Imagine the following true story and place yourself in it.
You are kidnapped sometime in your teenage years. Hauled in chains to a different country, you are sent to work in hard and dangerous labor – slave labor. Much of your time is spent alone, without shelter, in great deprivation. Finally, in what seems like a miracle of the Holy Spirit’s leading, you manage to escape the slavery you have experienced. After walking miles upon miles, you are finally able to talk your way aboard a ship that will take you back to your homeland and freedom. In the embrace of family, you steadily heal, until years later. the Holy Spirit compels you on a life-long journey of virtually unimaginable sacrifice in the land of your captors.
Behind the silliness of the wearing of the green, the swilling of green beer, and the march of parades on St. Patrick’s Day lies the truth of the story of Saint Patrick. While I suspect most of us would return home from kidnapped slavery to a period of anger infused revulsion, Patrick heard the Holy Spirit speaking to him in a dream. “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
Rather than rejecting the call of God, he returned to the very people that had enslaved him to offer Christ and the way to true freedom. In a day in which many are struggling for justice for those who are or have been oppressed on multiple fronts, it is important that we recapture the essence of a true Christian saint.
Somewhere in my memory, I recall the great theologian Karl Barth remaking that a “saint is a disturbed sinner.” Patrick was certainly disturbed. He was disturbed by the Holy Spirit. In his book Confession, St. Patrick writes,
“Believe me, I didn’t go to Ireland willingly that first time [when he was taken as a slave] – I almost died there. But it turned out to be good for me in the end, because God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care for others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.” – St. Patrick, Confession
We Are All Children of God and Christ Died for Us All
There is more to the tale and much that applies to our day and time. Three ethical issues that crowd the headlines of our day challenge our Christian response. The first deals with the ongoing quest for a societal justice and a rule of law that applies equally to all. Put bluntly, black lives matter every bit as much as white lives. The racism of our day and time calls for both confession and holy action. Secondly, the violence against Asian-Americans is a scourge on the character of our country. Christians believe Christ died for all and, out of that belief, reject scapegoating and bigotry fueled violence. Thirdly, while we may well be confused about how best to address the issue of immigrants and especially the children flocking to our southern border, it is important to remember an uncomfortable truth - these too are children of God. St. Patrick was himself an enslaved abandoned child trying to reach safety. It is past time for a thoughtful and compassionate response.
In the face of these three issues, I turn once again to the example of St. Patrick. In an arresting article, Steve Beard writes of the deeper Christian ethic and theology of Patrick.
“While there are many beautiful, miraculous, and fantastical stories about St. Patrick, his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus – the other document authentically written by Patrick – exposes his heart and soul. It portrays the character of a man worthy of emulation and celebration. His humility, empathy, and righteous indignation scorches the letter as he takes up the cause of the voiceless captives and powerless victims of slavery – a common practice in the fifth century.” (Steve Beard, The Real St. Patrick - Good News Magazine March 17, 2021)
Did you know that Patrick was a champion in the fight against slavery? St. Patrick reflected on his own life in a most unusual way and yet in a way that begs our attention as followers of Christ. “Was it my idea to feel God’s love for the Irish and to work for their good?” Patrick writes. “These people enslaved me and devastated my father’s household! I am of noble birth – the son of a Roman decurion – but I sold my nobility. I’m not ashamed of it and I don’t regret it because I did it to help others. Now I am a slave of Christ to a foreign people – but this time for the unspeakable glory of eternal life in Christ Jesus our master.” (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus)
It has been over a decade since I read Thomas Cahill’s marvelous book How the Irish Saved Civilization. Steve Beard’s article reminded me of how excellent it is. “The greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery,” writes historian Thomas Cahill. “Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century.”
It is time again for a green response to injustice. It is time again to be inspirited by the real St. Patrick. It is written, “Patrick offered himself as a living example of what new life could look like for the Irish.” I think he offers us a glimpse of what life can be like for us here in our own land. This is the Christian witness that calls to remember and work for a world where all lives matter, not just those of privilege or the “right” race, or those who through no merit of their own were both to relative wealth and position. This “Saint” calls us to be better men and women as followers of Christ.