St Bride's: Sermons

Trafalgar Day: Christianity and Patriotism

Trafalgar Day: Christianity and Patriotism
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So whose side were you on in the recent row between the Millibands and the Daily Mail over its article about Ralph Milliband's Marxist beliefs under the headline 'The Man Who Hated Britain'?

Uncharacteristically for a paper which prides itself on having its finger on the popular pulse, the Daily Mail got this one wrong; largely because of the crass headline, and then making things worse subsequently. We all know the story.

I would completely defend the Mail's right to raise questions about the politics and loyalties of the Leader of the Opposition who clearly sees his Marxist father as a role model and who has quoted him frequently in speeches. But if you're going to criticise, for goodness sake do it well. Look for instance at what Ralph Milliband actually had to say in his seminal book 'The State in Capitalist Society', published in the 60s because what Milliband seemed to hate was not Britain - which gave him sanctuary at his time of need and for whom he fought in the navy - or the nation state, but liberal democracy, which he regarded as a sham and a smokescreen for the capitalist elite.

What the Mail should have done was to question Ed Milliband on those issues, and how his relationship with his father was affected by that instead of simply flinging insults around.

These are important issues to debate, but my purpose is not to do so now, but to point to an interesting issue which this case raises - 'What are the limits of Patriotism?' and more particularly 'Can you be a Patriot and a Christian?' Which does seem an appropriate theme on this Trafalgar Day.

Patriotism can be defined quite simply as 'love for one's country' and I believe that you can be patriotic, while remaining critical of many of the things our country does or our politicians do. Patriotism doesn't mean 'My country right or wrong', nor is it the same as the kind of rabid nationalism that says 'The English, the English, the English are best, I couldn't give tuppence for all of the rest.'

I happen to believe that, for all its faults, we are very fortunate to live in this country, a liberal parliamentary democracy, with its values of freedom of individual conscience, tolerance of diversity, generosity of spirit, the rule of law and so on, and to that extent I think the Mail was justified in raising questions about the Marxist influence of his father on Ed Milliband, who could be Prime Minister one day, with his promotion of a flawed socialist vision of state control. Karl Marx famously stated that 'The Working Men have no country' and that the supremacy of the proletariat will cause national differences to disappear creating a socialist world commonwealth. In other words you don't need patriotism because your loyalty will be to the proletariat.

There's very little evidence that that would bring greater freedom, happiness, or human flourishing, and to that extent, it seems to me that the case for liberal democracy is strong, and safeguards many of the values which as a Christian I would want to defend and promote.

But the further question for us here in St Bride's is 'Can I be a Christian and a Patriot?' Are there any points at which love for my country and love for God come into conflict?

There is quite a lot of evidence in the Bible that suggests you can serve both God and country, that governments are necessary, indeed divinely sanctioned for human flourishing, and that even when we feel critical of some of our governments' policies or institutions, we may protest, but we may not take the law into our own hands and overthrow the state.

As Christians, we desire the very best for our country, we want government that is compassionate, laws that are righteous and just, communities that are strong, loving and altruistic, human relationships that are based on the Ten Commandments, individuals who have real personal integrity.

That's the ideal. But we also recognise that while that is the ideal, there will never be a perfect government this side of heaven. God has placed us as Christians within our organisations and structures and communities to be instruments of good and mercy, to be salt and light. We can't just give up on society and adopt a hermit approach: we cannot be lights hidden under a bushel. We are called to be in the world and ambassadors for Christ in our daily lives, loving our country, respecting it's authority but always remembering that there is another country, God's Kingdom, and that we owe our strongest loyalty to God who is our King.

That sense of dual loyalty, of belonging to two countries having two identities, is implicit in Horatio Nelson's great prayer before the Battle of Trafalgar which we shall say together in a moment, and explicitly in the hymn we have just sung, I vow to Thee, My country. Both the prayer and the hymn remind us that when the chips are down our primary loyalty is to God, whom we are to love with heart, mind, soul and body. That is the love that informs our conscience, and to which everything else is secondary.  Amen.

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