EIGHTY YEARS ON
On the evening of Monday 2nd September I met a group of Christian friends for a teatime meeting. On our way there we’d been listening to drive time news as we inched through Belfast traffic, with the breaking story being that the Prime Minister was to make an announcement from the steps of 10 Downing Street at 6pm.
Before our business, we were due to eat together, and as we sat down to our meals an iPad was placed in the centre of the table, with Boris Johnson’s statement streamed via BBC News. As it happened, he didn’t say much. ‘You don’t want an election, I don’t want an election’ was about the sum of his remarks.
But what struck me as I sat with my friends was our absolute silence as Johnson spoke. His statement turned out to be something of a nonevent but we hung on every word of it.
It brought to mind pictures from childhood history books of British citizens anxiously clustered round their wireless sets on 3rd September 1939 - almost eighty years ago to the exact day - as another Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, spoke to the nation. I’m sure we’ve all heard recordings of his remarks that day:
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street.
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock, that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany...”
Considering where it is that the British people find ourselves in September 2019, I wonder if it would have been at all out of order for Boris Johnson to say that a ‘state of war exists between us’ and explain that with the words ‘this country is at war with itself.’
In suggesting such a parallel, I would not for one minute argue that there is any equivalence between the imminent cost of human suffering the UK faced in 1939 and what lies ahead of us in 2019.
The fears the British were staring at in 1939 were cataclysmic. Are we at all ready for war? What is this tyrannical regime that has risen up in Germany capable of? Which of our allies will fall next? Who will stand with us in this battle? And what will the first conflict that would feature significant airborne warfare do to British cities - for people then that was a fear equivalent to how we see nuclear war today.
And above all their fears must have been compounded by the fact many of them could well imagine what war would mean, given that only 20 years earlier a conflict had ended that had seen 16.5 million people die, 723,000 of them British citizens.
For us the circumstances are very different and yet we face the gravest circumstances our nation has known since September 1939, and the tragedy that our enemies are within and not without. We are not united by a common cause but rather are each other’s foes. Our threat is not an ideology abroad but rather idolatries at home.
On the extreme side of Remain, the only conscionable solution is that the country rerun the June 2016 referendum, despite it being almost too awful to contemplate how multiple times more divisive and ugly that would be, given the emotions unleashed in the country over the last three and a half years.
On the extreme side of Leave, Brexit has been reduced to a purity test where only the angriest and bitterest of no deal departures will suffice. It’s not enough to leave, we have to slam the door so hard it comes off its hinges as we scream abuse on the way out.
It seems difficult to find a basis for hope at this time. How can we be reconciled with one another, how can we rebuild, and where is consensus and common ground going to come from?
And yet here’s the thing: there must have been many who felt profoundly fearful - even hopeless - in September 1939, but the country found a way through. At that time God’s people could rightly invoke His aid and mercy as the United Kingdom took a stand against a monstrous evil. Today’s scenario is very different in the sense that our appeal to God is that He rescues us from national insanity that above all sees us eating ourselves in anger, but isn’t it equally urgent that we cry out afresh for mercy?
I’ve recently been reading Paul Miller’s book ‘A Praying Life’ and in it he reminds readers of three fundamental attributes of God. God is sovereign: He can come through for us. God is good: He wants to come through for us. And God is faithful: He’s come through for us in the past.
Whatever my confusion and sorrow over the mess of our national life right now, I think of the prayers of our Christian forebears in September 1939, facing what they faced, and I remind myself: God is sovereign, God is good and God is faithful. He came through for this country in 1939, and if we seek Him, He wants to come through for us again.
Colin Neill is a Board Member of Contemporary Christianity
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.