Every spring semester I ask my graduate students if they know anything about St. Patrick, and every year I learn that they know little to nothing about him. Of course, this finding reinforces my view that every set of Christian general education requirements should include church history (even more than national history). After all, if our fundamental shared identity and story involves being part of the body of Christ, it is more important for Christians to know that story than the story of one’s nation. Unfortunately, in one of my past studies, I found less than a dozen Christian universities require church history for their general education (but the majority did require American history).1
We need to know the heroes/saints of the church’s story to learn how their thinking and actions differ from our own. In doing so, we develop what I like to call Christian creative, critical, and redemptive thinking (critical thinking is too narrow and limited a skill for Christians and Christian universities to pursue). In a day and age when students are habituated to look for external injustices about which to protest—often before asking what God may be teaching them or doing through those external injustices—St. Patrick’s story is particularly important.
Patrick viewed his life and past oppression through a theological lens. Kidnapped away from his homeland at the age of sixteen, Patrick recognized the injustice done to him as part of God’s judgment: “We deserved our fate because we had turned our backs on God and did not obey his commandments. We did not listen to our priests who warned us about our salvation. And the Lord overwhelmed us with the anger of his spirit and scattered us among many nations even to the end of the earth.”2 Humorously, Patrick thought Ireland was the “end of the earth” compared to his home in what is now England. Later, he would describe himself before his kidnapping as “a stone stuck in mud.” I venture that Patrick perhaps did rage against God initially for this injustice, something we often do, but he thought differently in hindsight in light of God’s redemptive story.3
Patrick’s response was typical during the first 1900 years of the church. These kinds of oppressive events or natural disasters were interrogated as to whether they were or were not God’s judgment upon wayward souls (e.g., see Robinson Crusoe). Like the fictional Crusoe, Patrick also viewed these events within God’s love story, seeing his predicament as a means of his salvation. He reflected “And in Ireland, the Lord opened my understanding about my unbelief so that although it was late I might become aware of my sinful ways and turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God” (17-18).
Now, the story of Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question about why a man was blind from birth demonstrates that not all misfortune should simply be attributed to sin and God’s judgment (John 9:1-5). Moreover, the Bible indicates that some oppression simply comes from injustice by those with power (e.g., the Israelites in Egypt). Yet, it is fair to ask ourselves—and our students—if we have lost the propensity even to wonder if misfortune or the allowance of oppression might be part of (or in part) God’s judgment. If the Old Testament prophets reveal anything, it is that some injustice by those in power may also be a part of God’s judgment (e.g., the Israelites taken into Babylonian captivity). We perhaps need to ask God which one it is when oppression by those in power happens in our lives or the lives of those in our tribe. That being said, these are dangerous waters, and I know of horrific victim blaming disguised as wonder about God’s judgment. We need Christian wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit when sorting through these issues and not super-spiritual victim blaming.
Most importantly, these questions should be asked by the person experiencing oppression and disaster rather than outsiders (e.g., Job). Both my wife and I have spent a year in bed at different times in our lives for health reasons. We didn’t need people asking about whether it was God’s possible judgment, but both of us did ask God what He was trying to teach us (particularly something we had missed in our healthier days).4
Of course, Patrick did not think his oppression was so spiritually beneficial that he stayed in it (and neither did the Israelites in Babylon). Six years later, he fled from it after being told in a dream by God, “Behold your ship is ready.” Soon afterward, he ran away “with courage from God, who guided my way toward good. I feared nothing—until I came to the ship” (22). Patrick’s salvation from oppression turned him outward toward others instead of inward. He recalled in his “Confessions,” “God made me what I am today, someone far different than I was then so that I might work for the care and salvation of others. At that time, I didn’t even care about myself” (26).
God later called Patrick to return to Ireland, the place he was enslaved for six years, to make disciples. He shared how most people did not understand his desire to return to his oppressors. They asked, “Why does this man put himself in danger among those barbarians who do not know God?” A rational, critical question but one that is not guided by redemptive thinking and purpose. He responded simply that he had no purpose in returning to Ireland other than “to preach the gospel and the promises of God” (36). He loved his former oppressors, his enemies, so much that he wanted to save them.
He was also motivated in particular by his gratitude to God and his faith. Throughout his “Confessions,” one finds passages demonstrating his gratitude to God. He also summarized his response succinctly near the end, “I will give back what is due to him because of all that he has done for me. But what can I say or give my Lord since everything I have is a gift from him?” (35). He answered that question by recalling how he has given his life in faith for the salvation of the Irish. “Every day I expect to be murdered, kidnapped, made a slave, or something else. But I am not afraid of any of these things because of the promise of heaven. I have placed my hands in the almighty God who rules everywhere” (p. 35). Our students will find Patrick a worthy example of so many of the Christian virtues and theological ways of seeing the world that we wish to teach. May we educate them about his story on St. Patrick’s Day.
- Perry L. Glanzer and Todd Ream, “Whose Story? Which Identity? Fostering Christian Identity at Christian Colleges and Universities,” Christian Scholar’s Review 35 (2005): 13-27.
- All references to St. Patrick’s “Confessions” come from Patrick Freeman, ed., The World of St. Patrick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). The page for this quote is p. 17.
- Perry L. Glanzer, “Learning while the World is Burning: Even in Times of Crisis Learning Is Never a Waste,” Christianity Today 64, no. 6 (September 2020): 52-56.
- Glanzer, “Learning while the World is Burning.”