“Patriotism is the last resort of a scoundrel”
This was the classic first term subject for the University debating club to get their teeth into. Of course, each year we would make the mistake of debating whether or not patriotism was a good or bad thing. In so doing, we missed the point that the statement is not so much about patriotism as it is about the scoundrel. It is possible to believe that a love for one’s own country, culture, history and fellow citizens need not be a bad thing and may indeed foster a sense of friendship and loyalty that can be a force for good, while at the same time decrying the way in which the response of some when in a spot of political bother is to wrap themselves in the flag.
Isn’t it ironic for example that in a week when the Government is being criticised for reducing the size of the Royal Navy still further that MPs and the Government are working themselves up into a lather about the decision by the BBC not to have us all singing about Britain ruling the waves this year?
“My Country right or wrong” is similarly a phrase open to misunderstanding. We tend to associate it with a blind loyalty that requires us to support every political decision made whether good or bad and defend every historical event whether triumph or tragedy. At its worst, this leads to a polarising of views so that in challenging the politics of another country I must be so absolute in my disagreement leading to the kind of toxic hatred such as we see in anti-semitism where disagreement about Israeli government policies overlaps with a hatred for Jews.
What if we looked at the phrase more carefully? We would notice that an earthly nation can get things right and it can get things wrong. If I do express loyalty as a citizen, then this does not mean I have to pretend that my country is perfect in every way.
This brings us back to recent controversies such as the toppling of statues over #BlackLivesMatter, the National Trust highlighting the association of some of its properties with the slave trade and the annual debate about cancelling Rule Britannia.
In those debates, there seem to be two dominant voices. The first voice is that our history is a cause for shame. The response tends to be that we must not let some of the darker aspects of our history prevent us from celebrating the good things. There is also a suggestion that we need the monuments and memorials in order to help us to remember both the good and the bad in our history. The latter is a fair point but if that is the case then we need to do just that and not pay lip service.
If it is true that past wrongs do not diminish great achievements then the converse is true. Past great achievements do not take away from the shame that we should associate with past evils.
Now, this has implications for us individual and in other community contexts such as church. In terms of church, it is possible to love, serve and be faithful in my local church whilst recognising that it is not perfect. Loyalty should not prevent me from speaking openly about my concerns. Conversely, the failings of the church do not need to preclude loyalty to my brothers and sisters there.
For individuals, here is a reminder about how we often think of right and wrong in an unhelpful, un-Christian way. If we picture our country’s achievements as a balancing act where the good achievements outweigh the moral failures, then we may be tempted to consider sin and good works like that. The Bible is clear that we are not to think like that. Good works can never outweigh or pay off the debt of sin. That is why we need a saviour and find one in Christ Jesus who has dealt with the root problem through his death and resurrection.