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by Jennifer Wright
St. Patrick’s Day is a special day for many, although in this country, it is not generally considered a day for spiritual reflection and prayer. But today, I want to reflect upon the life and teachings of Patrick and how they apply to the challenges facing us today. Most of my information about Patrick in this reflection comes from How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill (a book I highly recommend).
Patrick was a Romanized Briton, living a fairly middle-class life as a teenager, until he was kidnapped by slavers and taken to Ireland to be a shepherd. He lived a terrible life for many years as a slave, but his sufferings served to turn him toward God. Finally, he was saved miraculously from slavery and returned to his home in Britain. After being ordained priest and bishop, Patrick followed God’s call and returned to Ireland, the land of his torment. He adopted the Irish as his own, bringing them to Christ and working for their well-being with great love all his life.
According to Cahill, Patrick was “. . . the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.” His leadership and teaching led to the end of the slave trade in Ireland. He spoke out powerfully against supposedly Christian kings who raided his people and sold them into slavery, with “. . . the chrism still fragrant on their foreheads.”
"In sadness and grief, shall I cry aloud. O most lovely and loving brethren and sons whom I have begotten in Christ (I cannot number them), what shall I do for you? I am not worthy to come to the aid of either God or men. The wickedness of the wicked has prevailed against us. We are become as it were strangers. Can it be that they do not believe that we have received one baptism or that we have one God and Father? Is it a shameful thing in their eyes that we have been born in Ireland?"
Patrick saw the world in a new way, different from the vision of most of his contemporaries. In the time of Patrick, the Irish were seen by Romanized cultures as barbarians, as basically at the level of animals. The world around him valued people differently depending on their cultural background and where they fit in the accepted hierarchy of worth. Patrick saw them all as his brothers and sisters, all of infinite value and equally beloved of God. He worked all his life to persuade and harangue the political and religious authorities of his day to let this radical view of the value and equality of all people shape and determine the actions and policies of nations and of the Church.
What does Patrick have to teach us today? I (like many people) have in this past year been reflecting much on the besetting sin of racism in our country and our world, and even sadly in our Church. After studying all the evidence that the color of a person’s skin has an enormous effect on their chances in life in America – their education, their medical care, their employment, their purchase of a home, their access to justice, and their likelihood of being killed for no reason, among many other things – I am convinced that our pervasive sin of racism must be confronted and defeated with the same love, compassion, and outrage that Patrick brought to the fight against slavery.
Patrick did not focus on condemning the individuals who engaged in the slave trade. He addressed the government and church institutions that made the slave trade possible and that profited from it. Similarly, we should not be focused on naming and blaming individuals as racist. We should be figuring out how to dismantle the systems that create racist outcomes. We must be motivated to do so, even when it means dismantling institutions and ways of living that are familiar and comfortable for those of us who experience the privileges of systemic racism. Patrick shows us where that motivation will come from – from truly loving and embracing everyone as our brothers and sisters, all of infinite worth and equally beloved of God. Then we will be unable to ignore or tolerate systems that do such terrible harm to our beloved brothers and sisters.
"Patrick prayed, made peace with God, and then looked not only into his own heart but into the hearts of others. What he saw convinced him of the bright side – that even slave traders can turn into liberators, even murderers can act as peacemakers, even barbarians can take their places among the nobility of heaven."
Amen and amen.
May it be so.