Remembrance Sunday 2013
“I vow to thee my country,” which we’ve just sung is what you might call a Marmite hymn – people tend to either love it or hate it. A lot of people find it stirring and beautiful, a celebration of their love for their country, and a reminder of their calling to build the kingdom of God too. But others are less enthralled by the appeal to absolute obedience in its first verse. Is it really wise to offer “love that asks no questions” to any cause, however good? Questions need to be asked before we put the lives of others at risk, they say. It is a perennially controversial hymn, and I noticed just yesterday that the battle lines were being drawn again over it in the Daily Mail, following an article about it by a priest who had gently it should be rewritten to reflect these concerns.
It didn’t, in fact, start out as a hymn at all. It was written originally in 1908 as a poem, by Cecil Spring-Rice, an official with the Foreign Office working in Sweden. In 1912, he became ambassador to the United States, where he was key in persuading the president, Woodrow Wilson, to abandon America’s neutral stance in 1917 and join Britain in the war on Germany.
Spring-Rice was called back to England in 1918 just as the war was drawing to a close, but on the voyage home he died of a long-standing illness, so he never heard his poem in the form we are now so used to, set to a tune by Gustav Holst.
It caught on and became popular rapidly, but as I said, it is a Marmite hymn, dividing opinions., and often people can’t understand why others don’t feel as they do about it, however that is. Like a lot of patriotic hymns, it can actually set people against each other, which is ironic for something which ends with a vision of gentleness and peace.
Perhaps the problem is that we‘ve often not asked ourselves what we really mean by patriotism, and that’s what I would like to think about a bit this morning. What does it mean to love your country? This is very much a live issue; we can see that in the way people react to groups like the English Defence League, or in the discussions around Scottish independence, or in the tensions between EU countries about how member nations should support each other. We see it in the perennial issue of violence at international sporting events. Does loving your country mean hating someone else’s? Does it mean pulling up the drawbridge and looking only to your own narrow national interests even if that hurts other people? Is it about making sure that your nation comes out on top?
The language of patriotism doesn’t always help either. The patriotic songs we love so much are fine when it comes to expressing grand ideals, but they have nothing to say about the nitty-gritty of everyday life, the complicated realities we actually have to deal with, which are often the enemies that are hardest to defeat. Many disabled WW1 veterans found themselves jobless, homeless and destitute in the Great Depression of the 20’s and 30’s, and wondered what had happened to all the patriotic fervour that had sent them off to war. Still today injured or traumatised members of the armed forces can find themselves struggling to make ends meet. The British Legion has featured the story of 28 year old, Aron Shelton, from Bridlington in their publicity. He was injured in Afghanistan in 2007 and had to have a leg amputated. He will probably lose the other in the near future too. But Aron was told he wasn’t "disabled enough" to continue receiving Disability Living Allowance (he filled in a form honestly saying 'on a good day he could walk 400 metres'). The Legion intervened and to appeal the decision; it took a year to fight his battle. In the end it was successful and his allowance, which pays for a car, was returned to him but should he have had to struggle so hard to get help from public funds, when he had given so much, and will have to live with his disability for the rest of his life? George Orwell commented ruefully in a diary entry in the middle of WW2 that “no one is patriotic when it comes to paying taxes” and that might be a thought that Aron would second.
Of course the question of what it means to love your country isn’t a new one. The Bible readings we heard today show us that people many thousands of years ago were struggling with the same issues. The people who wrote the Bible believed that their land had been given to them by God and they loved it; they loved its hills and woodlands, its produce and pastures. In the Bible they wax lyrical about it often; it is a land flowing with milk and honey. Was it really better than anywhere else? Probably not, but it was home, the place they felt they belonged, the place where their memories were, the place where the people they loved were.
It was a place, though, that was very often under threat. It lay at the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia, and every great power in the ancient world wanted to control it. So little Israel was overrun by nation after nation. Sometimes that meant its people had to live under occupation, as they were doing at the time of Jesus. Sometimes it meant they were taken away to the lands of their conquerors by force. Most of the Old Testament was put together while they were in exile in Babylon, and it shows; it is full of wistful longing for home. “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion”
But alongside that longing there was also a hard edged challenge for those exiles, an awareness that for all its beauty, things had not always been as they should be in their homeland, and that when – if ever – they got home, the society they rebuilt needed to be different from the one they had lost. God wanted to create “Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight” in the future, said Isaiah. What would that new Jerusalem look like in practice? It would be a place where people could grow old, rather than dying of hunger, disease or warfare before their time. It would be a place where they could build a house and actually live in it, plant a crop and get to harvest it; it wouldn’t be destroyed by invading armies. These are very simple desires, but they seemed far out of reach then, just as they do for many who live in war-torn regions now.
Isaiah knew that this kind of peace, peace which enabled people to live their lives to the full, would only become a reality if they could create a society which was built on the values God had taught them – caring for one another, supporting the vulnerable, loving the stranger, putting justice for all before their own narrow self-interest. It wasn’t going to come about through grand patriotic gestures and fine sounding words. Isaiah’s God is not a big fan of pomp and circumstance, even when it came in the form of worship of him “I have had enough of your burnt offerings…” he says earlier in the book, ”….cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1.11&17)
It is a hard lesson to learn though; splendid ceremonial is a lot easier, and more fun, than caring for the poor. Five hundred years later, Jesus was making the same point as he lamented over Jerusalem which was under Roman occupation, and weakened by internal struggles for power. “If you had only recognised, even today, the things that make for peace!” he cried. Somehow they kept missing the point, missing the moment when God showed up among them - “the time of your visitation from God” - missing the chances to make a real difference. They missed them because those holy moments weren’t the grand and obvious ones, they were the moments when a hungry person needed feeding, or a vulnerable person needed an advocate – the kind of advocacy the British Legion gave to Aron Shelton, that young ex-soldier. It is these things, often small and humdrum, which really shape our communities and our nations.
What does it mean for us to love our country, to be truly patriotic? It means, first and foremost, caring about the place where we are and the things that make life better – or even just bearable - for those who share it with us. It means living with compassion and integrity in that place, responding to the challenges and the joys that are right in front of us. Most of us are not called to lay down our lives in battle, thank God, but we are called to lay down our lives in service to those around us, and there is no shortage of opportunity to do so. We don’t necessarily have to “lay upon the altar the dearest and the best” in order to love our country. Often it is just about giving up a couple of hours on a Thursday night to help with the cubs, beavers and scouts, or offering to sit on the Parish Council and wade through paperwork that is probably far from thrilling so that the voices of your community are heard and represented, or even simply knocking on your neighbour’s door to get to know them, so that when they need you, or you need them, you aren’t complete strangers to one another.
Cecil Spring-Rice’s hymn tells us, in its second verse of “another country” to which we owe even greater allegiance than we do to the land of our birth. That country is the kingdom of heaven. I don’t know what Spring-Rice understood that to mean, but in the Gospels it is not a place that exists only after death in some world to come. Jesus says that it comes to birth in us and around us whenever we live out God’s love in practice in the place where he has put us. We can wave our national flags and sing stirring hymns if we want to, but it is love in action which is the patriotism that really matters.