George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Why Flying a St George’s Flag Shouldn’t Make You Feel Like A Racist (Even though it does)

St Patrick’s Day is a cheerful, boozy affair, full of Guinness and good will. St David’s Day is a jolly day too, with its curious blend of daffodils, leeks and red dragons. St Andrew seems to have been usurped by Rabbie Burns and Hogmanay. Fair enough. But the Scots have their day. Two, in fact.

Pic via Flickr
But what about the English? How should they celebrate their national day? Obvious traditions would be gathering around Nelson’s Column – or makeshift versions of the same in town squares up and down the land – singing ‘Jerusalem’ by Blake and then ‘Vindaloo’ by Fat Les before someone reads out Henry V’s Agincourt speech, a claim is made on behalf of the Crown for the French throne and the Tricolour is solemnly set on fire. (Come on, would it kill the French to at least hand back Calais?) Then it’s all down to the local pub to watch a big-screen football match in which England lose to Germany on penalties.

Instead the English are far more comfortable playing it down, and worrying about whether flying a St George flag will cause offence. The flag makes some uncomfortable as it has those ‘Eng-er-land’ nationalistic overtones. But then, isn’t that what you’d want on your national day? Apparently not. The problem is that St George’s flag has other associations: that of a crusading knight.

All of this is beautifully riddled with irony upon irony which is convenient given that quietly appreciating irony is a popular English pastime. One irony, though, is that irony is now used to denote something that technically isn’t irony. But we digress. There is irony all over the St George’s Flag/Englishness debate.

Irony One is that England has produced a number of fine Christian men who would make more suitable Patron saints than St George – who is not even English. Should George have to re-apply for his own job, he might not even get an interview. Aquinas and Anselm who would surely be on the shortlist (with Edward the Confessor and Thomas a Becket on the long list).

Irony Two is that England has been a Protestant country for nearly five hundred years – so we don’t really do canonisation and saints. In the Protestant denomination, all Christians are considered saints, since this is how the New Testament most commonly uses the term. So all English Christians could lay claim to being an English saint. This would fit well with the times. Just as Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2006 was ‘You’, what better way for a self-obsessed, narcissistic population to celebrate itself than by making ‘Everyone’ a patron saint of England 2.0? Wow, just typing that makes me feel slightly unwell.

Irony Three is that St George famously slew a dragon. Dragons, it hardly needs saying, no longer exist. And this seems unlikely to be St George’s fault. There is no evidence that he hunted them to extinction, not least because dragons have never existed. Irony Three Subsection One is that the dragon is the symbol of the Welsh, so right away the English have a saint who is crassly offensive to neighbouring inhab- itants of their own island.

Irony Four is that St George’s flag has associations with crusaders. Crusades were, of course, launched against the Turks and St George was probably Turkish. How fitting that England has a patron saint who is primarily in conflict with himself.

So can we fly the flag of St George for a day without being considered a White Van Man – or one of those people who say things like ‘It’s not racist for wanting preferential treatment for the British’ when that is, in fact, a good working definition of racism? What is a Christian response to this dilemma, given that Christians are citizens of heaven – where there will be people of every nation, tribe and tongue?

What’s the real issue here? It’s the same issue that’s behind why at every sporting contest the Scots will support anyone against the English. The English have traditionally been the dominant power within Britain, asserting themselves over the Welsh, the Scots and particularly the Irish, sometimes with shameful brutality. What’s more, the English, as the dominant power within Britain, have flexed their muscles all over the world. Less than a hundred years ago, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s land and population; 458 million were under the Union Jack – which, at the centre, has St George’s Cross.

How we respond to this dilemma rather depends on your attitude to power. And St George is a brilliant example of how Christians should behave in positions of power. He was a Roman soldier, probably a tribune, and as such must have felt unstoppable. But he was a Christian. And when an edict came that all Christians in the army should offer a sacrifice to pagan Gods, he didn’t hold onto that power. He gave it up and was executed. Does that sound like anyone else? (Hint: His name begins with ‘J’.) The flag of St George may be associated with intolerant military strength but there is also a wonderful blood-red, cross-shaped streak of Christian humility.

This article - along with many others like it - can be found in James Cary's book Death by Civilisation available in Paperback and for Kindle

1 comment:

  1. ‘It’s not racist for wanting preferential treatment for the British’. Quite right. It's nationalist. Just as UKIP's new posters are also not racist (which race is being attacked?), although they could be accused of being xenophobic. And suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists is also not racist, because "Muslim" is not a race. Not sure what the word would be there, actually. "Religionist"? (Or simply "wrong" :-). Of course, things do get a bit more complicated when you talk about Jews, because "Jew" can be either or both of an ethnic and a religious description. But that's not true generally.

    "Racist" is not a general term for people who want different treatment for different groups of people. I think we should avoid diluting it in that way.


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