Reclaiming St. Patrick's Day
If you've ever read an article about St. Patrick's Day, it probably talked about how little the celebration has to do with the actual Patrick.
I, for one, have grown tired of the annual rehashing of how he didn't really drive the snakes from Ireland and didn't really use the shamrock to explain the Trinity.
Still, it's worth pondering for a moment why we celebrate St. Patrick's Day far more than, say, St. Augustine's Day or St. Athanasius's Day, even though those two men probably had more influence in shaping Christianity across the world. Put simply, it's because Patrick didn't shape Christianity across the world—at least directly. (Though one can argue that his work in shaping Irish Christianity later bore fruit that would affect the faith through the ages.) He's a large but local figure. And, to over-simplify a bit, it was mostly Irish Americans rather than Irish Irish who made the day a festival of national pride.
Ironically, the socio-political meanings of St. Patrick's Day—a pushback against anti-immigrant sentiment and a protest of British rule—have now been as lost in the bacchanal as the historical Patrick, if not more so.
Imagine for a moment that we "took back" St. Patrick's Day. The groups that launch "Defend Christmas" campaigns every year could have a second market here. The question is, What would St. Patrick's Day be about, if not nationalism and booze? Some ideas:
1. Fighting human trafficking
It's hard to think of a social justice issue that's hotter for evangelical Christians right now than human trafficking. The historical figure most commonly hailed for his work in this area is William Wilberforce, but Patrick could make a strong candidate. Of his two extant writings, one tells the story of his abduction, slavery, and escape, and the other is a letter excommunicating soldiers for a slave raid that captured several new converts and sold them to pagan Scotti and Picts.
"It would take too long to … sift through the whole of the Law for precise witness against such greed," Patrick wrote in Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. "Sufficient to say, greed is a deadly deed. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods. You shall not murder. A homicide may not stand beside Christ. Even 'He who bates his brother is to be labeled murderer.' Or, 'He who does not love his brother dwells in death.' therefore how much more guilty is he, who has stained his own hands in the blood of the sons of God, those very children whom only just now he has won for himself in this distant land by means of our feeble encouragement. … Roman Christians in Gaul behave quite differently: it is their custom to send holy, capable men to the Franks and other nations with several thousand soldiers so as to redeem Christian prisoners, yet YOU would rather kill or sell them on to a far-off tribe who know nothing of the true God. You might as well consign Christ's own members to a whorehouse. What kind of hope can you have left in God?"
Patrick's letter is important not just for its condemnation of the slavers, but for its call for all Christians to be part of rejecting fellowship with those involved: "I beseech especially you 'holy and humble in heart,' that it is unlawful to flatter men like these, nor should you eat or drink in their company, neither should anyone feel any obligation to receive alms from such men … My chief request is that anyone who is a servant of God be ready and willing, to carry this letter forward."
Such a call not to eat or drink in the company of slavers could no doubt be taken up by those fighting against child slavery in the chocolate trade, for example.