The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Is. 53:11)
There could not have been a more fitting reading for the day after the People’s Vote March. Perhaps it was the feeling that the march itself was making many righteous, in the way the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah can be understood as a collective, as a redeemed people.
Since I was due to preach the following day, I found myself mulling over the meaning of collective righteousness as we waited for 2 hours for the march to begin. We were told that the numbers of people there had so exceeded expectations that the police were having to close more streets to traffic, which made it possible for those familiar with London to take a few short cuts and get to the bit of the march that was actually moving.
Nevertheless, we did stand still for two hours on Park Lane, outside the Dorchester hotel. Expensive looking cars with darkened windows were occasionally escorted to its doors. I couldn’t help noticing the occupant of one of these as she emerged. She was dressed in the most stunning African traditional dress and head covering. That, too, must have been expensive, along with the car and the stay at the Dorchester. I tried to imagine who she might be. A powerful person, perhaps in government. Whatever the source of her obvious wealth I did find myself wondering how she thought about the poor in her country, whether she had any sense of responsibility for them, how she justified the wealth differential, Would she need protection in her own country, if 700,000 protesters were to pass by her front door?
Most of us on that march, as far as I could see, were neither conspicuously poor nor conspicuously wealthy. We were, for the most part, ordinary people privileged to live in a country where peaceful protest against the government of the day is not only permitted but protected. The police were amazing. They were there in steely vigilance, quietly taking responsibility for our safety, at some risk to themselves. Who knows what would have happened if violence had broken out? I was grateful for their professionalism and the confidence which it gave us. I suspect that even in the West and among the most powerful nations people taking part in marches and demos rarely feel as safe and confident as we did with the police around.
But to return to Isaiah; there was a sense of solidarity, not only because all 700,000 of us were there for the same reason, but because we seemed to be taking responsibility, quietly bearing together, the sum total of the iniquities which had brought us there from up and down the country, and from abroad, to demand that the government ‘repent’, that it turn itself around (which is the real meaning of repentance) in regard to Brexit and, most importantly, that it take responsibility for the people – all the people.
Isaiah’s suffering servant is thought by some biblical scholars to be a collective, a people. He suffers with them and he bears the responsibility for their suffering. He makes himself ‘part of’ the iniquity, and its healer. This suggests that what ought to come out of the People’s Vote march is a willingness to be responsible together, both government and people, for the iniquity of the first referendum on Brexit, a short sighted, irresponsible and entirely self-interested course of action. Irresponsible and self-interested on the part of the leadership of the time who were banking on a comfortable ‘remain’ majority that would also get them back in power; short-sighted on the part of a public that had failed to ask itself, or the government, some important questions pertaining to the wider picture and to longer term consequences. Two of these are especially significant in regard to Isaiah’s imagery of collective responsibility. They pertain to what happens to Ireland and, possibly the most important, what might be the long-term consequences of the fragmentation of Europe.
When a dish cracks it will be sundered by the next impact or excessive heat rise. The UK leaving the EU will likely create fissures and fractures in the political and economic fabric of Europe, opening the way to power for the far right which is already becoming entrenched in certain corners of the continent. We have been there before. Our parents and grandparents bore this particular iniquity in and through two world wars. By the time Jacob Rees Mogg’s prediction that it will take 50 years for the benefits of Brexit to be felt it will be far too late.