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Dana L. Robert


The Patrick Paradox

Christian mission, along with the Christian faith, has often advanced on the strength of its rediscoveries—retrieving neglected stories and insights from the past and putting them to fresh use. In 2007 we are asking one big question: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world? For any endeavor of learning and unlearning, historians are indispensable allies. Dana L. Robert, co-director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology, is an especially keen observer of the history of mission, and here she recalls a saint whose mission is annually celebrated and perennially relevant.

On March 17, people of Irish descent around the world celebrate "St. Patrick's Day." Nearly a million people stream into Dublin, Ireland, to enjoy the fireworks, concerts, parades, and street theater. St. Patrick's Day parades began in 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the colonial British Army marched through the streets of New York City accompanied by Irish music. By the early 20th century, St. Patrick's Day parades in major American cities had become triumphant celebrations of Irish "arrival" in the hallowed halls of city government—victors over the old guard Protestant Yankees. The importance of St. Patrick to growing Irish self-confidence was expressed in 1921 by Seumas MacManus, author of the sentimental favorite Story of the Irish Race: "What Confucius was to the Oriental, Moses to the Israelite, Mohammed to the Arab, Patrick was to the Gaelic race. And the name and power of those other great ones will not outlive the name and the power of our Apostle."1

The irony of MacManus' paean to Patrick as the emblematic Irish religio-political race warrior is that Patrick himself was a "Brit," born into a Christian family in the Roman colony of Britannia. Even though the Britons and the Irish shared a Celtic cultural heritage, they were historical enemies who raided each other's territories and enslaved ...

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