Patrick – an ancient voice against slavery

Recent figures estimate that there are about 46 million slaves in the world today. The Global Slavery Index says that slavery exists in 167 countries. India has the highest number of slaves and North Korea the highest percentage of slaves per capita.

One oft overlooked aspect of St Patrick’s legacy is that he was one of the very first voices of the post-biblical Christian world protesting against slavery. (It would be an interesting piece of research to trace the development of Christian opposition to slavery. I’m sure it exists).

slaveryHis Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus can be read at the Irish Academy website. In it, Patrick tells the story of how the soldiers has brutally attacked a group of new baptised Christians, killing many and kidnapping others to sell on to ‘apostate Scots and Picts.’

Patrick had a letter delivered to the soldiers, asking for the return of the prisoners. The soldiers scoffed at his request.

Several things stand out from Patrick’s letter.

First, rather than stand idly by, he gets involved. He does so out a moral obligation to stand up for those with whom he is ministering.

I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel, even in persecutions which are no small matter, to the very ends of the earth. This is despite the malice of the Enemy through the tyranny of Coroticus, who respects neither God, nor his priests

He is willing to confront Coroticus and asks for help from others in doing so.

I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it in no way be withdrawn or hidden from any person. Quite the opposite – let it be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself.

How might Patrick’s actions be a challenge for us today to get involved for slaves who cannot act for themselves?  Organisations like IJM and Tearfund act on the behalf of slaves. Maybe the best way we can celebrate St Patrick’s day is to give to their work.

Second, as a pastor and a leader he grieves with those impacted by violence and injustice.

That is why I will cry aloud with sadness and grief: O my fairest and most loving brothers and sisters whom I begot without number in Christ, what am I to do for you?… I grieve for you who are so very dear to me.

How does Patrick’s compassion for victims speak to us today?

Third, he begins to articulate a theological critique of slavery. It takes this form:

  • No-one has a right to enslave another human being for whom Christ “died and was crucified.”
  • It matters how wealth is made.

    Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach.

  • God will judge those who act unjustly. Violence will reap its reward

So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord.

  • In contrast, Christians can have hope even beyond brutal injustice and death.

This unspeakably horrifying crime has been carried out. But, thanks to God, you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. I see you clearly: you have begun your journey to where there is no night, nor sorrow, nor death, any more.Rather, you leap for joy, like calves set free from chains, and you tread down the wicked, and they will be like ashes under your feet.

And, remarkably, but in authentic Jesus fashion, he even holds out the offer of forgiveness to Coroticus and his men if they repent and release the captives. It seems as if they were at least nominally Christian. God’s grace is available to all, but it needs a response of faith and a turning to a new life.

However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptised women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity.

This is a remarkably rich Christian response to injustice and slavery within a short letter from the 5th Century. Part of this may be because Patrick was, of course, a slave himself. He knew first hand what it was to be torn away from his home and family and trafficked to a foreign land. Indeed, Patrick is the only person we know of in the 5th century who was enslaved and lived to tell the tale.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

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