St George versus the overlords

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
28 Apr 2010

Most saints were "branded" during the rise of Christianity in Europe and the Middle East. They reflect the values of power and government, the alliance of church and state. Of course, many show support for the marginalised and vulnerable such as prisoners, the poor or the sick. But few present a challenge to the systems that created their plight in the first place. They operate at the level of the private, not public. Their appeal is otherworldly, as they intercede with the Almighty. Their political expression, if any, is to side with the social order.

St George, whose feast day we celebrated once more on 23 April, is no exception. Morphed into a crusader who slays mythical beasts, he may have originally been a subverter of the empire represented by a dragon in the biblical book of Revelation. The hagiography suggests that while he started out as an establishment figure, a military leader, this changed dramatically. His Christian faith led him to forsake his status and wealth in order to confront the Emperor Diocletian with his persecution of a minority. He eventually paid with his life.

This is the story of St George's that we need to rediscover. We lack a subversive saint who champions the cause of the underdog, the misfit, the little guy who dares to speak out against the powerful.

George could stand for the best of the English radical tradition. At present there is no great celebration of England's contribution to the history of dissent – despite the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the Diggers, Ranters and Levellers and all those who have sought to combat racism, nationalism, debt, poverty, colonialism and war.

We need someone who will represent the "great ignored". Not David Cameron's law-abiding middle England, but the lawbreaker, the illegal immigrant, the criminal, the disfranchised. Less a crusader for parents concerned about their eight-year-old's exposure to Primark's padded bikinis. More the champion of the workers in Bangladesh to whom the company pays 7p an hour.

George is after all shared by many countries around the world. While epitomising the English fondness for the underdog, he could also move beyond narrow national interest. The Palestinian can cross religious boundaries too. In al-Khader (near Bethlehem), there is the church and monastery of St George, which is predominantly visited by Muslims. It is not only the church in Lod that is dedicated to the saint – but also the mosque next door, Jamia al-Omar, one of the oldest in the region. To Muslims St George is very holy and "al-Khader", or the "green one", is the name they use for him.

On St George's day civic events should be held to mark the contribution to national life of martyrs, minorities and migrants – with particular attention to the plight of the excluded, the displaced and oppressed in history and today. There could be a focus on welcoming the "outsider" (something else that the early saint was reported to have offered) with street parties, concerts, exhibitions and multicultural events. An emphasis on those "hidden from history" in school and education programmes, and examination of techniques for tackling injustice and discrimination – recalling the saint's own costly decision.

A champion of right rather than might, St George should belong to the people, not their overlords. This, not nationalism, is what a true patriotism is about – commitment to "another country" where all have a place, not just those with the power.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his Guardian Comment-is-Free column (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/jonathan-bartley).

The Ekklesia report, 'St George's Day in a changing, global era: a positive proposal', by Simon Barrow, can be found here - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11944

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