Neatly tying together the recent British royal wedding and the varying US/UK reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death, I thought I’d take a look at issues of patriotism and Christianity using the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ (with a bit of G.K. Chesterton thrown in).
On 29 April half the UK population (myself included), and possibly some others around the world, joined Kate and Wills in singing Blake’s poem ‘And did those feet’ to Parry’s stirring setting as the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. It’s Britain’s unofficial second national anthem, and one of the few hymns known and loved by the general non-churchgoing population. In fact, it’s more loved in secular society than it is by Christians, particularly evangelicals who get as far as the first line (‘And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?’), answer ‘No they didn’t’ and stop there.
Which is a shame, because it’s a cracking tune and the words are actually pretty good if you look more closely. Beats ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God save the Queen’ (except perhaps the Sex Pistols version) hands down.
And did those feet?
First, the legend behind Blake’s poem, which goes that in his youth Jesus travelled to England with Joseph of Arimathea and visited Glastonbury (not the annual music festival, though that would have been quite something). I don’t know the origins of the legend or when it first appeared, but other than the story’s existence and our lack of knowledge as to Jesus’ early life I don’t think there’s any evidence that he ever did pay a visit to old Blighty, sadly.
Nonetheless, in a sense this doesn’t matter. The amazing fact of the Incarnation means that when Jesus walked the dusty ground of Palestine, in a sense he representatively walked all the Earth. Because he consented to be made ‘from the dust of the earth’ like us, the same recycled physical elements that we’re all made from, he in a sense made all the Earth (and all physical being) holy.
Tom Wright talks of Jesus being the place where – as the Temple and the Torah partially foreshadowed in the Old Testament – heaven and earth finally, fully meet and are united. In Jesus, heaven comes down to earth; and earth – all the earth – is lifted up to heaven. So it doesn’t matter whether Jesus literally walked in Glastonbury, or indeed New York, the slums of Nairobi and Mumbai or the Palace of Versailles. He walked the Earth, and that is enough.
So in that sense we can say yes, those feet did walk on ‘England’s mountains green’; indeed, they walk there still.
Protest not patriotism
However, to attempt to answer the song’s opening rhetorical question literally is rather to miss Blake’s point. ‘Jerusalem’, unlike ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ et al, is not a hymn of jingoistic flag-waving patriotism – ‘my country right or wrong’. It’s better understood as a protest song.
After the opening lines about mountains green and pleasant pastures, Blake turns the pastoral vision on its head. ‘And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?’ he asks. It’s a clever line, subverting all that’s gone before. One interpretation might go: open your eyes and look around you at the ugly – even satanic – reality; do you really think this is the site of Jerusalem? Or it could be saying, if Jesus ever did walk here, just look how it’s since become corrupted and fallen into satanic darkness. Either way, there’s no cosy sentimentality or fault-blind jingoism here. Blake is not calling England pleasant now, but judging it as having fallen into evil.
William Blake is certainly no conventional Christian, and some of his writings are theologically way off-beam. But he is a visionary and a prophet, and his words here are a clarion call to restore righteousness and justice in the land. It could just as well be Amos or Isaiah speaking.
Chesterton’s cosmic patriotism
And so to G.K. Chesterton, who has a fascinating chapter on patriotism titled ‘The Flag of the World’ in his brilliantly quirky spiritual autobiography Orthodoxy.
Chesterton’s version of patriotism is a kind of inborn ‘military’ loyalty towards the world or the universe as a whole. The ‘cosmic patriot’ can be both optimistic and pessimistic about the world, because ‘if you love something then its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more’.
In Chesterton’s thinking, it’s not enough merely to criticise or to approve of the world (or your own part of it) – you have to love it ‘with a transcendental tie and no earthly reason’; only then will it change and become great (‘Men did not love Rome because she was great; she was great because they had loved her’). For Chesterton, the problem with the mere pessimist or critic is that he doesn’t love what he criticises. But the problem with the merely optimistic patriot is that he doesn’t think his universe (or his locale) needs changing; he will ‘whitewash rather than wash the world’.
Chesterton argues that if you love something or somewhere for a merely natural, logical reason – for a particular feature of itself – you will end up defending that feature against the thing or place itself. It’s only the person who loves something without natural reason who will be willing to improve it. Presciently, when England still had an empire he wrote that ‘if we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule other peoples, but if we love it just for being a nation, we can face all events’. (He equates this with a woman who is aware of her husband’s faults, but instead of leaving stays loyal and tries to help him change. ‘Love is not blind, it is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.’)
So to reform the world you must have an allegiance to the world that transcends merely optimistic or jingoistic patriotism. We need to be able both to fiercely love and fiercely hate the world (and our own part of it); to be able to see the universe ‘[both] as an ogre’s castle to be stormed, and as our own cottage to which we can return in the evening’. We need to hate it enough to change it and love it enough to think it worth changing.
For Chesterton, Christianity provides the basis for this dual vision by separating God from his creation as a poet is separated from her poem. God created the world as a kind of play, but left it in the hands of human actors and stage-managers, who’ve made a mess of it. So you can both be at peace with God’s universe (the kingdom) and at war with the world as it now is.
Building the Kingdom
Which brings us nicely back to ‘Jerusalem’. The concluding verse of the hymn – ‘Bring me my bow of burning gold’ – is a call to action; actually it’s a commitment to action, to fight and work to change our world until it is as it should be. ‘I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’ (substitute the name of your own particular country or locality here). We have a task to participate actively in the restoration of the world, and particularly of our own part of it; to join with God in building his Kingdom here and now, among our own equivalent of ‘dark satanic mills’.
Jesus has declared the world good by being physically incarnated into it, by dying to redeem and restore it, and by rising to a new bodily life in which heaven and earth are finally made one. Now we need to get on with the task of restoring God’s good creation through works of justice, creative beauty and evangelism. We’re back to Tom Wright. The message of ‘Jerusalem’ is essentially the message of Surprised by Hope. Which is essentially the message of Easter.
So next time you hear the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, join in with gusto, and then get on with living it out.
- Books: Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright
- Christian responses to Osama bin Laden’s killing
- Finding God in the rubbish