St Patrick Speaking Truth to Power – condemning Christian war and slavery
My country is the world, my religion is to do good. —The Rights of Man
This bread is the body of the cosmos. —Thich Nhat Hanh
Happy (belated) St Patrick’s Day!
Saint Patrick was an actual historical figure. He was born into a Christian family in Romanized Celtic Britain, during the last days of Britain’s centuries-long status as a very important province on the extreme frontier edge of the Roman Empire. (Patrick’s exact dates are uncertain, traditional historical records together with modern scholarly research indicate that he was born probably in 373 or 387 and died in either 461 or 493.)
Along with an estimated million or so other people living today, I am a co-lateral descendant of Patrick—in my case a nephew, 53 generations removed. That is, at least, if traditional genealogical records are accurate, according to which, intermarriage eventually took place between early descendants of at least two of Patrick’s several sisters, St Darerca and St Tigridia. One result is that St Patrick is thus an ancestral uncle to many persons living today–53 generations removed.
Although Saint Patrick is only one of many other Christian saints (including these two of his sisters!) who are among my own family’s ancestral forebears, he has always been one of our favorite “patrons.” This is not so much because we are related to him, however distantly, nor for all the typical lucky-charms kitschy folk cultural whiskey, snakes, and shamrocks and leprechaun sparkles sprinkled all around St Patrick’s cultus, but because of his unprecedented early historical stance against Christian rulers and military personnel who engaged in aggressive wars and torture, and against Christians in general condoning and practicing slavery, and for his practice of equality for women.
As papal-appointed missionary presiding bishop serving both Ireland as well as his own childhood homeland (the former Roman province of Britain), Patrick publicly denounced and excommunicated a local Christian king, Coroticus Rex aka Ceretic Guletic, ruler of a small coastal British and Irish state known as Aloo or Alt Clut.
Patrick not only publicly excommunicated and condemned this Christian king but also all the members of his Christian military as well. Their sin? Engaging in wars of terrorist aggression and in the various crimes and sins that accompany war: mass murder—including “collateral murder” of innocent civilians; abduction and torture—i.e. “extreme rendition”; beatings, rapes, and enslavement; robbery and destruction of property, culture, and the environment.
Like Saint Patrick, Coroticus Rex was a Christian from Romano-Celtic Britain. Following centuries of imperial rule, the Roman garrisons and administration had withdrawn from Britain around the time of Patrick’s childhood, beginning their gradual retreat in 383 and ending in 410. This left the fully Christian, fully Romanized population of the former imperial province to their own devices surrounded by often hostile pagan enemies–the pagan Scots of Northern Ireland and north west Britain, the former Christian but reverted pagan Picts of northern Britain (Scotland), the Hibernians of Ireland (some of whom were Christians, others pagans), the pagan Germanic Saxons, Jutes, and Angles, and the mostly still-pagan Franks of Gaul or France. Without the Roman apparatus of state in place, the large former province of Britain, the northernmost outpost of Roman civilization for centuries, quickly broke up into petty local kingdoms under the control of numerous Christian war-lords and their militias. These small kingdoms were similar to those prevailing in Ireland, north Britain (Scotland), and many other areas outside the Empire’s borders, among both Christian and pagan populations. Coroticus established himself as a regional king over an area combining and controlling part of the former Roman west coast of Britain and part of the north coast of Ireland.
Like other Christian and non-Christian rulers of his time (and ours!), Coroticus Rex maintained the wealth and power of his court and his state primarily by terrorism and war, threatening and invading other kingdoms, subjugating their populations through controlling and exploiting trade, imposing taxes and extorting bribes and “protection” money, and launching surprise military attacks resulting in wholesale murder, imprisonment, torture, and rape of old and young, of men, women, and children, beatings and armed robbery, destruction and damage to infrastructure, culture, and environment and,—most profitably of all,—through capturing and abducting citizens, mostly women and children, to be sold abroad as slaves.
In one such military terrorist raid by Coroticus, the British Christian king and his army of fellow British Christians attacked Patrick’s unprotected missionary community in Ireland, slaughtering most of the people they found there, and hustling away the survivors in chains to be beaten, raped, and sold into slavery in Britain and the continent. The king and his soldiers took whatever else of value they could cart away, and burned the peaceful religious settlement to the ground before departing.
In response, Patrick sent an envoy to the court of Coroticus, bearing a letter urging the king to return the victims he had taken away as slaves. Patrick’s request was met with derision. He then wrote a second letter, Epistola Ad Coroticum (“Letter to Coroticus and his Soldiers”), in which he condemned and excommunicated the Christian king and his entire Christian military. Patrick had this letter dispatched to Rome and distributed to other royal courts throughout Britain and Ireland, giving public notice that Coroticus and the members of his state terrorist Christian military were no longer under the protection of God, the pope, and the church, and were suspended from membership in the international Christian community.
Until well into modern times, Patrick’s Letter remained the earliest extant and indeed the only known historical document by any Christian religious or political leader of the first millennium condemning the practice of either or both slavery and wars of aggression along with their related atrocities as being both sins and crimes forbidden to Christians, and excommunicating those Christians—including political rulers and military personnel—who committed such acts of inhumane violence and ungodly evil. Christians who perpetrate war and slavery, Patrick wrote, were sons of Satan, not children of God.
Saint Patrick also, throughout his decades as a missionary bishop consistently treated women as equal (or nearly-equal) to men, and contrary to Roman custom placed communities of nuns under their own chosen women leaders (abbesses), and frequently placed these abbesses also in charge of “double” monastic communities that included monks as well as nuns and sometimes lay-families as well. The office of “abbess” in such cases was basically equivalent to that of bishop, and indeed was often more powerful, responsible, effective and respected.
Many earlier Christians, having understood their religion to be pacifist in nature, had gone to their death as “enemies of the state” for refusing to fight in wars or to be drafted for service in the military (this still occasionally occurs even today). By Patrick’s time, however, the retreating Roman empire and the expanding missionary church had already begun to blend to some extent, with the church more and more staunchly supporting the state (and its endless wars) and even taking on many of its political roles as sacred functions.
In 380 Emperor Theodosius I not only declared the version of Christianity as codified by the Nicene Council of 325 to be the sole official state church of the Roman Empire, his Edict of Thessalonica made it the Empire’s sole legal religion, outlawing on point of death any and all other religious teachings, practices and affiliations, including the many other variant forms of Christianity then existing in the Empire and beyond.
And while the collection of texts which came to be known as the New Testament had yet to be uniformly agreed upon, collated, codified, and finalized by the church, it was clear that from this point forward state-approved and state-imposed Christianity was now unambiguously a religion that was pro-Empire and thus also pro-war and pro-slavery. From this point forward the state military and the entire apparatus of the world’s then biggest empire was now officially Christian, and the church was now also officially pro-imperial and pro-military. And the popes and bishops were becoming significant slave-owners, military advisors, and political power-players. The Roman state, Roman civilization, and Roman religion were once again essentially one, but now Christian rather than pagan.
Growing up during the early days of this transition phase, Patrick seems to have held a modified version of an earlier understanding of Christianity, one that was already otherwise virtually non-existent by his adult years. For he excoriated Coroticus Rex and his military for betraying their status and duty as the beneficiaries and guardians of Roman civilization and the rule of law of an empire that no longer functioned in their region, while at the same time he also condemned them for betraying their Christian faith by engaging in the unholy practices of war, slavery, and related forms of terrorism.
Roman civilization and law had never forbidden war or slavery, in fact it had always thrived on utilizing and glorifying precisely those two engines to the extreme. And if pre-imperial state-sponsored Christianity had possibly or even apparently(?) once been decidedly pacifist and abolitionist, there was by Patrick’s time little evidence of that earlier value-system left in the texts that were already on the way to eventually being standardized and finalized as constituting the New Testament. In the scripture version still in the process of being officially formulated and adopted by the church during Patrick’s lifetime, the foundational texts would end up admonishing Christians to pay their war-tax to the emperor, and their loyalty and obedience to the (Roman) state, while soldiers were admonished to obey their officers, slaves were ordered to obey their masters, sons and daughters to obey their fathers, and women to obey their husbands. All very much in keeping with ancient traditional highly conservative patriarchal Roman civilization and the highly aggressive authoritarian thoroughly militarized Roman imperial war-state, police-state, slave-state.
And the Roman empire was hardly unique in supporting and requiring obedience to precisely these kinds of religiously ordained values and practices. This was basically the relationship that had seemingly almost always prevailed between political states and the religions they allowed to survive within their spheres of control. And it is still largely true today over much of the world.
Patrick’s understanding of the proper relationship between the Christian religion and Christian political states seems to have been at least somewhat different.
There is only one other case I’m aware of, before the end of the first millennium, in which a Christian leader, including the long line of popes, came even partially close to Patrick’s stance in speaking humane truth to Christian political power in attempting to abolish the Christian practices of slavery and (/or) wars of aggression by publicly condemning by name Christian rulers who engaged in such acts of terrorism, &/or also forthwith excommunicating such rulers and their entire military personnel for committing such dreadful evils. And this second case I have in mind came not from a church leader, per se, but from the political ruler of a powerful Christian kingdom.
In this instance, which is the only one I have found of its nature during that long era, a 7th century Christian monarch officially and apparently effectively abolished slavery throughout her realm. This ruler was Queen Saint Bathild (626-680), ruler of the Frankish kingdom of France. As queen-consort ruling with her husband and later as reigning widowed monarch and regent ruling for her underage sons, Saint Bathild abolished slavery in France and worked tirelessly to broker peace among various warring factions within her realm and among the kingdom’s enemies abroad. Ironically, Saint Bathild is also another one among the many historical Christian saints in my family tree—she is one of my direct ancestral grandmothers, forty-five generations removed.
More on Bathild and Patrick later.
Happy belated St Patrick’s Day, happy belated St Bathild’s Day (January 26th and 30th). Happy patron ancestors day. Happy freedom from state-sponsored and church-sponsored Christian slavery and Christian war and terrorism Day (“peace and freedom now–if you want it”)!
Queen Saint Bathild’s hair, cut when she retired to a convent and became a nun.