St George... not who you think he is

By Simon Barrow
April 23, 2009

Today is St George's day. It is spun out of myth, but the myth is important. The day has 'traditionally' been seen as affirming Empire and an exclusive English identity. But that is a gross misrepresentation, when you examine the story.

Two years ago, Ekklesia produced a report suggesting that a day to mark St George should be about celebrating 'dissent on behalf of humanity'. It is called "When the Saints go marching out? St George for a new era" - and you can read it in full here:

This is a flavour of the core argument:

Ekklesia believes that the St George and his national Day needs to be ‘re-branded’ (re-thought and re-defined) for the 21st century – not in a superficial way that conveniently adjusts the past in our own interests, but to regain a global sense of how those who identify with St George have been shaped by history (good and bad) and how they may be enriched through embracing a diverse cultural inheritance.

When we re-read the story of his origins and its literary interpretation, it turns out that St George was a dissenter. Starting out as an establishment figure, a military leader, his Christian faith led him to forsake his weapons and wealth in order personally to confront the Emperor Diocletian (303 AD) over the wrong he was doing in persecuting a minority group.

St George’s conversion towards the cause of the persecuted started out, so legend has it, with an act of hospitality towards someone else, who happened to be a Christian. These days we often feel threatened by strangers and those who seek refuge with us. For St George, it was a spur to challenging the source of oppression by going directly to the Imperial Court. His action cost him his life. He was beheaded. But he became a symbol of courage for others.

Here, then, is a tale of the just person calling power to account through truth, something very relevant to the quest for post-imperial identity in a global world divided by power and violence, including religious violence. It also fits well with the long English tradition of dissent and with a renewed sense of internationalism.

Yet it is a story largely lost amid self-assertive flag-waving and apparently harmless tales of dragons. Worse, St George has been co-opted to justify the 11th century crusades (which still blight modern history, especially the encounter with Islam), and in recent times has been manipulated into being a standard bearer for narrow nationalism – though he was, according to the tradition, black and Middle Eastern. ....

[So to] consider St George a symbol of ‘England alone, above, better’ is narrative nonsense, as well extremely damaging to the English as a people with a delightfully mongrel heritage and a global future. When we study the hagiography, we discover that we actually share his patronage with Turkey (his attributed birthplace), Syria (his probable nationality), Palestine (where he served), and Portugal, Aragon, Catalonia, Lithuania, Germany, Greece, Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice (where he is also honoured as a saint).


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