Twice a week, very early in the morning, I walk from London’s Waterloo Station across the river to the West End to help serve breakfasts at St Patrick’s Church in Soho Square. In what could perhaps be powerfully described as the dawn’s early light, on the corner where the Charing Cross Road meets St Martin-in-the-Fields, the words, carved in stone, stand out starkly:
“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
The words adorn a statue of Edith Cavell, the nurse shot by the Germans in World War I. When I, as a teenager, first read her words, they struck me as a statement of the blindingly obvious. Of course patriotism is not enough. Christianity teaches us a wider and deeper love than that. But I also knew that there was a case to be made for patriotism—and I was interested to know how it could be made.
That was not a very fashionable goal in the late 1960s. The culture was all denim jeans and protest rallies: the trend-setting girls at school were those who sang “We shall overcome” in American accents and had posters of Joan Baez. TV dramas were about people being daring about sex, and we were being distanced from those hearty black and white WWII films of the 1950s with their clipped accents and emphasis on courage, humour, and gently understated Britishness.
In the 1980s—by which time I was married to an Army officer and living in Berlin—there was a delicate revival in patriotism, and it was rather enlightening. This was the era of John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, and there was a deep and genuine understanding of the issues at stake in the face of Communist tyranny. St John Paul taught and lived an authentic patriotism that owed nothing to narrow vision or even to the confidence of a nation at ease with its position in the world. Poland had—in a phrase much repeated at that time—lost the Second World War twice, first to the Germans in 1939 and then again to the Soviets in 1945. When he spoke of Poland it was of a nation that lived in the hearts and minds of its people. And he was not averse to reminding Poles, even in their struggles for freedom and independence, of the need to avoid nationalism and to denounce evils such as anti-Semitism.
John Paul II showed us a patriotism that was already looking ahead to the realities of the fall of Communism and the very different world of the coming 21st century. In fact, he made a very specific contribution to British history; in 1982 he was the first Pope ever to visit our land and one who was able to draw together threads uniting Christians divided by four hundred years of post-Reformation events, ideas, and experiences. The next papal visit, by Benedict XVI, was at the express invitation of the HM the Queen and sealed an understanding of Christianity’s role in our national story in a superb 2010 speech in Westminster Hall at the heart of our Parliamentary democracy. Religion, Benedict stated, “is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.” But, he noted, there are “worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”
Those worrying signs have only increased. So, what of patriotism now, in 2021? Can I be patriotic about Britain? Unexpectedly, my recent Christmas gifts included a biography of Edith Cavell, precisely at this time when I am halted by her statue on these winter mornings. For the first time, I discovered the full wording of her powerful statement: “Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough…”
She wrote those words in prison, the night before she was due to be led out at dawn to be shot. She understood about patriotism. She loved Britain and had worked to hide British soldiers in her hospital in Belgium so that they could escape back to Britain: that was why she was shot. She had no regrets about her actions and regarded it all as a duty done with love. She was a patriot and this had nourished her ability to love and had pointed her towards that greater love without which we cannot hope to enter Heaven.
Is Britain worthy of my love? Patriotism is a complicated thing, especially for an English person: our tangled history (executions and burnings-at-the-stake, Thomas More, and Thomas Cranmer), our embarrassment at the Empire, our enchantingly lovely countryside, our current horrible situation of collapsing marriages and aborted babies.
Can a citizen of the United States be proud of his nation? One version of that country’s history is that it was founded simply by slave-owners seeking freedom from constraint on that trade, on land stolen from the people already living there. A larger and more genuine version tells of people building a new nation which, with all its faults, has proved again and again to have self-correcting mechanisms that produced genuine reform when needed and offers human flourishing and decent living for millions on a scale hitherto unknown.
In the dawn’s early light, hurrying up past the closed bookshops of the Charing Cross Road in lockdown London, I am aware at least of this: I grew up in a free and lovely country thanks to sacrifices made by British and Americans who thought it worthwhile to risk their own lives to give me that privilege. In the muddled years that lie ahead, I can and must honour that, give neighbourly service to the extraordinary mix of people in today’s London—and have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.
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