It was in 2004 that we went on holiday to Croatia. We stayed near Dubrovnik, which we visited. The town had largely been restored after the horrors of the war, although some damage was still evident. We took advantage of joining a trip to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We saw the famous Stari Most, the sixteen century Ottoman bridge, which had been destroyed by Croat military forces on 9th November 1993. The original plans for the bridge still exist, which describe in great detail just how it was to be built. This allowed the bridge to be rebuilt and it reopened in July 2004, shortly after our visit. Walking down the main street was a strange experience. Although shops had re-established themselves, at the front, ground-floor units of the buildings, the rest of each building was a bombed-out wreck. Everywhere the walls of buildings were pock-marked where they had been hit by bullets. We came to a cleared space, which had been turned into a cemetery. All the stones were in the modern style, with a picture of the deceased etched into the stone. Clearly this was a Muslim cemetery. It was a chilling experience, not just to look on ranks of stones, but to look at the faces of so many young men, many just teenagers, who had died in this conflict. Our guide for the day was a Muslim, who took us into his mosque. He described to us what life in Mostar had been like, both before the war and then when the war had come. He himself was the product of a mixed-marriage, with one parent a Christian and the other a Muslim. In fact there had been three distinctively different groups in that community, the Muslims, the Catholic Christians and the Orthodox Christians. Life in Mostar, where Eastern and Western Christianity met with Islam, had been a rich tapestry of co-habiting cultures in which most families were a mixture of these different traditions. “We knew the war was coming”, he told us, “but we thought we were an integrated community and that that would hold us together”. But they found out that that was not to be. Their community, and their individual families, were fractured as people were set against one another. “No one won”, he said, “and the wounds of this war will take generations to heal”.
I will forever remember those words. What makes up a life-sustaining community is always a rich mix of different backgrounds, traditions and cultures. We can so easily take the common life we share for granted. In the case of the people of Mostar, that sense of a shared common life was suddenly shattered, in a moment, as war engulfed them.
I become increasing sad about Brexit. Forget the question as to whether we are better off in or out of the EU. It is the whole process of brexiting that has become poisonous for our society. Levels of anger are rising. Friendships are being put under strain. Politicians (and so many others) are resorting to the language of hatred and violence. The idea that the NHS would be £350m a week better off after Brexit was always a lie, but the idea that we will somehow have a brighter future after Brexit now needs to be seriously challenged. I do not mean that somewhat idealised discussion as to whether we might find greater prosperity, once we have broken our ties with Europe. Rather, I look at the way that our society is being shattered by the Brexit process. We were once a great nation, of whom (not so long ago) it was said that we ‘punched above our weight’ on the world stage. Now the brokenness of our politics and our common life does not suggest that we will find it easy to make our way in the world, as a separate sovereign power, once we have left the EU.
This blog is not intended to be a political treatise, but rather a lament over the brokenness of so much that served to create and sustain the common good of our shared life together. In an increasingly unfair society, where such deep cuts have been made to the infrastructure that bound us together and so much power seemed to have been ceded to multinational institutions, it seems to be that Brexit was inevitable. Yet the shattering of our common life is something that we live with us for generations and it will not leave us in a strong position to flourish into the future.
The Church must be confident in its message of the inclusion of all creation into the life of the Kingdom of God. Seeing to build (or rebuild) common life together is an urgent need and one in which the Church (with a foot in every community) must engage. The lesson of somewhere like Mostar is that we can never take our common life together for granted. The proclamation of the Church is that there is a new world to be grasped and our vocation is to lay aside our own tribalism and to so live the life of that new world that others may be drawn in.