Rarely a week passes when we’re not confronted by images of warfare and violence from throughout the world.
Nowhere seems immune to the mayhem and destruction caused by human conflicts. From the Middle East to the Eastern Ukraine not to mention North Africa, humanity seems to be crippled by a hotbed of religious and political tensions.
Our own country history reflects the pain and grief caused by ideological and nationalist struggles which fail to respect the dignity of the other community. When we demonise other people and other cultures then we’re capable of justifying and rationalising the most inhumane of actions. I often think of the anguish and fear of those held captive, women and men who live the daily nightmare not knowing what each new day will bring. The brutality of being held captive is horrible enough, how do you contend with the fear of possible execution.
A few years ago I read the book ‘An Evil Cradling’ written by the Lebanon hostage, Brian Keegan. The Belfast native describes in great detail the horrors of being held captive, often blindfolded and imprisoned alone without human contact.
Yet despite his own personal pain and struggles he tried to understand the mentality of those who held him captive. Brian Keegan explains how his captors seemed to believe in a God of retribution and judgement. But how can a person love the thing they fear? When fear commands the mind then the heart is imprisoned. In time he began to understand the greater and more profound prison that held his captors. For years he was chained to a wall or radiator, but they were chained to their guns; futile symbols of power, not power itself. This was something these men could never know: real power embraces and builds up the other; it does not destroy. God is not sectarian; he does not recognise the chorus of ‘for God and Ireland’ or ‘for God and Ulster’.
When we become possessive of God to the exclusion of others, we not only try to imprison God but we imprison ourselves behind the walls of bitterness and hatred. Saint Patrick knew intimately the pain of being held captive, a prisoner forced into a life of slavery far removed from his own land and family. Yet Patrick in his moment of total and absolute devastation was able to hear the voice of God.
This experience of God’s unconditional love transformed his life. In time Patrick escaped not only the bonds of slavery, he also escaped all the bitterness and resentment which could have imprisoned his heart. Far from hating or resenting the people who enslaved him, Patrick overcame his own fears and followed God’s call to bring the joy of the gospel to our land and communities. The challenge this Saint Patrick’s Day is to respond to God’s call with the same generosity and courage by recognising all our neighbours as children of God and sisters and brothers in Christ.