The rise of populism with its abusive language and its exclusion and scapegoating of others has become an unavoidable part of the political and social discourse within the United Kingdom.  Whilst we cannot challenge what we do not understand, the depths of our theological and spiritual resources, not least some of the genius of Anglican theological method and pastoral praxis, offers us ways to draw alongside, with both challenge and care.

+Guli Loughborough


This church website is powered by Church Edit | Privacy Notice