I grew up conflicted between the social and educational pressures to love my country and believe it was the greatest in the world – we Brits won the War, after all – and Dr Johnson’s adage that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. As soon as I was able to see that we weren’t the greatest country in the world, and not only that but it wasn’t we who won the war either, I leaned more towards the Johnsonian view.
So I was resistant to recording John of Gaunt’s famous speech from King Richard II Act II: “This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle…” It sounded to me like the extreme of mindless, overblown, and unfounded patriotism. But it’s not, of course. As so often, I had never really heard it through to the end and heard what old Gaunt is really saying.
It’s a lament, that the country he has loved and served all his life has become something to be ashamed of. By their reckless misgovernment its rulers have betrayed their people and everything the nation should be.
If we feel similarly betrayed in our time, perhaps the Psalms can provide a resource. The ‘psalms of lament’ that we find there include powerful prayers that cry out to God, at times when God seems to have abandoned his people. Why have you allowed us to be conquered by the Babylonians? Why have you allowed us to be taken captive by politicians who care more for enriching the wealthy and powerful, than they do for protecting the vulnerable, feeding the poor, healing the sick, providing a decent standard of living for all their people?
We may not like the answers. People who pray like this often hear that what has happened is a judgment for their idolatry and disobedience to God’s way. Or in a democratic society, that we get the Government we choose or deserve. Then our prayer may change to one of determination and hope. That we may return to God’s ways. That we may (quickly!) deserve better than our electoral record shows we do.
And we may take heart from John of Gaunt’s words too. Here they are: