Following the path of St. Patrick
In the latest contribution to Books & Culture’s “Christian Vision Project,” entitled “The Patrick Paradox,” Dana L. Robert writes about the example of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland and a paragon of Christian mission. Her essay begins by noting that Patrick was born a Brit, but that his calling to Ireland led him to identify himself with the Irish, thus taking up their cause as his own. But his identity as a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ led him to an even more radical position grounded in Gal. 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Patrick recognized that the gospel relatives ethnic and cultural differences by subordinating them to Jesus Christ who unifies disparate peoples into the one people of God. Robert writes:
We can and should learn much from St. Patrick. He exemplifies a way beyond the ethnocentrism and nationalism that continues to plague Christianity all around the world. Patrick does not eschew ethnic identity altogether, but he properly subordinates it to his identity as a follower of Christ. Robert thus writes at the close of her essay: “Because Patrick risked becoming Irish, the Irish became Christians. Those who seek to witness to God's mission in our time must also cast aside their own ethnic prejudices, cultural particularities, political loyalties, and memories of past injustices, in radical identification with the ‘other.’” May we, too, cast aside our cultural, political, and national loyalties in order to identify radically and selflessly with others.
To be a Christian was to identify with a new "reference group"—the Christian family. Fellow baptized believers from whatever tribe or nation became one's new family and should be treated as such. Racial and ethnic differences melted away in light of the common relationship in Christ. Patrick's Letter to Coroticus demonstrated that the Christian ideals of brotherly love and identification in Christ could overcome tribalism. Not only did the missionary Patrick become Irish in solidarity with their suffering, but he was brother to all baptized Christians. The demands of Christian mission included denouncing sin and injustice at grave risk to himself. In its ideal form, incorporation into the "body of Christ" meant choosing a way of peace and reconciliation that overcame ethnic boundaries, and renouncing the killing, violence, and slavery of a warrior culture.