For All the Saints – James Patteson

The relationship between the Church (all branches/denominations) and colonialism is ‘complicated’ to say the least. Far from the rosy picture of faithful men and women braving undiscovered countries to spread the love of Jesus among those desperate to hear it, the real story, more often than not, involves aspects of pain, trickery, theft and death. Yes, the Gospel is spread and the Love of Jesus prevails, but we need never underestimate the costs (for both sides).

Such is the legacy of James Patteson, missionary and sometimes bishop of Micronesia in the second half of the 19th century. Sent to spread the Gospel among the island peoples of the South Pacific, what he encountered was not a culture desperately aching for freedom from their Godless ignorance. Rather, he found a population chaffing under the imperial yoke of British Slavers and bandits, longing to hear a word of freedom from a tyranny that Patteson himself very much represented.

Admirably, Patteson waded into the fray on the side of the oppressed seeking to work both locally and empire-wide for stricter enforcement of the ban on slavery that was already a part of British Law. Unfortunately powerful preaching, care for the injured and governmental advocacy don’t do anything to change the color of one’s skin or the accent of one’s speech. In 1871 Patteson’s missionary camp, mistaken for that of yet another slave raid was overrun by islander who killed everyone present. Patteson the Martyr was killed by those he was trying to save.

Fortunately, Patteson’s death caught the attention a and imagination of the British Crown, which redoubled its efforts to stamp-out the slave trade in the South Pacific. They ultimately succeeded, God’s will for freedom was obeyed, but at a terrible cost. I’d like to think, as in the case of every martyr, that Patteson could have done more good living a long life than he did in witnessing through his death. But death is the table stakes for ministry in a world of sin. It is the cost that must be counted as we seek to spread the Gospel.

We’ve touched several times this fall on the various ways in which one might become a witness to the faith, a martyr. We’ve covered the standard model: being killed by a bad actor because of what you believe. And we’ve even seen a variant of being killed rather accidentally (like by a disease) becuase of your commitment to serve. Today we add a third riff on the theme: being killed by those you are trying to serve. As strange and horrible as this case is, though, it may prove to be the most Christ-like of all. Jesus came to work among us, and it was us that killed him. That’s not exactly how I would have written the story.

But it is a version that God foresaw and prepared for. And it was a story that James Patteson heard and believed and committed himself to. So, costs were counted and lives were lost. But the Good News prevailed.

Like I said, it’s a complicated history.

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