October 10, 2019

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

John Lennon, 1971.

“I don’t like borders. Borders are like scars left on the surface of the earth.” Once again, a senior EU official is channelling John Lennon’s tiresome old dirge, Imagine. Josep Fontelles, EU foreign minister tweeted out his pithy apercu earlier this week — just in time for what would have been the long-gone Beatle’s 79th birthday.

The time before, it was Donald Tusk. “Some of my British friends have asked me if Brexit could be reversed and whether I could imagine an outcome where the UK stays part of the EU. I told them in fact the European Union was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve. So, who knows? You may say I am a dreamer but I am not the only one.”

In his latest book on the influence of Christianity upon Europe, Dominion, Tom Holland takes aim at the gob-smacking hypocrisy of this multi-millionaire who can “imagine no possessions” while sitting behind a white Steinway, set within 72 acre estate, within a gated community in St George’s Hill, Berkshire.

It’s a bit like Fontelles saying he doesn’t like borders while fronting a policy that detains tens of thousands of migrants in squalid, rat-infested camps in Greece, refusing them entry into Europe.

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But Holland is saying something else too. That the sentiment expressed by Lennon et al, is thoroughly Christian. Lennonism originates in the Christian ideal of universal love. And it is true that Lennon cites a Christian prayer book given to him by the comedian and social activist Dick Gregory as one of the inspirations for the song.

Thus “in its dreams of a universal peace, Lennon’s atheism was bred of Christian marrow”, claims Holland. A borderless world, the dream of universal peace and harmony, all you need is love – aren’t these entirely Christian sentiments? Yes, for many they are.

In a brilliant essay on how much he hates Imagine, the political philosopher Ze’ev Maghen — in the course of a defence of Zionism — makes a very powerful point about the nature of love and Lennon’s deep misunderstanding of it. Love, claims Maghen, is always and necessarily specific and particular. Love in general, the universal love of all humanity, isn’t really love at all.

Imagine the scene:

“My darling, I love you. I love you so much. I love you as much as I love … as much as I love … as much as I love that other woman, the one walking down the street over there. Oh, and that one, too, riding her bike past the newspaper stand. I love you as much as I love everybody else on the planet. … Hey, where are you going my daaaaaaliiiiing?”

Maghen continues:

“No one gets turned on by ‘universal’ love. It doesn’t give you goose bumps or make you feel all warm and tingly inside, it doesn’t send you traipsing through copses picking wildflowers and singing songs about birds, it doesn’t provoke heroism, or sacrifice, or creativity, or loyalty, or anything. In short, ‘universal love’ isn’t love at all. Because love means preference.”

The thing is, and I mean absolutely no offence by this, I love my children more than I love yours. And I think you should love yours more than you love mine. To love someone is to count them as being special. And so to love without preference is not the glorious extension of love to all humankind, it is the eradication of the very possibility of love. And the same argument applies, by extension, to friends, and to communities and nations.

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But even if there is something to this, doesn’t Christianity, as Holland suggests, and as Magev agrees, argue the exact opposite? Isn’t Christianity the religion of universal love par excellence?

Well, it’s not that simple.

The other day I visited the place where, for thousands of years, Christians have believed that Jesus Christ was baptised in the River Jordan. The place, known as Qasr el Yehud, has only recently been partially reopened, having been covered in anti-personnel mines following the end of the Six Day War in 1967. These mines were laid to stop the possibility of a Jordanian counter-attack and to resist the incursions of so-called “terrorists”. A dozen or so monasteries, built to mark this holy place of baptism, lie stranded, inaccessible, marooned in a sea of mines. Many are booby-trapped. And the river itself, just a few meters across, is marked with a sign in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian: “border ahead” it warns.

On the Israeli side, where I am standing, a number of Christian pilgrims from India cover themselves with water. On the other side of the muddy waters, in Jordan, and close enough to catch a gently thrown ball, another group of Christian pilgrims are doing the same thing. Aren’t we all brothers and sisters in Christ, irrespective of borders and national divisions?

Didn’t Jesus – and even more so St Paul — reject precisely the very existence of borders and divisions that separate us, one from another? Didn’t they sing Imagine first? “There is neither Greek nor Jew, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28).

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As Vicar of a church in London where people have gathered from all over the world, and where we speak many different languages, this passage from Galatians has long been a source of comfort and solidarity. Many times I have preached about how (the) water (of baptism) is thicker than blood. And I passionately believe this. In baptism, Christians are re-born as new people, re-created within a new community, a holy demos, as it were.

But does this mean that I, as a Christian, have to accept the sort of non-specific universal wave-your-lighter-in-the-air love that John Lennon sung about? Maybe not.

In his essay, Maghen tells the story of a group of Iranian Jews who fall out with the local authorities, and whose presence in Iran is under threat. In order to make peace, one of the Jewish community leaders takes two carpets to the local governor, and offers him a choice of one of them as a gift.

The first is a beautiful carpet of many swirling colours, all weaving in and out of each other, an intricate design “with colourful curving calyxes and designs of gold and green and turquoise, intricately intertwined with whirling waves of purple petunias which spiralled ceaselessly and centripetally towards the centre”. The other carpet was red. Just red. Nothing but red.

The political message was obvious. Do we want “a world of dazzling diversity, of independent and self-respecting societies and communities that value, retain and revel in their own uniqueness”. Or does “love” mean that we should all be the same, an eradication of our distinctiveness in the name of an all-consuming one-ness? Lennonism is the philosophy of the red carpet.

What makes Qasr el Yehud so challenging for Christians is that it is both the place of Jesus’s baptism, and also, as it happens, the place where Joshua is said to have first led the people of Israel out of the wilderness, across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. That is why it is also a border — a place that “people kill and die for” as Lennon would have it. And many people have indeed killed and died here.

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Qasr el Yehud is thus a place that speaks of “the brotherhood of man” to Christians and yet also of the specificity of God’s promise to the people of Israel to Jews. And that means land, and that means borders. A Christian faith that recognises that it grows out of the Jewish experience, and is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures, is about holding these two things together. Luke’s gospel, for instance, speaks of God’s love for us as being so specifically about the particular person that he knows and values the very number of hairs on our head (Luke. 12.7). This isn’t love in general.

There is no inconsistency here if we start to think about our rootedness in, and love for, a specific community — our community — as being the basis for our love of others; its grounding, rather than its contradiction. I may love my children more than yours. But it is precisely because I love my children as I do that I understand and value the love that you have for yours.

Likewise, my patriotism, my pride and commitment to the historical and cultural specificity of my own community, is not a denunciation of other people’s. It is the reason I appreciate why others will want to do the same. This too is love. Perhaps it is too much eros and not enough agape for some. But it is love, nonetheless.

Yes, of course, a community that doesn’t look outward and value its neighbours is often narrow, small minded and sectarian. And that can lead people to war. But just don’t be fooled into believing that the world of the red carpet would be a place without anything to kill or die for. Think of Hong Kong for a moment. I suspect the words ‘red carpet’ — and the one size fits all philosophy it represents, complete with its own version of ‘imagine no religion’ — may currently have a much more sinister feel for the people over there.

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