With “St George’s Day” a few days off I thought I’d ‘stick’ this at the top for a while….
A bit ago a Labour MP called on the English to ‘reclaim St George’ from the far right, I want to be even more radical and reclaim him for Christianity.
The original legend of St George goes back to the days when Christianity was still being persecuted by the Roman state. George was a Roman soldier, possibly of ‘NCO rank’ in our terms. He came from Turkish Cappadocia and as such was not exactly ethnically English or even white; not quite an Arab because this was centuries before the Muslim conquest, but similarly ‘Middle-Eastern’. Posted in around 300AD/CE to Lydda near modern Jaffa in Israel, he was ordered to join in persecuting the local Christians. Instead he was inspired by the example of the persecuted Christians to join them – which brought him into conflict with his military bosses who had him executed.
Precisely because this was before the Roman Emperors ‘nationalised’ Christianity as the Imperial faith, the values for which George became a martyr and saint would be rather different to the ‘God for Harry, England, and St George’ militarism with which we associate him. The Christian Church of those days was firmly pacifist – only shortly before, a Christian writing about his faith to a pagan friend had pointed out that ‘there are now so many of us that if we were not pacifists we could take over!’ Far from supporting any nation or race, the Christians were committed to the equality of all men before God, and instead of trying to create Christian countries they called people to join ‘God’s holy nation’ the Church itself, and to live on earth as ‘pilgrims’ or ‘resident aliens’ – in effect citizens of the kingdom of heaven living peaceably on earth. And while they wouldn’t fight for it, they clearly believed in religious freedom and of course exercised their own religious freedom even if the state didn’t officially allow it!
About a hundred years later the nationalised Roman church was not totally corrupt, but it had certainly compromised on pacifism, nationalism and religious freedom, and needed to change St George’s profile to make him suitable for their distorted version of the faith. They played up his being a soldier, and they added the dragon legend – probably borrowed from the similar exploits of the Greek hero Perseus who supposedly saved a princess from a sea monster in Joppa /Jaffa. In this revised form George became the ‘patron saint’ of other countries too – ‘Georgia’ in southern USSR for one.
He was adopted by England during the Crusades – which of course were one of the least Christian things that have been done in the name of Jesus, and the real George wouldn’t have approved either! An English crusader army found itself in danger from Muslims while making their way through Turkey, and decided it would be appropriate to pray to a local Turkish Christian saint for deliverance. Saved, as they thought, by St George they brought the devotion to George back to England with them. You might have thought that the Reformation, which disapproved of praying to saints, would have led to George being discarded; but he got re-invented by writers like Shakespeare and Spenser as a symbol or role-model of Englishness, a perfect chivalrous knight – not very much like the real George, of course.
Now – well, the other week I saw in a documentary a group of far-right skinheads singing, to a well- known modern hymn tune, “Keep St George in my heart, keep me English, keep St George in my heart I pray….” It seems ironic that people should be asking to have St George in their heart when if he – or another Cappadocian Turk – moved in down the street, they’d hate it! There is something seriously wrong here….
The values St George thought worth dying for are very different to the values of most of the people who now wave ‘his’ red cross flag; indeed, they are values totally unsuitable to English patriotism generally and the far right in particular. Yet surely the point of a patron saint is that you follow his values. Nor is the cross – Jesus’ cross before it was George’s – an appropriate symbol for the nationalism of any country.
The only reason to have a ‘patron saint’ is if you are a ‘Christian country’ – but according to the New Testament, the teaching of Jesus and his followers, you can’t have a ‘Christian country’ in the first place. The only ‘Christian nation’ the New Testament knows is the international body of born again Christians, who if they are truly following Jesus will be pacifists and anti-racists, peaceable non-conformists.