(Or, a study in my TV-watching habits over the last few months)
We British are funny people. Most of the time, we’re cynical, self-deprecating sceptics who moan about the government, the weather, the NHS, and so many things that we have in our country. Yet we also have moments of great patriotism, like the Queen’s Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games (I say ‘patriotism’, but it’s not quite the gung-ho patriotism of our American cousins. More like lots of flag-waving and choruses of Chariots of Fire. That’s the new national anthem, isn’t it?). We love understatement, rooting for the underdog, and (for some of us) proper spelling. We’re just weird. But we do have an attractive flag:
Maybe our slightly depressed national attitude comes from our weather – lots of grey days, and as Bill Bailey said: “The rainy season started around the 13th Century, and has continued pretty much ever since…” Still, I have been thinking about our national identity and what we think of ourselves as a country. Stirred by Shakespeare’s poetry such as this:
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands,–This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
whilst watching a fantastic new adaptation of some history plays (The Hollow Crown, 2012 BBC adaptations of Richard II, Henry IV i & ii, Henry V – well worth watching); I wondered why we don’t love our country more. Sure, it rains, but the UK can be so pretty! We’ve been blessed with green fields and trees and beautiful rugged landscape. Why don’t we delight in our land more?
And then came the Olympics, and how brilliant they were! The whole nation got behind our athletes, waving their flags and getting into the spirit of things. So we can pull some national pride out of the bag, after all.
Historically, we seem to be suffering the after-effects of Imperial guilt and self-pity. I’ve had a lot of time on my hands recently so I’ve been watching factual programmes like Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip and Andrew Marr’s History of the World and finding out all sorts of facts that I’ve been boring my friends with for the last few weeks. And basically, with the Empire and everything, we really thought that Great Britain was the bee’s knees. Stiff upper lip, jolly hockey sticks, tickety-boo old bean, and all that. But the horrifying truth didn’t quite get home to Blighty: all our wars weren’t all about the glory of battle and the honour of fighting to increase our nation’s marvellous influence by civilising the natives. The truth is much worse. You see, the Brits were probably some of the first drug barons, using force to make China trade opium for tea. Africa is most likely in the poor state that it is because European countries fought a land war over it, increasing their empires by stealing wealth and enslaving the people. It’s not good.
And the First World War more or less put an end to our national self-importance. For the first time in centuries, the fighting was on our doorstep and the suffering we saw was horrifying. The Empire all of a sudden didn’t look like all it was cracked up to be. So now, after Britain doesn’t ‘rule the waves’ we have a bit of an underlying sense of self-pity and guilt. And it’s not just a British thing. OK, so the glumness may be, but it’s the story of many empires that rise and fall – bloodshed and self-interest.
I’m not saying that the UK is a rubbish country. Everywhere has its problems and history that it’s probably not that proud of. And I think there are lot of things that we take for granted that other places don’t have. We’ve got brilliant emergency services, we have a welfare state that aims to look after the needy and desperate. We have mountains, rivers, stunning coastline and beautiful winter sunrises. We’ve got cute dormice and majestic eagles. And basking sharks. And we have great accents.
Yet as much as I love my country and have a great affection for the place I live, if I left it there I think I would be missing something. Of course, we should delight and be thankful for the blessings we have and what we enjoy about our own country, whichever one it is. But there is something more.
If we are Christians, national identity does not first and foremost define who we are. To an extent, we are products of our culture and there’s the obvious genetic element in how we are physiologically and language and stuff. But if we are God’s people, we are citizens of heaven above all. And our hearts should be fixed there, not on a map or pretty-coloured piece of material. As it says in Revelation 21:26, “the glory and honour of the nations” will be brought into heaven – people and cultures from all parts of the world. Here is isn’t about national patriotism. It’s not about one homogenised empire, but about all nations bringing their own taste of the variety and creativity of their Maker. We glorify God by being different! And we are citizens of heaven, destined to spend eternity in our God’s presence. This is what we look forward to, and it should influence our attitude now. We can be thankful for our nation and cry out in prayer for it, but we must also be thankful for other nations and ask that God would be known all over the world.
So, as much as I love the UK, I would call myself a Christian first, and British second.
PS – Also, can I just add, here’s some terminology (sorry, couldn’t let it go):
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – the official name of the UK. It’s made up of the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With some other bits and pieces around the world.
Great Britain – the island that is made up of England, Wales and Scotland.
England– NOT the whole country! Seriously guys, get it right (I’m looking at YOU, America). Here’s a picture to help you:
I’ve used ‘Britain’ and ‘UK’ interchangeably in my post. Maybe I should learn to get it right too.