Today we celebrate a saint that is arguably the most famous symbol in the church, maybe even more beloved than Old Saint Nick, in his strong cultural significance as the patron saint of the Irish nation and diaspora worldwide. Saint Patrick’s boundary crossing appeal has us thinking about the place of “place” in God’s Kingdom.
Shalom and the Community of Creation by Randy S. Woodley, is a work in which he writes about place, reflecting on Indigenous perspective in conjunction with accounts from the Hebrew scriptures, comparing these perspectives to that of the dominant culture in the US. He writes,
“Place-based thinking is a foreign concept to most settler peoples. […] The west lacks a theology of place, particularly as it relates to the indigenous (Host people) and immigrant people’s context […] the ancient Hebrew people thought similarly to other indigenes, and the Scriptures are replete with their references to place. Earthly images taken from the Genesis accounts of the garden of Eden are stories of real earth and real earthbound creation.
“In the Scriptures, these earthly places set the context for the life of all creation as it is intended to be, that is, in fellowship with the Creator. In Genesis chapter 2 the story is clear that the specific place called ‘Eden’ had a divine purpose: namely, it was the context for all creation to dwell together in shalom with their creator. Beyond the garden of Eden are the stories of many other physical places, each with a similar purpose of discovering God in a particular place and learning how to best live in a sacred way on that particular land. The background of stories like the garden of Eden, journeys beyond Babel, and Abraham’s journey probably informed much of the rabbi Paul’s understanding of ‘the nations’ or ethne when he said, ‘His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him — though he is not far from any one of us’ (Acts 17.27).
Thus, as Woodley offers, continuing with this definition:
“Place is primarily a relational concept. When the Creator made our world, he was creating the place for the relationship between God and all of creation. From that relational place on the earth comes a model of contextualization. God always gives the good news of the welcoming desire for relationship in a particular place (meaning both a physical place and all its cultural accompaniments). We can more easily share God’s story as we contextualize the good news to a regional, local, and cultural place.” (135)
Geographers differentiate a place from a space with this very relational model; a space is an abstraction but people live in places– a place is always in relation to the tangle of peoples, cultures, and meanings emplaced within it. Places are messy because relationships are messy; they break down, they come into conflict, they become bounded and exclusionary.
At least, that is how many of us experience “place.” Randy goes on to write about how indigenous thought has always emphasized “God’s love in terms of place,” which is one of those re-learnings that cuts straight to the bone: we cannot think about relationships to place without thinking about relationships to land–land conquered, land stolen, land parceled out and protected by the violence of the gun and the passport.
I’ve been thinking a lot about land, either directly or indirectly. In the past few years, I’ve been trying to catch up on the history of Puerto Rico, which is a piece of land that has been fought over for hundreds of years, ever since European explorers discovered it and its rich resources. This piece of land is important to me, because it is where half of my family comes from. I feel deeply for it, because the people of this archipelago have lacked self-determination for hundreds of years, and currently, the old story of conquerors trying to determine the status of their land commodity is repeating itself, with some government leadership clamoring for statehood, induction to the “official” United States.
In 2015, I picked up an infamous book, A People’s History of the United States. I’m not sure what prompted this; I didn’t even know much of the history I had been taught favored telling one narrative over the other. I read about one-third, became angry, and sad, and I still haven’t finished it, but it started me on a journey of looking at historical events not from the place of the victors, or the dominant culture, but from a more marginalized perspective. This has connected with getting into the history of Puerto Rico from the time of Columbus and learning about the Taino, learning from ecotheologians, and my current endeavor is learning through the book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. In the introduction to her book, she sums up the history of the United States of America as a story about land. Here, in the US, there is a history of using the land for gain and profit: starting wars, cutting down trees, digging for oil and coal – dominating the land, bending it to the will of the empire.
That spirit of empire has been around since the dawn of time. Even the Church has been in that spirit. The Church’s use of force and domination to establish God’s Kingdom on earth should give us pause and make us weep. It has caused suffering to every aspect of God’s creation: even the earth itself cries out. Here, in the US, the church at large has an ugly history of using the name of God to commit unspeakable atrocities: trafficking African human bodies in the names of otherness and profit, separating Indigenous children from their families, conquering and corralling Indigenous people to claim the great destiny of the United States of America…and in the worldly endeavor of acquiring more land, the Church has facilitated a separation of people from land.
The earth, the land weeps. Climate change isn’t much of a question anymore, and it is intertwined with other systemic oppression. It could be argued that our separation from the land in these United States, in the spirit of domination, with the myopic goal of gain, at the cost of living things, has caused this suffering. We have started and continued wars because of certain commodities yielded from different lands. When and how does it end?
Most of us are familiar with the legend of St. Patrick, how he was kidnapped from his home in Britain and taken to Ireland, how he escaped back home, and then returned to Ireland as a missionary, responsible for the conversion of many Irish polytheists. He is often credited with being the first to bring Christianity to Ireland. But there is another story, one that says Ireland knew Christianity even before St. Patrick arrived on the scene, a story that says that Christianity came to Ireland by way of North Africa. And it didn’t come through force, like the force that was born of Emperor Constantine’s conversion, making Christianity the religion of the empire, and spreading through colonization, conquering land and people in the name of Christ.
There’s a metaphor here for Christian life: in many ways, we are to go out and “convert” this world–to challenge it, to call it to repent and turn to the Lord. And yet, just like Patrick of Ireland, we may venture out into a world where Christ is already present. We may be so caught up in our culture wars that we end up on the wrong side of that line–the side where Christ is not.
Just as there is more than one legend about historical St. Patrick, and more than one reading of St. Patrick’s mission to Ireland, today St. Patrick is presented with different faces. On the one hand, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the middle of Lent, a penitential season, with parties and parades, lots of green beer, dancing with St. Patrick the Leprechaun. On the other hand, St. Patrick is portrayed as the somber, great savior of the Irish people.
St. Patrick himself resisted worldly systems in his mission to Ireland. He laid aside wealth and status, gave to the poor, and avoided the use of force to convert more Irish folk to Christianity, instead incorporating symbols and customs they were already familiar with. He partnered with the Irish people to spread the good news of Christ.
If Christ didn’t regard his status as a thing to wield to any advantage, if he warned against relying on weapons and riches, if he healed the sick, and fed the hungry, bringing good news of God’s kingdom, what does that mean for us as his followers? What would rejecting worldly systems have looked like in our own context? If, instead of using domination and violence to carve out a space in a land already occupied, we strove to learn and speak a language already being used? What would our land look like if we paid attention? What if we welcomed and actually included the other in our midst? What would it look like to resist the temptation of profit above all and to partner for the wellbeing of all living things?
Text by Sabrina Reyes-Peters and Jad Baaklini
Watch the full episode below, featuring artwork by Corinne Arnold.
Be sure to also watch SANCTUS IV, featuring a reflection on holiness and blessing by Bishop Greg, at this link.