Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Rebuilding of Montserrat, 8:
On St Patrick's Day

GEM 05:03:23a

Week before last, we the people of Montserrat celebrated St Patrick's Day, as our National Day. For, in 1768, there was an uprising as slaves tried to strike a blow for freeedom: they had observed that on Ireland's national day, their Irish masters would gather together and celebrate with much strong drink. So, what better day to strike for freedom?

However, their plans were detected, and the uprising became an abortive slaughter. So, on March 17th, we remembered their sacrifice as the first step to the freedom we enjoy today. But, also, there are several yet-burning issues that the 1768 incident surfaces:

1] St Patrick himself, as a 16 year-old lad in Britain, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland, where adversity helped him deepen his Christian Faith. He managed to escape after six or seven years and returned to Ireland decades later as a Missionary Bishop, with such great success that the anniversary of his death, March 17, 493, is Ireland's national day.

2] For instance, it is said that in his second meeting with the assembled pagan chieftains of Erin, he was challenged about the apparent illogicality of the Trinity. He plucked a three-leaf shamrock and began: "Is this one leaf or three? If one leaf, why are there three lobes of equal size? If three leaves, why is there just one stem? If you cannot explain so simple a mystery . . . how can you hope to understand . . . the Holy Trinity?" The Shamrock leaf, of course, has long been a national symbol of both Christian Ireland and Montserrat.

3] Over a thousand years later, the long-since Christianised Irish were under the English boot-heel and repeatedly rose up to try to liberate themselves. (Eventually, after decades of futile debate over Home Rule, the bloodily suppressed 1916 Easter Rebellion led to the creation of the Republic of Ireland, and to the lingering conflict in Northern Ireland.)

4] Many Irish settlers in the Caribbean came as indentured servants, often labouring under slave-like conditions for a period of up to seven years.

5] The Irish settlers in Montserrat came here from St Kitts, to find freedom to practice their Catholic Faith.

How then could men from a Christian nation whose patron saint was an escaped slave, and who themselves longed for liberty, then turn around and cruelly enslave and oppress other men? Why is it that the national day, named after that Patron Saint, has so often become an occasion for drunken revelry?

The answers are as painful as they are simple:

1] Until a dozen Christians -- through the heart-softening impact of the great evangelical awakening then occurring in Britain -- founded the first antislavery society in London in 1787, no-one had dared to challenge slavery as an institution. So, despite Biblical rebukes to oppression, injustice and kidnapping, generally slavery was at most seen as a personal misfortune rather than an inescapably illegitimate institution. And, it would take fifty years for their campaign to triumph in the teeth of bitter, well-funded and clever opposition.

2] The lifestyle of many of the slave-masters of 1768 also speaks loud and clear: men who celebrate the memory of a great Christian Missionary by becoming drunk plainly and sadly know little of the gospel, and live less of it. Indeed, the Britain of that era was so corrupt that William Wilberforce said that many men pretended to be worse than they really were, or they would not have credibility with the leading men of the time. No wonder a major strategic focus of his campaigns against slavery and dozens of other major social ills was "to make goodness fashionable."

In short, while the gospel naturally works to save souls, renew minds, improve lives and transform institutions and communities, it is clear that this is in the teeth of the social implications of sin-darkened understanding, sin-hardened hearts and sin-numbed consciences. And, as (1) the controversies over gambling and (2) the bitterly challenged success of Uganda's common-sense, traditional morality-based ABC strategy to combat HIV/AIDS demonstrate all too plainly, that has major implications for us as we seek to rebuild our nation as a healthy, wholesome, truly democratic, God-fearing community. AMEN

No comments: