Sunday, 19 September 2010

I Vow To Thee My Country

"Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem, whither the tribes go up; the tribes of the Lord unto the testimony of Israel. To give thanks to the name of the Lord, for there sit the thrones of judgement; the throne of the House of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. They shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions sake I will now say, peace be within thee. Because of the House of the Lord our God, I will seek thy good." Psalm 122

With the words of this Psalm Richard Price the Minister of Newington Green Unitarian Church began his 1790 "Discourse on the Love of our Country". This was the sermon that led Edmund Burke to write his "Reflections on the Revolution in France" which in turn led Thomas Paine to write his hugely influential "Rights of Man" and Mary Wollstonecraft to pen "A Vindication of the Rights of Women". Today in my town there were commemorations of the Battle of Britain, celebrating the bravery of those 1400 who gave their lives to defend our freedoms and lives, and those who with God's blessing are still with us today, and so I thought it would be appropriate for me to focus on the positive role of patriotism in our lives. In addition our country and the values it has or that it should have as a bedrock, have been a main focus of the Pope's discourses during his state visit.

"The love of our country has, in all times, been a subject of warm commendations; and it is certainly a noble passion; but like all other passions; it requires regulation and discretion. There are mistakes and prejudices by which, in this instance, we are in particular danger of being misled"

These words of Richard Price have not always been accepted, and still are not universally accepted today. There are many, especially of the Left, who are at best suspicious of and at worst hostile to love of country. They pursue as much as possible the annulment of anything that marks the UK as different from other nations, and they tend to be devoted to the supra-national institutions such as the European Union and United Nations. Sadly at the other extreme we have those who's view of national love descends into a rejection of the other and develops an unpleasant arrogance and jingoism that brings only conflict and sadness in its wake. But a regard for our nation does not have to be based on a superior view of ourselves when compared to others as Price said on that very topic;

"to found, therefore, this duty (love of country) on such a preference, would be to found it on error and delusion. It is however a common delusion.

We owe a debt of love and allegiance to our country irrespective of how successful its institutions are, and irrespective of how much better and noble other countries might be. The greater our ability to make a difference for good, the greater the duty. So just as we have a greater obligation to members of our own families than we do to strangers, likewise we have a greater duty to our own country.

"It is proper I should desire you particularly to distinguish between love of our country and the spirit of rivalship and ambition which has been common among nations..forming men into combinations and factions against their common rights and liberties." This teaching of Price reminds me why I have always been slightly uncomfortable with the fact that the most passionate patriotism seems to rise at times of international sporting competitions. Nothing is wrong with such competitions (except the occasional disruption to the regular television schedule :-) or the national pride that accompanies them, but the fact that we only really celebrate our country when in competition with others, or when we commemorate the wars fought with others, perhaps leads to a truncated view of national pride which does not necessarily elevate us.

The world has always been divided by tribe, nation, religion and state, and often those not belonging to one's own group were not deemed to have any intrinsic value let alone rights. The Spartans had no regard for the Helots, who they happily enslaved and even, horrifically, used their murder as initiations for young Spartan men. Many tribal societies from the Celts to Native Americans saw very little wrong in leading raids on neighbouring tribes. And then in the middle east, a different voice was heard. A voice that proclaimed (long before Darwin) that all humans come from the same origin and are ultimately one family. This voice bestowed eternal value on the human person and declared all to be bound by bonds of brotherly duty, under the Parenthood of God. This voice became the national constitution of a small people called Israel and in time one of its sons born(?) and raised in Nazareth, taught these valuable lessons to those who had lost their way, and by the Grace of God, these teachings spread beyond the boundaries of Judea and Galilee and throughout the world people of different nations and tribes began to realise that they were part of a larger family. Sadly this voice has not always been listened to. Which is a great shame because as Price said;

"Nothing can be more friendly to the general rights of mankind, and were it duly regarded and practised, every man would consider every other man as his brother, and all the animosity that now takes place among contending nations would be abolished. If you want any proof of this, think of our saviour's parable of the Good Samaritan."

Loving our Neighbour as Jesus taught, is right alongside loving God. Indeed how can one love God and not love His children?

A country should serve the people who live in it. Its ministers should be the servants of the people, their power used only for the benefit of the public square. Richard Price gave his own view as to what goals should underpin our nation, and Pope Benedict XVI expressed sentiments these past days that share an echo with these words spoken over two hundred years ago;

"The chief blessings of human nature are the three following: Truth-Virtue-and Liberty. These are, therefore, the blessings in the possession of which the interest of our country lies, and to the attainment of which our love of it ought to direct our endeavours. By the diffusion of knowledge it must be distinguished from a country of barbarians: by the practice of religious virtue it must be distinguished from a country of gamblers, atheists and libertines: and by the possession of liberty, it must be distinguished from a country of slaves." I would add that perhaps the meaning of atheist in his day is somewhat different from ours, as I personally can vouch for the integrity and virtue of those atheists I happen to know. However I like Price "recommend religion, by making it appear to be (what it certainly is when rightly understood) the strongest incentive to all that is generous and worthy, and consequently the best friend to public order and happiness".

Sadly in our country as in many, religion has been firmly attached to the state, and instead of leading the country in humility, kindness, respect, virtue and peace, has instead been enslaved to the state's desire for power and adulation. The First World War was perhaps one of the biggest disasters to effect religion in the UK. The public disillusionment in the aftermath of that war, and the overturning of the gentle development that preceded it, did huge damage to the credibility and message of many faith groups, none so much as the established church which strongly placed its imprimatur on that conflict. As a result the spirit was removed from British life, and before long, the lifeless conventions that had once been living supports that maintained identity and piety began to collapse, not unlike many of our historic buildings that came crashing down as a result of Sixties neophile aspirations. And as night follows day, the certainty that this new culture would come to despise authority and usher in a crass and increasingly less gentle time, was sadly all too predictable. During our recent General Elections, I was personally revolted by the disrespectful way by which people addressed leading ministers. Debate is needed, argument valuable and our politicians must be held to account, but heckling them in public, taking narcissistic pride in shouting down those who are imbued by us with the dignity of office? Is this really necessary? It was too much for me, and presumably would also have been for Richard price as he wrote:

"A disdainful pride, derived from a consciousness of equality, or, perhaps superiority, in respect of all that gives true dignity to men in power, and producing a contempt of them, and a disposition to treat them with rudeness and insult".

Such behaviour, also evident in some of the gross caricatures of the Pope and his teachings on display these last few days, is not only unproductive but ultimately demeans us all.

And so today as I saw and heard the spitfires fly over my home I thought about the bravery and sacrifice of those who defended us not so long ago. Could I have jumped into a plane, taken off into the sunny skies all the while knowing that I was very likely to die? I would hope that I could have done, but I am far from sure. All I know is that all of us, including those who reject through noble conscience, any involvement in violence and war, owe a great debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who worked to ensure that the UK remained a bastion of freedom in a continent that was consumed by tyranny. These brave souls ensured that the Jewish refugee Kinder-transport children, could study and live in peace among the good people of Shefford, they ensured that help could then be provided from these shores to the crushed people of Europe. Of this we should all give thanks to God. Perhaps a donation to their present day compatriots would be a good way of expressing our gratitude.

The Pope's visit to the UK was most certainly welcome. Not simply because our Catholic brothers and sisters were given the opportunity to celebrate their faith, but because he spoke words, some of which give us much cause to think. Much reason to reflect. We must realise that the direction this country is to travel in, is in our hands, as much as it was in the hands of the RAF pilots of yesteryear, and we must avoid falling into the limiting trap of party politics or the corrosive pastime of bemoaning this policy or that public funding cut, but instead we should focus on the bigger picture. The Knowledge-Virtue-and Liberty of our own National Family.

A Discourse on the Love of our Country is a jewel of our Unitarian and British heritage. Read it, read it all.

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