The British media have been getting a bit excited in recent weeks (September 2015) about patriotism and love of country. Much of this – if not all of it – has arisen from the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and therefore as a potential Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
In particular, Mr Corbyn shocked the patriotic sensibilities of some folk by standing in silence during the singing of God Save the Queen during a commemoration of the Battle of Britain. The media were scandalised by his ‘disrespect’, by his lack of patriotic devotion. But he called his stance a ‘respectful silence’, and pointed out that love of your country doesn’t oblige you to love its king or queen. This seems straightforward enough. Or are we to suppose that the citizens of countries without a monarchy – who cannot love their queen – are lacking in patriotism? Americans, Germans and the French don’t love their respective countries?
Leaving aside the question of Mr Corbyn’s own patriotism, it’s worth thinking a bit about what Christian faith makes of such things. How can the tradition of pilgrimage guide us? And for us pilgrims in Argyll, what do our saints and their stories suggest to us? Here’s a story from the medieval Life of Fintan Munnu (patron saint of Kilmun):
And Fintan came to his own people, where he was born, but he did not look at that country, except only at the road where his feet were walking; nor did he greet anyone there, neither father nor mother, neither brothers nor sisters, who were all living there at that time (Vita prior §10).
What’s the matter with this man? He’s been away from home for years. Why won’t he look at his own homeland (his patria, the origin of the word patriotism)? Why won’t he go and visit his father (his pater which also connects us to patriotism) and the rest of his family?
The writer isn’t suggesting that there is anything wrong with Munnu’s country, or with his family for that matter. But Munnu’s faith has led him to become a peregrinus pro Christo – a ‘pilgrim or wanderer for Christ’ – in the long-standing tradition of the churches of the Gaels. He has opted to seek God by rejecting the structures of nationality, kinship, legal protection and property. The pilgrim was one who chose, in Jerome’s phrase, ‘to follow the naked Christ, naked’, taking on the vulnerability of the Master.
None of this means that he doesn’t love his family and his country. But he doesn’t love them for the security they might have given him. And this brings us to the heart of the question of patriotism. There is a kind of self-declared patriotism which worships ‘my country’, ‘my nation’ and seeks the glory of that nation – its influence on the world’s stage, its wealth, its military victories, its power. But this is not really love of one’s country, for what it really loves is wealth and power, and the country is simply a means to that end.
There is another quite different love of one’s patria, a true patriotism, which seeks not the wealth or power of the nation, but rather its goodness. What the pilgrim seeks for his or her patria is justice and peace, human flourishing, solidarity, kindness, neighbourliness. These are the marks of the true patria. They are also marks of the Kingdom of God, and so if we seek these things for our nations now, we are also seeking that Kingdom.