23. April 2017

Patriotism: Is it Enough?

Service Type:

‘…We, by contrast, are citizens of heaven…’ (Philippians 3, 20a)

Today is St George’s Day when we are to celebrate the life of England’s patron saint. A Roman soldier, of Greek descent, possibly born in Turkey, April 23rd is traditionally regarded as the date of his death as a Christian martyr in AD303. (He also appears to be the patron saint of Syria, Georgia, Malta, Romania as well as large parts of the then fragmented Iberian peninsula). I grew up surrounded by the tradition of St David’s Day; a rather gentle, fun-filled day, an occasion for dressing up, for singing and dancing, for daffodils and leeks, and for eating ‘Welsh’ cakes. However, one senses in recent years there is a somewhat harder edge attaching in particular to St George; less the saint, more the patron [patriot]; i.e. the challenge to be loyal, and to commit oneself wholeheartedly to the cause; in this cas[u]se that of England; a ca[u]se popularly espoused by the flying of the flag and one perverted for their own racist ends by the likes of the EDL. Reinforced more traditionally by an appeal to God as our ultimate yet particular benefactor…i.e. one’s love for God is best exhibited by a demonstration of our loyalty to country…our national anthem (albeit that of the UK) begins by imploring ‘God [to] save our Gracious Queen.’ And of course, given that April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday, how can we not recall events at Harfleur, prior to the Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415, as immortalised in the Bard’s play, Henry V, the King’s rallying cry on the eve of battle…

…National pride as an evocation of patriotism wrapped up in religious fervour is a heady cocktail; the volatility of which is being experienced around the globe. But patriotism - national pride - for its own sake has not always been so readily embraced: hence the embarrassing silence with which we claim to revere the words of Nurse Edith Cavell…"Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." (Edith Cavell). Her contemporary, Albert Einstein was rather less eloquent but rather more direct…“He who joyfully marches to music rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”  (Albert Einstein). Whilst in a tone which ought to resonate at least to a degree during any election campaign, Leo Tolstoy remarked that…“Patriotism in its simplest, clearest and most indubitable signification is nothing else but a means of obtaining for the rulers their ambitions and covetous desires, and for the ruled the abdication of human dignity, reason, conscience, and a slavish enthrallment to those in power.”  (L.Tolstoy: ‘Patriotism & Government). Over against all of this, the Gospel says little but what it says ought make us sit up and take notice: ‘Render unto Ceser that which is Ceaser’s and to God that which is God’s’. Given that Jesus said this to people living under the oppressive force of a foreign power; to suggest that there might be even something that would cause them to risk putting God first regardless was at best a subversive suggestion. Paul then takes it further, declaring that as Christians, ‘we are citizens of heaven’, i.e. that both our primary and our ultimate loyalty is to God, in particular to Christ. Such loyalty can and does transcend national identity; the Christian faith is present and active in the lives of believers in every country of the world, practised by people of every nationality; some doing so under very threatening circumstances. It makes no explicit political, cultural or social demands, rather it asks of each of us, how  we perceive our politics, our culture our society from the perspective of what Jesus said, lived and died for. But perhaps the most far reaching conclusion we might derive from all of this is that National and Religious identity can never be regarded as the same thing: i.e. any form of theocracy is a contradiction in terms as far as Christianity is concerned. Neither can it be supposed that one particular religion does/can/should/ought in any way define the identity of any nation state. There can be no such thing as an Islamic State, A Jewish Nation, or a Christian country. Rather every country in the world without exception ought to ensure that regardless of whether a person is a Moslem, a Jew or a Christian they ought to be free to worship and that the law of the land, whatever land should not be allowed to impose restrictions upon religious worship, whatever the imagined consequences. The age of Empire is long gone; the Bible & the Flag are no longer intertwined: We belong to a Commonwealth of Nations. Hence no longer are w as Christians subject to any earthly power, but rather we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.