September 2014

So just how British are you?

You can always tell when a Prime Minister is in trouble: they start talking about Britishness and the innate qualities that separate anyone in Britain from their fellow humans beings in Belgium, Bolivia or Burkina Faso. One has images of them leafing desperately through the Downing Street dictionary trying to find some adjective that can only describe people here (apart, obviously, from ‘British’).

That is depressing. More alarming is the call from government for schools to teach ‘British’ values. Again, I have no idea why this is supposed to mean: are there some strange values which are held only by people in this country and in no other? If pushed, I might point out one which was brought into high relief by the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, which celebrated so clearly the British inability to take itself too seriously. Sadly, I suspect that this is a concept that politicians would find difficult to comprehend.

This is not to say that values are unimportant. On the contrary, one of the issues in society today is the number of people who have no values apart from simple self-interest and a refusal to take personal responsibility. (One last swipe at politicians: this is not helped by some Prime Ministers whose motto seems to have been ‘Everything is my responsibility and nothing is my fault’)

Values are important, and one of the main responsibilities of any Christian is to show by the way they lead their lives the central importance of the values of the Kingdom of Heaven – peace, fairness, love and reconciliation. And it is the way that they lead their lives which is crucial: telling others how to act while failing to do so oneself is a dangerous hypocritical pit into which too many fall.

Now it is, of course, impossible to work for peace, fairness, love and reconciliation and at the same time claim some special quality or some special value for any one nation, group, community or individual. Christian values break down all borders whether between individuals or between nations. They also destroy any notion that the values of any particular country are different from – and by implication better than –those of any other country. And it is especially important to underline this at a time when we are marking the start of the conflict that began 100 years ago and whose effects are still obvious in the world today where countless millions of people have been over the last century sacrificed on the altar of petty nationalism

The siren calls of that nationalism are all too audible today and too many parts of the world. Christians have a duty to resist them - to celebrate the importance of peace, fairness, justice and reconciliation, and, rather than to succumb to a dangerous introspection looking foolishly for ‘British’ qualities and ‘British’ values, to work for those values which break down divisions and build up understanding not just within this country but between us and the people of Bangladesh, Belize and Bosnia.