Boris Johnson’s (Br)exodus

In this piece Professor Rachel Muers from Leeds University discusses a recent biblical reference made by Boris Johnson in relation to the ongoing Brexit debate. Prof. Muers specialises in modern Christian theology and ethics and is a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. 

In one of his latest rhetorically-supercharged interventions in the Brexit debate, Boris Johnson chose to end a column in the Daily Telegraph with an eye-catching biblical comparison:

‘It is time for the PM to channel the spirit of Moses in Exodus, and say to Pharaoh in Brussels – Let my people go.’ 

Johnson’s choice of biblical references won him, not only front-page coverage in the Telegraph, but also a rapid barrage of mockery from critics who knew their biblical stories at least as well as Johnson did. The appeal to the story of Moses – commissioned by the LORD to appeal to Pharaoh for the release of the people of Israel from enslavement, and then to lead them on their journey to the promised land (Exodus 3) – lent itself to further biblical comparisons. Had Johnson not noticed, some asked, that the escape of the Israelites from Egypt was followed by forty years wandering in the wilderness – and was that what he expected for the UK, or for himself and his political allies? Did Johnson perhaps plan to part the English Channel (Exodus 14:26-29) to bring UK citizens home from continental Europe – which would be a step beyond his earlier plan of building a bridge? Had he remembered the severe food shortages and the popular discontent that followed the no-deal departure from Egypt (Exodus 16:2-3)? Perhaps he should be more careful what he wished for.

The commentators perhaps missed a trick by (for the most part) not noticing that Johnson had compared, not himself, but Theresa May, to Moses. Perhaps she would not mind the comparison. She has, notoriously, had some problems with her voice during the Brexit period (for Moses’ speech problems, see Exodus 4:10); she has faced challenges to her leadership with which Moses could undoubtedly empathise. Perhaps Johnson has inadvertently cast himself the role of Aaron, plotting to overthrow Moses while Moses is away negotiating (see Exodus 32). This would at least be more realistic than casting himself – as a close reading of his comment suggests he has done – as the LORD, who in Exodus (5:1) is the one who instructs Moses to say ‘Let my people go’.

The use of ‘Let my people go’ echoes, not only the Exodus narrative but also the refrain of the African-American spiritual ‘Go Down, Moses‘ – in which the demand of enslaved Africans for liberation unites with the voice of the LORD and the voice of the prophet. Johnson is almost certainly not deaf to this echo – and this makes his use of the reference rather more troubling. He is inviting a comparison of the UK’s situation (in relation to the EU) to that of enslaved people, not only in biblical times but also in modernity. This is not unprecedented; there are more explicit recent examples of UK politicians using the language of slavery to describe some possible ongoing relationships with the European Union. It calls up other, older and more deeply embedded, cultural reference points – notably, the refrain of ‘Rule, Britannia’, a song that also represents Britain as a divinely-chosen nation arising ‘at Heaven’s command’.

The problem is that these repudiations of ‘slavery’, constructing the British as a unified people divinely destined for free self-rule and constantly threatened by malevolent ‘enslaving’ external forces, obscure the complexities of Britain’s history – including the history of empire and of the transatlantic slave trade.  It is one thing to call on Moses’ help from a situation of dehumanising oppression and suffering; it is quite another to avoid the moral complexities of a nation’s story by appropriating the position of the victim. As theologians grappling with the legacies of Christian racism and anti-Judaism have long argued, Christian readers of Exodus have been far too eager to claim for their own nations the status of the LORD’s people.[1] Listening critically to the biblical echoes in political rhetoric might not just be a way to score cheap debating points; sometimes it might alert us to deeper problems with the stories a nation is telling about itself.

Written By: Prof. Rachel Muers

Image Credit: Frank Da Silva @Flickr 


[1]An example is Willie J. Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race(Yale University Press, 2010).


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