It was St. Patrick’s Day last weekend, and as an Irish person living in the United States, I’m still surprised at how generous y’all are in wanting to celebrate my heritage.
Being Irish overseas is a mixed blessing. Most people seem to like us, which is nice; on the other hand, the stereotype of drinking and fighting doesn’t just trivialize the suffering of real violence and addiction, but misses the best of who we are.
There’s not a lot we can know for sure about Patrick, but we do know that about 1,500 years ago, at a time when Irish people were often not seen as fully human, Patrick committed his life to us. By believing that Irish people deserved to be loved, with dignity and the freedom to imagine a more fully human life, Patrick helped us see ourselves as worthy.
And so for me, along with green rivers and allegedly funny hats, St. Patrick’s Day can be an opportunity to revel in traditions of hospitality, poetry, resilience, and not taking ourselves too seriously. To pause for a moment and unpick the knots by which bad religion or politics have tied us into self-punishment or community division.
It’s a happy accident (or serendipity) that the great unsung hero of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin, was born on St. Patrick’s Day, because Rustin and Patrick have something else in common. Rustin, an African American man, a gay man, a nonviolence teacher and activist, did not allow the false and dehumanizing stories told about him—less-than, weak, toxic, coward—to have the final say.
But more than that.
Knowing that oppositional energy always recreates itself, he worked for a world in which power would be exercised with and not over the community. Former enemies would not be dehumanized or squeezed into the same space from which he had just liberated himself. Instead, as he said:
"Loving your enemy is manifest in putting your arms not around the [person] but around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it, at which point they can become human too."
Bayard Rustin doesn’t have the iconic public profile of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, but he should. Rustin is credited with mentoring Dr. King’s deeper vision of nonviolence not just as a political strategy, but as a way of life. Dr. King made his most famous speech at the March on Washington, which he himself referred to as “the greatest demonstration for freedom” in American history—and Bayard Rustin organized that march.
I never got to meet Bayard Rustin, but I’ve been grateful to encounter people who did, and I’m glad there’s a Saint’s day that coincides with his birthday. I don’t imagine he’d want to be treated as a saint, not least because making people saints does tend to make it easier to ignore what they really believed in. Dyeing a river green isn’t exactly acknowledging the humanity of your enemies. So not a saint, but perhaps an angelic troublemaker (Rustin’s words): one who sees what’s wrong with the story we’re living by, and tells a new one.
PS: Two invitations, if you want to explore these ideas further:
1. In April, join Alice Walker, Brian McLaren, Mira Nair, and myself at our annual community gathering. We call it the Movies & Meaning Experience, but it’s for everyone who loves stories and wants to learn better ones. We think it’s a life-changing event. You can find out more here.
2. Or this summer, join me in Ireland, for a deep personal dive into new stories. Eight nights with a small group of fellow travelers, meeting peacemakers, poets, politicians and people who really did make a difference in a society that sometimes wondered if it would ever make progress. Click here for more details.