A Word From Saint Patrick (on slavery)

It would be comfortable to think of slavery as something belonging to the ancient world of Greece or Rome. But of course such comfort would be illusionary.

The global slavery Index says this

An estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children were victims of modern slavery on any given day in 2016. Of these, 24.9 million people were in forced labour and 15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage. Women and girls are vastly over-represented, making up 71 percent of victims. Modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by the Asia and the Pacific region.

Although these are the most reliable estimates of modern slavery to date, we know they are conservative as significant gaps in data remain. The current Global Estimates do not cover all forms of modern slavery; for example, organ trafficking, child soldiers, or child marriage that could also constitute forced marriage are not able to be adequately measured at this time. Further, at a broad regional level there is high confidence in the estimates in all but one of the five regions. Estimates of modern slavery in the Arab States are affected by substantial gaps in the available data. Given this is a region that hosts 17.6 million migrant workers, representing more than one-tenth of all migrant workers in the world and one in three workers in the Arab States, and one in which forced marriage is reportedly widespread, the current estimate is undoubtedly a significant underestimate.

On those last few sentences about the Arab States see this related post.

Which brings us to Saint Patrick’s remarkable, courageous and still relevant words against the great moral wrong of slavery in his Letter to Coroticus. He was a soldier whose men had kidnapped Christians from Ireland. His crimes and those of his men are described In Patrick’s words

I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts. They are blood-stained: blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ …

… the evil-minded Coroticus. He is far from the love of God, who betrays Christians into the hands of Scots and Picts.

… The newly baptised and anointed were dressed in white robes; the anointing was still to be seen clearly on their foreheads when they were cruelly slain and sacrificed by the sword of the ones I referred to above.

… father-slayers, brother-slayers, they are savage wolves devouring the people of God as they would bread for food

… Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach … And: ‘What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and yet suffer the loss of his or her soul?

Avarice is a deadly crime … How much more guilty is the one who stained his hands in the blood of the children of God, who God only lately acquired in the most distant parts of the earth through the encouragement of one as unimportant as I am!

… They have filled their homes with what they stole from dead Christians; they live on what they plundered. These wretched people don’t realise that they offer deadly poison as food to their friends and children.

You [soldiers of Coroticus] … kill them, and sell them to foreign peoples who have no knowledge of God. You hand over the members of Christ as it were to a brothel

… those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom

Patrick’s letter brims over with tears of grief. He was a pastor who deeply loved his flock.

Patrick’s stance against the evils of slavery is founded on his Christian faith. If all men and women are made in the image of God, then no person has a right to enslave another. Life is a gift from God, not a product to be used for personal or financial gain.

That stance was not just detached sermonising. He and his flock were in personal danger. He had no fear of confronting evil. At the end of his letter he says this about his letter:

let it be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself. If this takes place, God may inspire them to come back to their right senses before God.

In his love for the vulnerable, in his fearless confrontation of the evils of slavery, in his diagnosis of slavery as greed, in his theological revulsion against using a fellow human being as a tool to be stolen, sold or mistreated, and in his personal courage to say what needed to be said, Patrick’s is a voice that continues to speak powerfully to one of the great moral wrongs of the 21st century world.