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The complexity of St Patrick's Day

Charis Weathers

On my Facebook feed there are many, many posts about today being St Patrick's Day. Green-colored profile pics, wishes for a good day, plans for tonight, poem sharing, and a few that offer cautions. 

Christmas has loose ties to St Nicholas, but St Patrick's Day is about the only day in the Western world where we have such a big event connected to a specific saint. St Patrick's Day is famous for parades (we even have one here in Irish-lite Bellingham), green beer, green rivers, Irish accents, four-leaf clovers, leprechauns, and funny hats. 

Many people know a little bit about St Patrick: he was some regular 5th-century, British-born Roman teenager who was kidnapped by Irish bandits and served as a slave shepherd for years. That is, until he made a daring, courageous escape and eventually made it back home with great difficulty. While he was a shepherd slave he spent a lot of time in prayer and gave his heart to God. A few years later he had a vision of Irish people beckoning him to return, to which he responds by becoming a missionary to the land of his enslavement. According to legend Patrick is attributed with converting many of the wealthy and powerful in Ireland, forever changing the way of life for this island.

That's the story, and it's a good one even though there are a lot of sketchy and missing details. In light of the story, it's hard not to wonder what St Patrick would think about our modern-day recognition of his day? The fact that he even has a day is remarkable enough (there are loads of interesting, self-sacraficing missionaries in our history), but the traditions that we celebrate don't exactly match with the efforts and life of the man himself, do they?

Two Facebook posts of note today mention the darker side of Ireland and St Patrick's story. In one, my friend Michael Lee recounts the memoir Angela's Ashes along with a caution that our modern celebrations of March 17th are soaked in drunken, abusive masculinity. This poster is not drinking tonight. He writes, "Today, perhaps it would be better to celebrate the heroic actions and lives of the women of Ireland and the children, the sometimes-quiet suffering of family life with an alcoholic leak in the income stream, to standing up to those in power with only words, your wits, and a will to somehow survive. I think I'll leave the bottles on the shelf and in the store today, sorry Family Guinness and Jameson." I thankful for this thoughtful, challenging critique.

The other post is a blog by Roger Wolsey (whom I do not know personally, but certainly appreciate!), in which he highlights Patrick's history as a slave. Wolsey note that there are more slaves today than there were at the peak of the U.S. slave trade in the 1800s. Encouraging his readers to honor St Patrick by working toward ending slavery (link for specific donation-worthy agencies), he sees larger opportunities in this festive day than green beer and poorly-done Irish accents. After watching a phenomenal TED talk with Echoes last month on the topic of our current justice system, it's clear that we've got a whole lot of opportunities for change within our own race-penalizing sentencing systems, not to mention our neck-deep issues with sex-trafficking (did you see how high Seattle recently rated in this industry??). If Patrick was about holistic freedom (spiritually, physically, etc.), then could there be a better way to recognize his work then seeking ways to bring freedom to those who are captive and oppressed?

I'm grateful for these reflective voices today. While I plan to enjoy our first-ever game night tonight with Echoes, I'm also looking forward to some discussion regarding who Patrick really was and how we can be bearers of freedom, too.