Stand Up For the Real St. George

England’s patron saint is increasingly widely celebrated, but not always in ways that accurately reflect the real St. George. In recent years St. George’s Day has been hijacked by extreme racist and nationalist forces. So much so that many people of Black and Ethnic Minority heritage, as well as of non- Christian heritage, such as Muslims, have described how seeing St. George’s cross- the red cross on a white banner-  makes them a little jumpy, a little uncomfortable, in the way that a symbol can silently but powerfully proclaim sentiment and assert territory.

A campaign has been started by the Christian- Muslims forum and their partners to reclaim St. George’s Day for everyone in Britain. And why not, because in fact, not unlike St. Nicholas, St. George is a figure of startling multicultural, cross cultural and even inter faith  importance.

St. George begins his life as a Third Culture Kid, born to Greek aristocratic Christian parents who were living in Palestine, under the Roman Empire, in the latter years of the third century. When his parents died, the teenage George presented himself to the Emperor Diocletian to serve in the Roman Army. George soon distinguished himself in military service, becoming a favourite of the Emperor. But when Diocletian began to view Christians as a threat that cordial relationship was put to the test. In the year 302 AD Diocletian announced an edict that every Christian soldier was to be arrested and all remaining soldiers required to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods. George , publicly renounced the edict and declared his Christian faith. Not wanting to lose his best Tribune, Diocletian tried to persuade George to renounce his faith, offering him extravagant gifts if he would simply make the sacrifice.

George refused and prepared himself for execution by giving away all his property and wealth to the poor. George was tortured before finally being beheaded. However his suffering made a deep impression on the Empress Alexandra and the pagan priest Athanasius, who converted and subsequently joined George in martyrdom. George’s body was returned to the place of his birth in Palestine for burial. Within a few years the veneration of St. George had spread beyond Palestine, throughout the Middle East and into the Eastern Roman Empire. By the fifth century he was widely venerated throughout the Western Roman Empire as well.

The image of St. George as a protective patron saint captured the imagination of many nations, regions and cities. Hence today, he is not just the patron saint of England, but also Ethiopia, Palestine, Portugal, Russia and Sweden, as well as, Catalonia, Genoa, Milan, Gozo and the City of Preston.

Most remarkable however is the centuries old importance of St. George across the three Abrahamic faiths, where he is still venerated among Christians, Muslims and Jews. St. George is an exceptional saint in that he continues  to be well known and respected in Islam, where his life story is a blend Quranic, Biblical and folklore elements. Throughout the Middle East, shrines and churches to St. George are visited by Muslims, Jews and Christians; the shrine near Bethlehem for instance is regarded as the birthplace of St. George, and the burial of the Prophet Elias by Jews.

If through St. George, the three ‘peoples of the book’ can find reconciliation, the same cannot be said about St. George’s relationship with Paganism. Martyrs like St. George have been used as examples of the barbarity of pre- Christian faiths. St. George as the dragon slayer has often been interpreted in Christianity as the defeat of the Roman Empire and Paganism. When the political tide turned in favour of Christianity and St. George became widely venerated, it also marked an irreparable rift between Christianity and Paganism. However in the Baltics, where Christianity came later, St. George is reconciled with Paganism to a degree. St. George’s Greek name, Georgius, means cultivator of the land and hence this saint was one with which a large peasant and agrarian community could identify and merge their pre Christian rites. The Baltic beliefs and customs associated with St. George’s Day  centre on  marking the first day of Spring, of Fertility, the awakening of Nature and the beginning of the year. Because of this, St.  George’s day, across the Baltics and even into Russia, is also the First Day of Ploughing and the beginning of the year for leaseholds and other contracts.

St.George has also managed to survive across the numerous schisms in Christianity, including the Aryan, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches but also the more definitive rifts that came with the Reformation.  In England, and elsewhere across Europe, the Reformation severely curtailed saint’s days. Yet St. George’s Day was among the holidays that continued to be observed, his iconography persisted. Like St. Nicholas, St. George is a patron, whose example and relevance cut across religious divides.

The iconography and patronage of St. George found across nations and cultures, and most remarkably across faiths, demonstrates am inspiring universality of the saint. That in itself is something to be celebrated by all. Indeed St. George doesn’t just belong to White English Christians, but to Jews and Muslims and Pagans as well, and to people of the Middle East and Africa and from the furthest points of East and Western Europe. St. George can never represent a single ethnic or religious identity. He belongs to everyone.

But in more esoteric interpretations of St. George as the dragonslayer  the saint’s universality and continued importance become clear.  A deeper symbolism explains that the dragon represents Evil, or dark aspects of the Self, such as hatred. Some sources have identified an Islamic tradition where the Anti- Christ, Satan, will be slain by Jesus, at Lydda, at the shrine of St. George. In this tradition the similar symbolic significance of victory over Evil can be seen. If the story is read as St.George slaying Evil or the Dark aspects of Self, such as hatred, xenophobia, and intolerance, then his example is universal and humane, a symbol of unity and inclusion. St. George is each person’s  struggle to conquer their negative and destructive aspects with goodness; a struggle that is equally observed in society as a whole.

Across the Abrahamic faiths, St. George has a particular intercessionary power for those afflicted with mental illness. Looking deep into the symbolism of St. George as the dragonslayer and intercessionary of those with mental illness, there is something even more poignant about the saint, worth celebrating and reclaiming.

Xenophobia, intolerance, racism, Islamophobia, and anti- Semitism are among the myriad of symptoms of a mentally ill society; the extreme reaction of purging the community of difference is the unreasoned preference to the sane and balanced option of living together and finding common ground. St. George’s Day, as hijacked by extreme right wing and nationalist factions, represents a particular kind of evil and destructiveness, and importantly a particular kind of insanity. Those extremists who assert St. George’s Day as a form of ethnic chauvinism are actually not identified as St. George, but as the Dragon, the force of hatred, of division and ultimately of destruction. As the Christian Muslim Forum and its partners have correctly identified, the dragons of the modern era are hatred and intolerance.  Today it is time to reclaim the real St. George as the symbol of unity across peoples that he truly is. But, equally, the time has come to save St. George from the Dragon.

 

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