St. Patrick’s Legacy for Social Justice Today

St. Patrick’s Day has become an excuse for people of Irish (and not-so-Irish) descent to drink beer, eat corned beef and potatoes, and dye everything green that can be dyed. But the true story of St. Patrick is quite the opposite of the drunken party the day celebrating him has become. It’s a story of a young boy kidnapped into slavery, his daring escape from his traffickers, and a lifetime spent trying to help the same people who held him captive for years. It’s a story which has a powerful message for all people fighting for social justice today.

The man who grew up to become St. Patrick was born in Great Britain at the end of the 4th century, A.D. His parents were wealthy, and he had a very comfortable and safe childhood. However, when he was just 16 years old, all that ended. He was kidnapped from his home by men who, today, would have been called human traffickers. They were in the business of taking young boys from England to nearby Ireland to force them to work as shepherds. That’s exactly what they did to Patrick. He was enslaved in Ireland for six years, forced every day to tend and care for sheep without pay. He wasn’t permitted to contact his family, and he wasn’t allowed to leave. Patrick’s experience, even though it happened over a thousand years ago, was not terribly unlike the experiences of modern-day slaves.

According to legend, Patrick began hearing voices in his head which told him to escape captivity and go home to his family. Having experienced a deep conversion to Christianity during the years he was a slave, Patrick felt these voices were a message from God. And so, without really knowing where he was or how he was going to get home, Patrick slipped away from his traffickers in the night. He managed to find his way to a port and board a ship headed back to Great Britain. He returned to his family a grown man, a survivor of slavery who had escaped against the odds, and a man with a vision for his life.

Despite having been held hostage there, Patrick was determined to return to Ireland and preach Christianity to the very men who kidnapped him, brought him to a foreign country, and held him as a slave. And he did just that. The legends of his life after returning to Ireland abound — that he drove out all the snakes, that he is responsible for making the shamrock a symbol of Ireland, etc. But even though the details of St. Patrick’s life and work may be lost to history, what his story represents is very much active today. St. Patrick’s story is one of triumph over slavery, and somewhat astoundingly, the forgiveness of his slaveholders.

St. Patrick believed that anyone could change. He believed that a young boy kidnapped and trafficked to a far off land could one day become a great preacher and leader. He believed that the men who captured him should be forgiven their mistakes and could convert to Christianity. He believed that no country, no group of people, no person was past saving or serving — he did both in Ireland. That’s the legacy St. Patrick leaves for those of us committed to social justice. It’s a legacy of hope.

When we feel bogged down, disheartened, and crushed by the enormity of the change we want to make in the world, let’s remember St. Patrick. Let’s remember a frightened, enslaved boy who grew up to become a brave and compassionate man. Let’s remember a spirit committed to overcoming the challenges of life and improving the lives of those around him. Let’s remember that we too have that capacity — to forgive, to serve, and to change the world we live in.

Photo credit: ralpe


Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 12:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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