The founder of Radical Orthodoxy has imparted his most radically unorthodox revelation yet. Professor John Milbank of Nottingham University is of the view that Brexit must be stopped “by almost any means possible”. From such a prominent theologian and influential teacher with the charge of forming young academic minds, this ‘almost’ demanded some interrogation. Enter Fr Marcus Walker, Rector at Great St Bartholomew’s in London, who asked the Professor if he deemed violence to be an acceptable means. The response was unequivocal: violence might be unavoidable “somewhere down the line” in order to sustain (or reassert) “basic law and order”. Here is the dialogue in full:
Setting aside the contentious proposition that Brexit represents a “subversion of political and democratic order by extreme capitalism” (what does he think EEC accession represented? Or the inviolable, immutable rules of the Single Market?), John Milbank’s concern is that Brexit somehow threatens or negates “basic justice and order”. The necessary remedy “somewhere down the line” is the injustice and disorder of the blood of Abel, rather than the redeeming and reconciling blood of Jesus.
So those who seek “basic justice and order” are called to adopt the mark of Cain in the name of Christ. The only way of dealing with the offensive rupture of Brexit is to resort to violence “somewhere down the line”, for the natural justice of civilisation demands the injustice of violence in order to ensure the reflection of divine justice. Some might term this extremism – religious, political, or religio-political.
It might have been worth interrogating Professor Milbank further on his more enigmatic lines, but Twitter is hardly the medium for doing moral theology. Yet if religious pacifism and political persuasion no longer work for him, we need to know the extent of the violence he is advocating, and when, for his objective is to stop Brexit, and that is scheduled to take place on 31st October, which is Reformation Day throughout Europe. Is he, for example, imagining a necessary political assassination “somewhere down the line”, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to believe was necessary to deal with Hitler? Will he himself be leading the Stop-Brexit Secret Service, or serving on its ruling council? Who should the Brexit-halting target be? The “amoral liar” Boris Johnson? The “fear-mongering racist” Nigel Farage? Is he saying that Remainers should storm Parliament, risking their own lives to induce terror in our elected representatives?
Don’t those elected representatives bear the ultimate responsibility for Brexit? Didn’t they give the people a referendum? Didn’t they pledge to give effect to the result? Didn’t they vote to implement Article 50? Didn’t both Houses of Parliament pass the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill? Didn’t the Queen give her assent to this? Is Professor Milbank calling for a coup d’état against the “covertly violent” state powers which bear the guilt for scheming to create the European Union (Withdrawal) Act?
If not them and that, then who and what? And when?
Against whom is this anti-Brexit violence to be meted out? What form should it take before the Brexit event can be effected? Bombs and bullets? How frequently should they be planted or fired? If peaceful marches, megaphones and EU flags on College Green aren’t working, what exactly is meant by “organised physical resistance”? What effectual resistance is not armed? Is Professor Milbank advocating terrorism? Is he justifying the sort of mob violence which Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell lauded after the London riots in 2010 when the Momentum mob trashed Millbank Tower, where the Conservative Party has its HQ? Is “the best of [the Stop-Brexit] movement” that which resorts to “kicking the shit” out of Brexiteers or Brexit HQ before October 31st?
The Church has a long and blemished history in its theory and practice of forceful domination. When it comes to balancing spiritual authority and temporal might, Christians have learned, for the most part, that violent enforcement nullifies spiritual authority, and that mandatory conformity at gunpoint is ultimately doomed to failure. A law imposed with blood lacks moral authority, but that is the kind of law which John Milbank appears to be advocating as the means of sustaining the structures of the enlightened European power, which he sees as the source of justice and order.
The United Kingdom is not at war, so this not a matter of Just-War theorising. We are not facing an evil of sort which Dietrich Bonhoeffer agonised over and died for, unless you believe Brexit to be Nazi-ish and Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy to be inching us toward Auschwitz. John Milbank may believe capitalism and neoliberalism to be an egregious offence against economic righteousness leading to the oppression of the poorest and weakest, but it is surely a step too far for the Christian to contemplate revolutionary violence against the Brexiteer oppressors, even “somewhere down the line”, isn’t it? Is leaving the EU really worth a liberation theology of armed struggle? Where does that reasoning take us? And where would it stop?
That 1986 newspaper extract is taken from Richard Hays’ magisterial The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Continuum, 1996:318). Hays continues:
When we hear of threats to commit terrorist murder as a way of preventing a singer from representing “anti-Christian values”, we cannot help but wonder what “Christian” values are being defended. Though this case seems absurd, the mentality at work here is not materially different from the knee-jerk impulse that has afflicted humanity since Cain – the impulse to impose our will through violence.
Professor Milbank wouldn’t be writing knee-jerk tweets conflating the will of God with his own will to power, would he, in order to impose remaining in the EU through violence?