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A Patriotism for Today: Love of Country in Dialogue with the Witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — Keith Clements.

April 11, 2015

APFTOne of my sixth formers raved about this book and wanted me to introduce some of its ideas into the A’ level course in preparation for a paper on social responsibility. Having leant me the book for half—term, despite my misgivings because Keith Clements is not a very exciting lecturer (he did some lectures on the B. S.O.M. course) and because I have understood patriotism to be a right—wing concept, I sat down with the book wanting to ‘get it over’ but was pleasantly surprised at its insights and indicted by many of them.

He rightly analyses the patriotic upsurge which accompanied the Falklands war, locating its roots in the insecurity of a country which lost an empire and became aware of its mediocrity, an insecurity which is shown up vividly in the National Front’s marching behind a union jack and being AGAINST sections of society, defining Britain by what is is NOT and not what it is.

Belief in a universal church qualifies patriotism. Yet a commitment to inter­nationalism can be a means of evading our local responsibilities, just as the do—gooder can be indicted by his or her own family for having no time for them. We love the general in the particular.

The ‘love that asks no questions’ in ‘I vow to thee my country’ is not love at all; it is idolatry (a theme I have been thinking about whilst reading ‘Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai’) and the belief in another country specified in the second verse of the hymn is a fairy—tale land; there is no incarnation in this type of Christianity. Looking here, and throughout the book, at Dietrich Bonheoffer, Clements argues that we must take our country seriously as Christians, offering it a critique based on the speaking of the truth in love, not hatred or boredom.

Love of country must, if it is real and not merely romantic, love accept it as it really is. It is easy to decry Britain’s oppression in its imperial days — I do it all the time — but it is also easy to romanticise what the British did to help the ‘developing countries’. What is harder is to accept that the past is past to seek forgiveness for it and then to be released to be creative in Britain’s future. Too many liberals, myself included, go on about what has been wrong without having any really positive suggestions as to how to put things right, or if we have ideas they are based on romanticism aid probably unworkable in practice and unlikely to command much support.

Bonhoeffer’s love of Germany transcended the many stances which we are likely to take. He was not a ‘subject’ who passively keeps in his place, nor was he a ‘vagrant’ who did not belong, nor was he an ‘exile’ who opts out, nor was he a ‘rebel’who postulated ideological alternatives, nor was he a ‘member’ who participates in the democratic process. His journey to the states, his bourgeois lifestyle, his imprisonment &c. involved him in many of those categories but he was supremely the ‘martyr’, so great was his involvement. Such is costly discipleship.

Bristol is, in many ways, a good example of divided and guilty Britain. ‘A good place to live’, with its achievements like Concorde and the Clifton Suspension Bridge it was, nevertheless, the first city to have riots in the 1970s.. It is easy to suggest that this was not really a British riot because it was caused by ‘outsiders’, and that sentiment is precisely what is wrong with Britain. The middle—classes seek to defend their privileges and are ignorant of the poor and the oppressed within their own Country. Such ignorance has to be challenged – the problem for me is how to do this in love. I can be friendly towards middle-class people and become popular with them and they will accept that I’ve some funny ideas but accept me as one of them really. If I go on about the faults of our society, then I become a bore and am self-righteous in the way which Clements condemns. I suppose one has to avoid thinking one can change the world all by oneself and be less of a campaigning crusader and just be around and speak up for one’s views wherever one finds oneself. Such change as would come from this would be very slow but then Britain is, as Clements points out, a gentle society. Britain needs grass-roots consciousness-raising and this can only be done by a lot of people each on their own patch of grass. The crusaders only succeed in alienating people and that preserves the status Quo and makes it more defiantly conservative. I am lucky to have, amongst my friends, many tolerant (towards me at any rate) conservatives. I think I have to maintain my own integrity. I cannot be responsibly for anybody else’s. One step at a time is the only speed at which I can move in urging social justice and obedience to the gospel. In ministry, one comes across a wider circle of people than most. Friendship with conservatives should help me to relate to yet more people with whom I have some basic disagreements so I will know how to play the game of communication. With the tools of theology I have to try to lead people into a greater awareness of the implications of Christian discipleship when they ask me to. I will have to learn, in so doing, that one of the frustrations is the not knowing what effect it is having. At least this should save me from bigotry.

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