Is a double negative positive?

June 6, 2005

THE PROFESSOR WAS EXPLAINING TO HIS STUDENTS that, while in many languages a double negative made a positive, a double positive never made a negative.

From the back of the lecture hall came the cynical response, “Yeah, right!”

Could last week’s double negative-from the French and the Dutch-turn out to be a positive for Europe?

And would a double positive therefore have been negative in the long run?

The morning after the Dutch vote I was in England and watched the results on the BBC. I can still see that wildly jubilant crowd of ‘nee’ voters responding to the news of the almost 2-to-1 margin. My first thoughts went to the new East European member and would-be member nations. I imagined their disappointment and confusion watching the Dutch so happy about reversing the progress ‘towards ever closer union’. And what would the Turks be thinking about such a display of overt rejection?

Of course, that’s not what all the Dutch and the French were saying. But some certainly were.

Just what they were saying is not very clear, other than that they were not very happy with their politicians. The gap between the political elite and the people was wider than anyone had realised. Those strutting the corridors of power had failed to lead their constituencies by the hand. The referendum had been the occasion for the public to voice their general discontent on a whole range of issues.

Fears played a big role: of a ‘superstate’, of big bully nations, of the ‘Polish plumber’ who would steal jobs, of loss of national sovereignty, of unbridled liberalist capitalism, of too much centralisation, of rising prices, of Muslim immigrants…

What brought me to England on this day was an invitation to address the European Forum of Bible Agencies. Without intending a reference to the previous day’s events, the chairman opened with a reading from Numbers chapter 14, about the spies returning from checking out the Promised Land. I wryly smiled at the appropriateness of the chapter heading in my Bible: ‘The people rebel’. It is the story of the Israelites’ refusal to enter the land of milk and honey because of the giants.

So when I came to the podium to share about Hope for Europe, I mused out loud if Holland’s prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende might not be reading from the same chapter that morning to his Christian Democratic colleagues!

Certainly politicians in 25 capitals have been left wondering if they are now doomed to years of wandering around in the wilderness, operating under the clumsy old procedures designed for half the number of member states than is now the case. Some are trying to put on a brave face, hoping to salvage some elements of the constitution’s draft. The British have put their referendum on hold, arguing that the constitution is simply dead, if not buried. The EU summit in Luxembourg next week will likely be a tense, acrimonious affair.

So what could be positive about this double negative?

Firstly, never has there been so much public discussion about the future of Europe. That is positive in itself, even if much of the Christian talk has been reactive rather than proactive. Why is it that we Christians can better articulate what we don’t want rather than we what we do want?

Perhaps a double positive would have simply killed further discussion among Christians. We could have shrugged our shoulders and crawled back into our Christian ghettos, preoccupying ourselves again with church activities. That would have been negative.

But where do we want things to go now? What kind of Europe do we want? And how can we get there?

More importantly, what kind of Europe does God want? Can any of us mortals know what God wants?

My answer is: YES! That is what Jesus taught us to pray for: a Europe where God’s will was being done in increasing measure in every place, among every people group, and in every life sphere. That’s what it means to pray for God’s kingdom to come in Europe as it is in heaven. It is for his will to be done. And surely it is his will for his will to be done in Europe, right?

But the double negative will only turn out to be positive if we embrace our role of being ‘salt and light’ and our responsibility for shaping the future. Let’s not put too much faith in politics for shaping that future. A changed world begins with changed people. A changed nation begins with changed people. A changed city begins with changed people. A changed street begins with changed people.

Christian renewal usually comes from the bottom up, not the top down; from the inside outwards; from grass-roots movements sparked by the anonymous faithful.

Nevertheless, politics is part of our world where we are to be salt and light. I hope the debate will continue and mature into a constructive dialogue as Christians rise above their nationalism to ask what it means to love both neighbours and enemies.

TIMEThe ‘no’ voters have perhaps bought us time to go more on the offensive concerning the heritage of Europe. Christians across Europe were concerned that the French politicians particularly had stonewalled any reference to God and the Christian tradition in the constitution’s preamble. It’s ironic that their own people in effect rejected their rejection.

But we need to wake up ourselves to the richness of that inheritance and to the poverty that will result as we allow ourselves to be robbed of it.

I reminded the Bible agency representatives that it was the Bible and only the Bible that had made Europe Europe in the first place. One did not have to be a believer to recognise the uniqueness of that book’s role in Europe’s history. Perhaps the double negative had created space for us now to re-educate ourselves and the European public in general about the formative influence the Bible has had, for example, on the European languages, law, ethics, business, education, arts, government, trade unions, healthcare and family life. The planning of our towns and cities with churches and cathedrals at the heart is witness to the central role in European society of the Bible.

Why is it that there is a grass roots opposition to Turkey’s eventual admittance to the EU? People perceive there is a difference between Muslims and those from countries with Christian backgrounds. The fundamental difference is that the Bible did not play a formative role in Turkey’s development, unlike all the (other?) European countries. Yet the process towards Turkey’s membership is producing important changes for the better. That is because the country is being influenced by legislation stemming from biblical roots. Is this not in some small measure God’s will being done?

It is not enough for Christians simply to vote ‘no’ and return to our church activities. We must also know what we want to say ‘yes’ to. And that requires a lot more debate, dialogue and discussion among believers than we have had up until now.

Perhaps one day we will look back on the French/Dutch non/nee as something positive for Europe because it jolted us awake to our responsibilities, and became the occasion for us to rise to the challenge of shaping Europe’s future, working together across our cities, nations and the whole continent.

Or do I hear a cynical response from the back: “Yeah, right!”?

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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