by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, Member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
‘Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism is when hate of people other than your own comes first.’
So wrote the Lithuanian and French Jewish novelist Romain Gary, who knew about nationalism and being an outsider. We can patriotically love and support our country without hating or dominating others; which means that in times of election fever and division we can put the demands or promises of parties and leaders in their places.
100 years ago the Dean of St Paul’s, Dean Inge, wrote in his diary about a speech he gave in December 1917, in which he warned of the dangers of a post-war international settlement that would create ongoing conflict. His perceptive comments were met with a torrent of abusive news reports and letters; he wrote that ‘one good lady says: I am praying for your death; I have been very successful in two other cases.’ This time the lady was unsuccessful; but Dean Inge ruefully noted at the end of his diary for 1917 that ‘our people, slow and reluctant to enter the war, are now mad with rage and hatred… It is indeed a terrible time.’
Nearly every day I worship in St Paul’s Cathedral, surrounded by statues and memorials intended to focus, not on the suffering and damage of war, but on national and individual glory. These monuments to men like Nelson, Wellington, Collingwood and Abercrombie, who lived or died ‘gloriously’ for their country, were erected at public expense so that their glory will be remembered by our nation, exalted heroes who built the Empire or defended the realm, held up as examples both of self-sacrifice for the nation and of the glory to be earned as a result.
But the lives of these heroes were more like ours than their monumental statues suggest. These were men with families, loves and betrayals, pride and anger, courage, vanity and endurance. They killed other people, and were responsible for the deaths of many under their command, as part of the human cost and moral ambiguity of war. Each one was a human being doing their duty as they understood it – but not peaceful martyrs for their faith, or humanitarians like Florence Nightingale whose memorial is downstairs in the Cathedral crypt.
Their memorials were erected by men like them who held power in uncertain and revolutionary times; men who wanted to avoid rebellion against themselves, men for whom gaining glory in the service of the nation was a useful distraction from the question of who and what the nation is for at all – and from the cost of the pursuit of national glory, the mentally and physically battle-scarred veterans, and the victims of conflict who are so often women and children and those unlike ‘us’, airbrushed out of the nationalistic narrative.
Like a promise of glory in time of conflict, Christian faith has been used to bolster those in power and keep the discontented masses quiet by promising future rewards for present suffering, as Karl Marx recognised. But true faith is subversive, because worship of God and allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ comes first.
As Christians we have to put into their place the nation, our political or religious party, even our own self-interest, with our highest loyalties being to God and to the well-being of all humanity. Such subversion isn’t a destructive threat to a nation, but a threat to nationalism, which is the creed of those who use national loyalty in order to capture or keep hold of power. Having Christian values that can judge whether what we’re told is in truth for the good of the nation, and having a population able to reflect on politics and hold national leaders to account, is a sign of a nation’s maturity, not of disloyalty, recognising that populism and nationalism are perversions of something better.
In a febrile, binary and intolerant world we need to see ourselves from God’s perspective.
Surrounded by statues extolling human glory, I remember the words from John’s Gospel (12.23-33) where Jesus speaks about his glory and honour coming, not from victories on behalf of the nation, but from the glory God reveals in Jesus being nailed high on a cross. The glory of God is in self-giving, in loving, in dying that others might live. God’s glory doesn’t mean power for great men, but honour for those whom the world sees as weak and disposable. The glory of Christ is the cross, where Jesus carries our sorrows and suffers for us.
Empires and nations and their glories come and go, but God’s love for each one of us endures. Although some of their memorials remain, the ‘glorious dead’ are long gone; we remember their limitations, and our own, and see true glory in those who bear the mental and physical damage of conflict, whether due to war, or to the divisions and hatreds of our own society.
As Christians, we glory not in self or in power, but in loving service and working for the good of all; we long, not for glory, but for the day when war and conflict will be no more, when nations will serve each other, and love will have the final word.