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God’s own country: Rethinking Christian patriotism
Following the third national vote in just over two years, Jo Swinney looks at what nationalism might mean for citizens of the kingdom of heaven
The summer of 2012 was a high point for British patriots. As the world looked on, we hosted what was universally acknowledged to be a hugely successful Olympic Games. Our Queen took part in a James Bond skit, our athletes smashed the medal table, smiley volunteers in branded T-shirts swarmed London dismantling our reputation for surly reservation. In the sporting arena, “the feeling of loving your country more than any others and being proud of it”, as the Cambridge English dictionary defines patriotism, seems straightforward, reasonable and entirely justified.
Just a few short years later, the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union catalysed a debate in which patriotism showed its less attractive face, reaching its nadir on 16th June 2016, when Labour MP Jo Cox, a campaigner for continued EU membership, was repeatedly stabbed and shot by a man shouting “Britain first”.
Limiting immigration and taking back border control was one of the key arguments made for leaving the EU. Writing in the Daily Express shortly before the vote, Nigel Farage said, “A future inside the European Union would mean our population rising even faster at a completely outof-control and irresponsible rate…If we Remain our country will never be the same again. Our public services will be pushed to the point of failure and our national security will be greatly weakened as EU open borders expand further still.” His position was ostensibly a simple case of logistics: there are too many people already on this small island: time to pull up the drawbridge. But lurking beneath the surface of this argument are arguably much darker sentiments, with some questioning whether Farage’s position is influenced by fear of the other and isolationism.
Part of the reason conversation around immigration becomes so heated is because nationality is an issue of identity: who I am and how I see myself is deeply entwined with my country. As we head into the home straight of a snap election this month, each of us in our own way is wrestling with deep, emotive questions. Who really belongs in the United Kingdom? Whose land is it? Who has the right to call it home? And what kind of country is it – does it reflect my values, whatever they may be? As Christians, our answers will be similar but different to those of our fellow Brits who do not share our faith. We can be patriotic Christians but our patriotism may look quite different to secular patriotism.
To experience patriotism of any kind you must first form a connection with a country, and our world is becoming increasingly transient. In 2015, 244 million people around the world lived outside their country of origin. In the UK in 2013, over a quarter of babies were born to mothers who were themselves born elsewhere, and in London schools there are over 300 languages spoken. My husband is American and our girls have dual citizenship. When we travel to the States they have to use their US passports; the US demands undivided allegiance to the flag and doesn’t recognise the validity of a second nationality. But true undivided allegiance is becoming a rarity. Many, including myself, have split loyalties or none.
When I was 5 years old, I moved to Portugal where my parents set up A Rocha, a Christian charity focused on environmental conservation. For the first year I pined for England, dreadfully homesick for my friends, for a language I could understand, even for the rain. But by the time we left twelve years later, my loyalties had shifted. There was no question which team I was cheering for in the World Cup.
When I was 18 I spent a year in Zimbabwe, followed by three years at Birmingham University, during which I shuttled back and forth to the south of France where my parents had relocated. On graduating, I moved to Canada for four years. When I moved to England in my mid-20s, there was no sense of homecoming. I was determined to find things to like about it, but I expected I’d have to look hard. As my husband, Shawn, went through culture shock; I went through it with him. For me, the journey has been towards embracing a healthy patriotism: embracing the country where I live, celebrating its successes, pitching in when help is needed and learning what it means to be a good citizen. I used to feel queasy at lines in worship songs about “our nation” or when church leaders prayed for revival “in our land”. Part of me still wonders if nationality is a valid category for Christians.
Christianity has influenced society and public life more than any other factor
Nick Spencer, research director of the Theos think tank and author of The Evolution of the West (SPCK) argues that it is, and that it is a mistake to take the universalist message of the gospel – the good news is for everyone – as invalidation of all identifiers other than being a Christian: “I think that’s problematic because it takes the universalist notion of Christianity without also taking the incarnational notion of Christianity which is local and which does have specific identities. So it is perfectly fine to consider yourself part of an ethnic group, because you are. It is perfectly fine to consider yourself a member of a family or a community because you are. It is perfectly fine to consider yourself part of a nation or historically an empire even, because you are.’
A New Kingdom
When Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28, ESV) he did not mean those categories don’t exist, rather they don’t gain you any special status before God. In Christ we are on an even playing field. I have to put my hand up and confess I’ve taken that verse and used it as an excuse for political apathy. I’ve distanced myself from any responsibility to engage with the concerns of my country on the basis that I’m not English, I’m a Christian. But nowhere in the Bible is there any justification for a Christian to shrug off their obligation to be a good citizen: quite the contrary.
The word of the Lord to the Jews in exile in Babylon was that they should settle down, invest in their albeit temporary home and “seek the welfare of the city…and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29:7, ESV). Jesus told his followers to pay their taxes and the early Church was urged to be obedient to their governments as part of their obedience to God.
Jesus spoke a great deal about a kingdom where all who believe in him belong. Over time I’ve come to understand that this kingdom is not somewhere else. My part of it does not exclude me from belonging to a nation state. Rather, the kingdom of God is anywhere under God’s rule. Tom Wright explains it this way: “Heaven’s rule, God’s rule, is…to be put into practice in the world, resulting in salvation in both the present and the future, a salvation which is both for humans, and through humans, for the wider world.”
A Holy nation?
We don’t know exactly when Christianity arrived in the British Isles. Our first Church historian, the Venerable Bede, claimed it was as early as the year AD 156. Although this has been disputed, we can all agree Jesus has been worshipped on our shores for a very long time and that Christianity has influenced society and public life more than any other factor (including the weather!).
For some this heritage adds a layer of religious fervour to their patriotic sentiment. The organisation Christian Concern believes that seeking the good of the country is synonymous with evangelism. They attribute social ills such as “widespread family breakdown, immorality and social integration” to the fact that “the nation has largely turned her back on Jesus and embraced alternative ideas such as secular humanism, moral relativism and sexual licence”. Christian Concern lobbies government, invests in young leaders through its Wilberforce Academy and supports legal cases via its sister organisation the Christian Legal Centre, all with the aim of “seeing the United Kingdom return to the Christian Faith”.
Christian Concern’s view of politics is common among many evangelicals. But other organisations are more extreme. The far-right political party Britain First identifies as ‘patriotic’ and has positioned itself as a Christian movement, dedicated to defending and preserving the United Kingdom’s Christian heritage. Its reputation for a confrontational and aggressive stance towards Muslims and immigration has led to it being rejected by the majority of Christians of all political persuasions. I asked Britain First’s deputy leader Jayda Fransen whether she saw any conflict between the prioritising of national interests with the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and show compassion towards the needy. “The very basis of our principles, to preserve our Christian nation, is driven by our faith in God,” she explains.
Perhaps used to having to defend Britain First’s methods, which include invading mosques, protesting outside the homes of Islamic leaders and going on marches termed ‘Christian patrols’, Fransen continues, “Our Lord, Jesus Christ was no pushover. He was so enraged at the sight of those disrespecting his Temple that he outwardly displayed signs of anger and even aggression. Britain is our temple and, unfortunately, there are those within it who clearly have no regard or respect for it. As Christians, we have a duty to defend our temple and our faith.”
The idea of Britain as a temple does not strike me as particularly biblical, although claiming religious significance for one’s nation or people has been going on ever since God chose Israel to show the world his good purposes for everyone. You only have to look at the number of national anthems which claim divine favour. Investing any nation state with salvific qualities is deeply problematic, argues Spencer. “The kingdom of God permits the existence of local identities, up to and including national, but it also challenges them. I can seek the good of my nation but that certainly doesn’t mean at the expense of other countries.”
Patriotism should be the opposite of self-seeking
Andy Flannagan, director of both Christians in Politics and Christians on the Left is a strong proponent of political engagement but warns against allowing healthy patriotism to slide into what he calls “an uglier form of nationalism”, which he sees as thinly disguised selfishness. “Britain First is just a bundled version of ‘me first’,” he says. “Patriotism should be the opposite of self-seeking – it is a love of country that leads to sacrifice and service for the common good. I think this is one of the reasons that the Christians on the Left ‘Patriots Pay Tax’ campaign has so captured the imagination. From nowhere, our narrative made its way onto the mainstage of every party conference last autumn. Simply put, we believe that if you truly love your country you will want to contribute fully, rather than avoid your responsibilities. If we are proud of our flag, we should be proud to pay tax. In our fallenness, we need rhythms of giving, rather than relying on spontaneous charity, for our spiritual health and to make sure society can function. That’s just one way of being a healthy patriot, even if our primary allegiance will always be to another King.”
Now and not yet
As I have wrestled over whether it is appropriate for me as a Christian and citizen of the kingdom of God to feel love, loyalty, pride and a sense of belonging to a nation state, I have come to see there is an unresolvable tension at the heart of the question.
The tension is that we live now in the kingdom of God but we are waiting for its fullness to come. We are, as the writer to the Hebrews put it, “foreigners and strangers on earth…longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13,16). And we are created by God with a need for a home, a tangible, physical, local one. So as we wave flags on the Queen’s birthday, get stuck into politics, cheer our country onto rare sporting victories and feel our hearts swell as we survey our favourite view, there is no need for guilt. But we can expect to feel a niggle, a slight unease. Because we can be Christian patriots but we are Christian first.
Jo Swinney is an author, speaker and editor of Preach magazine. Her latest book, Home: The Quest to Belong (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now