The vigil was playing on the television in the background. I wasn’t paying attention, so I can’t say for sure if the words were uttered by clergy, politician or policeman. But they were clear and distinct, as though a shot had been fired. I jerked my head up.
Monday’s suicide bombing in Manchester horrendous as it was, was just another terrorist attack. We’ve gotten used to them, kind of immunized to the horror. I’m not sure why I still had the television on at the office it is not like there was anything new happening. Just a time of remembrance, a vigil in the city square. Then I heard the words, an exhortation to go out and build the city “in England’s green & pleasant land.”
I doubt many anywhere outside of the UK understood the significance of those words, but Britons knew. They were words of defiance, as if the speaker had just spat in the face of those who would sow terror. The nation that faced down the Nazis isn’t going to let a bomb or two change it. This is England
The line is from a poem by William Blake. The song of the poem, “Jerusalem,” is in many ways the unofficial British national anthem. It presents a powerful image of a mythic, Christian England where righteousness will prevail. The England of the song is God’s chosen nation, invincible and indestructible.
The theology behind the song is questionable (to be charitable) but the myth is a powerful one. Those responsible for this latest attack, and for previous ones, don’t understand that. With “Jerusalem” the British people are declared to be divinely anointed, with a destiny that nothing can shake. There was a reason that line was quoted when and where it was. It was to remind the British people of their past resilience and an assurance that they are on the right side of history.
William Blake was one of the greatest poets of the English language. “Jerusalem” is a very short poem that weaves scripture with myth with national pride and a considered call to stand up to evil. As a response to Monday’s terrorist attack, it seems to me to have been perfectly chosen.
In Manchester today they are mourning, as parents and families have done recently in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Nice and other cities. Sadly, the scene will probably be repeated somewhere else before the year is out.
Nowhere though will the words of response to the terror be as powerful.
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land