Maybe, hopefully, one of the consequences of Brexit will be to encourage folk to think deeply about the whole issue of identity; specifically national identity.
What does it mean be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish or even European?
What theological resources can we draw on in thinking about national identity?
The answer to this question, I suspect, is the same as the resources that allow us to think about identity more widely.
Before I delve into this let me be clear and upfront: I am a patriot and an English patriot at that. When England compete in the 6 Nations Championship (I am one of those men who preferred playing with funny shaped balls) or the Rugby World Cup I cheer vociferously. I want them to win, and am pleased when they do, and whisper it quietly I sulk when they don’t.
However, when every four years the British Lions play against one of the big southern hemisphere sides, I feel ever so British. During the Ryder Cup (switching sports) I shout loudly, at the television, for Europe.
It seems that despite being English I am in fact capable of multiple allegiances and identities. My ‘Englishness,’ in many ways, is animated by, and defined through, a wider set of relationships.
Is it too much to suggest that all forms of identity only make sense because they relate to something, not necessarily bigger, but broader than themselves? Is this what Paul was getting at in his ‘In Christ there is no……..’ declaration? ‘ After all Jews didn’t mysteriously stop being Jews, neither did women cease to be women, or slaves slaves, or free free, when they located themselves in Christ. Being ‘in Christ’ in many ways affirms our core temporal identities. Being in Christ asks Christians to look at and cherish difference, and to make sure they always look beyond themselves.
Maybe the Noah story works in a similar way? All of the species who entered the ark – surely a metaphor for the common good – were different and unique.
If we turn to Desmond Tutu’s theology of Ubuntu, ‘there is no me without you,’ or Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou,’ we find other resources to help us work out questions of (national) identity.
I think to be patriotic means to be rooted in and to enjoy one’s national identity, but to recognise that it only makes sense in a hopefully productive and mutually respectful relationship of accountability to other different, and broader, identities.
In the referendum, to my sadness, I think we heard a lot about jingoism, dressed up as patriotism and subsumed in careless talk about sovereignty. Jingoism doesn’t relate, it can’t because it is narrow, (falsely) nostalgic and inward looking. Real patriotism is broad, in many ways progressive and outward looking; perhaps?
And, to be clear I am not simply having a go at the Brexiteers, for the leading advocates on the remain side failed to paint an attractive and picture of relational identity and, positive patriotism. Maybe they didn’t because they couldn’t? Maybe they couldn’t because they had no real and substantial ‘thick narratives’ to draw on?
So as we move forward from here could it be that one of the key tasks for those interested in, and committed to, public theology is to make sure that patriotism is positively defined in such as way that it can’t be reduced to jingoism, the most vitriolic consequence of which may be racism?