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“Gross impiety it is that a nation's pride should be maintained in the face of its poor.” William Penn wrote these words in 1669. We have no means of knowing what his voice might have sounded like when he read them aloud, as he undoubtedly would have done, but when I hear them in my mind's ear, they are spoken with firmness and a touch of anger. They are words we do well to heed in our own time.
Next weekend, we shall be encouraged to put out more flags and hold street parties to celebrate the 60th year of the tenure of office of our unelected head of state. When the Jubilee Muster was held at Windsor just over a week ago, the connection we were invited to make between 'national pride', monarchy, and military spectacle was beyond doubt.
Two and a half thousand members of the armed forces marched in front of the Queen with undeniable precision and spectacular pageantry. Fighter jets and helicopter gunships flew past and six military bands provided the soundtrack. The message was clear: this is something in which power desires us to take pride. Its tools are awe, sentiment and the need to feel reassured by 'tradition' in a volatile and uncertain world.
Many of the same tactics will be used on 30 June when Armed Forces Day is celebrated. David Cameron has made it clear that he wants to conflate uncritical support for this event with good citizenship. Speaking in 2010, the Prime Minister said that respect for the armed forces should be expressed “loudly and proudly” and called for “an explosion of red, white and blue all over the country”.
Needless to say, his claim that “supporting our Armed Forces isn’t just a government responsibility - it’s a social responsibility” did not invite reflection on the best means of meeting this responsibility. No mention was made of the moral content and vision of our foreign policy, or of the possibility of seeking non-violent resolution to conflicts.
The best expression of socially responsible support for the indisputably courageous men and women of our armed forces is to take far greater care before placing them in the way of death and injury. It also requires unstinting care and rehabilitation when they return home, maimed in mind or body. Government will not address these issues if it thinks the public may be bought off with the easier option of military pageantry.
While these displays are staged and presented to us as occasions of national pride, so much which demeans our country is permitted to continue, unnoticed by those upon whom it has not yet made a direct impact. In every town, in every street, too many of our fellow citizens reach the end of their money before the end of their week.
Parents forgo meals to feed their children, people in employment have recourse to food banks, those who are burdened by disability, sickness, unemployment, insecure employment and age are shut out from participation in the common life of our society for want of means. Fear and growing depression are their constant companions as their lives shrink into bare survival.
There is nothing here of which we should be proud. There are sufficient resources, even in a time of 'austerity' to give modest decency to all our citizens if only a morally alert sense of priorities would inform a will to act with justice.
Let us not permit ourselves to fall for the bread and circuses trickery of the peddlers of false pride.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet