On Monday, we practiced being tourists—we finally visited the Tower of London! Liz has family in town, so we’re spending some time with them doing touristy things we never get around to doing ourselves. It’s a little bit strange that we’ve never visited the Tower; it’s in our borough (hence “Tower” Hamlets), and we get very cheap tickets because we live here. So we finally went.
And you know what?
It made me sad.
Don’t get me wrong; the Tower was magnificent. It was far larger inside than it looks on the outside (it’s literally a small village, with people living on the grounds); the place is well taken care of and well prepared for the many visitors that come through each year. It was beautiful, it was informative, it was awe-inspiring. We were led on a tour by a “beefeater” who was engaging, knowledgable, and highly entertaining. The stories of the Tower, entwined with the rich history of England, revealed a fortress that for centuries was central to the politics of the nation.
But about thirty minutes into our visit, as we finished viewing the very-glittery crown jewels and began our guided tour, it finally struck me why I was feeling uneasy and uncomfortable in that place—this entire castle/village/royal warehouse/museum was one massive monument commemorating the power and glory of a nation, a royal family, and an empire. Everywhere we saw testimonies to the power and strength of the England that once dominated (and still influences) much of the globe. Entire armories of expensive weapons were displayed to show off Britain’s military might, while rooms of gold and diamonds and royal jewelry showed off the riches and extravagance of the royalty (crowns I understand—but a “Royal Punch Bowl” made of solid gold that’s big enough to bathe in?!). Stories of political intrigue and treachery, horrible torture, gruesome beheadings, and the starving masses who enjoyed the executions were told with such humor that listeners were led to gloss over the many terrible things that had happened for the sake of power.
Now, I appreciate history. And I understand that no empire in the world, including the U.S., is going to spend time announcing all the metaphorical (and in this case, literal) skeletons in their closet. History can’t be changed, and I’m willing to accept it for what it is, as uncomfortable as parts of that history may be.
However, the way Christianity is twisted into this simultaneously proud and gruesome national heritage makes me deeply uncomfortable. I’m saddened when I see the atrocities of our sinful world celebrated, but I’m angered when this is done by an empire that claimed to have been acting in the name of God.
England, you see, is one of many European nations that for centuries considered itself to be a Christian nation, an empire supposedly submitted to the lordship of Jesus. The Church of England is the official religious institution here, and officially the royalty is not only the figurehead leading the government, but the church as well.
Despite this, history tells a different story about this “Christian” nation: many long years of war between Catholics and Protestants fighting for power, oppression of the poor and vulnerable not only in England but in all the lands conquered by the empire, persecution of faith traditions outside the expected norm, church leaders making the same political power plays as every other corrupt leader. Thankfully, most of the nations in old Christendom have reformed their ways and loosened the unhealthy ties between the church and earthly power. But we also can’t ignore that these issues have significantly shaped the West today.
Now, England is certainly not alone in this. All nations want to secure their power, and all nations (and often their leaders) have a long history of putting their own interests above everyone else’s. Empires and wannabe empires use whatever tools they have at their disposal—military might, religion, financial and political power—to create and expand their place in the world.
But as Christians, we are beholden to no nation. We may be residents and citizens of the United Kingdom, or the United States, or any of the hundreds of other countries around the world, but our ultimate allegiance is to Christ. We are not to glorify the status of a nation; we are called to speak truth the the powers that be, whether that means affirming the good they do or speaking against the evil. We are not to be proud of national power and strength, but to pursue—and call the nations to pursue—a path of mercy, justice, grace, and love that cares for the poor and vulnerable.
As followers of Christ, we are followers of the true King of this world. No other allegiance is greater than that, nor can we afford to let patriotism become conflated with our faith. Nor should we ever allow the name of Jesus to be co-opted for the sake of earthly authority. We do Christ a great disservice when we lose sight of where our ultimate loyalties lie.