St. George is an unlikely candidate for “saint most likely to promote tolerance and ecumenical understanding” these days. The legendary soldier is most often pictured astride a gallant warhorse, nobly piercing a large dragon with his lance or spear while an appreciative townspeople and adoring (and rescued) princess stand aside in the background. It is the paradigmatic picture of the victory of good over evil and besides carring heavy moralistic and absolutist overtones, it glorifies in the death and punishment meted out at the the iron-gloved hand of the military saint.
The portrait of the historical soldier from which the legend sprang is no less noble nor authoritarian. St. George was a Roman soldier in the army of Emperor Diocletian and benefited greatly from the respect and friendship shown him by the emperor. The son of a Christian nobleman, George acquitted himself so bravely in the service of the emperor that he was made a Tribunus before his 30th birthday. George’s virtue, courage, and moral fiber earned him esteem in the eys of his soldiers and his emperor. That esteem and friendship, however, underwent a severe testing when Diocletian issued his famous edict demanding that Christian soldiers offer a sacrifice to the emperor or face imprisonment and death. George, a devout Christian, refused to submit to the demands of his patron-king and resisted the emperor to his face. Turning down offers for fabulous wealth and power, George delivered an honest and pointed speech to Diocletian in which he not only refused to obey the command, but he went on the offensive and demanded that Diocletian cease persecuting the Christians. George was summarily tortured and then executed for his defiance. He also was recognized as a saint by the Church.
Surely the story of St. George deserve some notice simply for the moral lesson: courage and integrity enlisted in the cause of goodness are brave and noble virtues. However, it seems that St. George is more than a model Boy Scout (though he is, apparently, the scout par excellence, and the patron of the Scouts organization). Not only is he the recognized saint of 16 nations, some of which are not exactly on friendly terms with each other, he is also honored and revered by Christians and Muslims alike. In his fascinating travelogue, From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple tells of the unusual “inter-faith” shrine to St. George where Jews, Christians, and Muslims gather to pray and seek aid from a common hero:
“I asked around in the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem, and discovered that [the shrine of St. George] was very much alive. With all the greatest shrines in the Christian world to choose from, it seemed that when the local Arab Christians had a problem – an illness, or something more complicated: a husband detained in an Israeli prison camp, for example – they preferred to seek the intercession of St George in his grubby little shrine at Beit Jala rather than praying at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
“I asked the priest at the shrine, ‘Do you get many Muslims coming here?’ The priest replied, ‘We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down.’”
Now, if we were to let modern secularism be our guide, a shrine to a man whose colors at one time led the Crusaders to battle in the Holy Land and whose appearances have encouraged more than one embattled national army to renew its efforts in armed struggle is hardly the man able to unite followers from some of the most violently opposed religious groups in the world together in prayer. After all, we are told, the only way to find tolerance and peace is to rid ourselves of the notion that universal truths and absolute morals exist; if we would simply acknowledge that everyone is right in his own way then all the wars and strife would cease and mankind would beat his swords into plowshares. What often passes unnoticed, however, is the fact that the secular mantra is simply one more competing truth claim in the market ideas, though it very deviously seeks to win the field, not by open argumentation, but by the poisonous suggestion that there is no battle to be fought. It seems St. George and the Christians and Muslims who honor him have a very different idea.
Rather than seeking peace through the deceptive eradication of all truth claims, St. George stands a shining example of a man who stood up for one particular truth, the Christian religion, in the face of an evil emperor and morally defunct paganism and earned the respect of friends and enemies alike. They may not agree on his religion or his truth claims, but they are agreed that such courage and honesty is to be revered. His example as dragon-slayer and martyr in the cause of truth provides better grounds for a tolerance that doesn’t rob disagreeing individuals of their exclusive beliefs and truth claims without a fair fight. Rather than ask men to give up on knowing the truth in exchange for peace, St. George suggests that tolerance and peace are to be found, not in the denial of truth, but in the dignified recognition of a worthy opponent that demands respect though not agreement.
The emulation of Georgian virtues, while not eradicating disagreements and wars, would go far in teaching us how to be noble and chivalrous warriors as we pursue the truth. There is a war to be fought and there are cosmic consequences to the outcome, but chivalrous tolerance keeps the warriors in check and ensure the battle is fair. And it might be that St. George’s example could keep us from seeking to undercut the righteous battle through subterfuge and deceit.