Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My St. Patrick's Day Dilemma: Orange vs. Green

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day
with my second-born son
I'm Irish, in case you haven't noticed. The red hair kinda gives it away. My brother and sister have red hair, too, but our parents do not, so when we were younger and the whole family went out, say, for dinner, we would inevitably get asked The Question: "Where did you all get your lovely red hair?"

Though we dreaded the question, we had our answer down pat.

"It came with the head," we would reply, smiling serenely.

Beginning My Irish Journey

Our red hair really came from our paternal grandfather whose nickname was Red. He was Irish, and Catholic. My grandmother was not. She'd been raised Protestant, but when Red got sweet on her, his mom wouldn't let Grandma in the house until she converted.

Dad has a lot of stories like that, about the anger and bitterness he saw in some of his Irish relatives. Perhaps that is why we never celebrated St. Patrick's Day while I was growing up. I would tell the kids at school who tried to pinch me, "I don't have to wear green on St. Patrick's Day because I'm Irish." Oh, the logic of youth.

Ceili dance at a feis fundraiser (I'm 2nd from right)
Fast forward to college, when I fell in love with traditional Irish music. I started taking fiddle lessons at the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix. There I heard about ceilis (KAY-lees), or Irish social dances, so I dragged some friends to one. I was hooked. A friend and I started taking Irish dance lessons together, and soon we were competing at feisana (FESH-na) and performing at schools and nursing homes and then I found myself planning to march with my dance school in the St. Patrick's Day parade!

My Dilemma: What Color To Wear?

When talking with a friend at church about my plans, he told me I should wear orange to the parade.

The Irish flag flies over Hance park during
the St. Patrick's Day Faire (I'm 2nd from right)
I wouldn't have understood the significance of that suggestion before getting involved in the Irish community. Now I knew the meaning behind the three colors in Ireland's flag. The green stripe on the left represents the majority of the country's population, the celtic Irish (typically Catholic) who had been oppressed for centuries by the invading English (typically Protestant), represented by the orange stripe on the right. The white stripe in the middle represents the hope for peace between the two factions.

That's a very simplistic explanation for the complex, deeply rooted conflict that has troubled Ireland for centuries. Most of the Irish I know define themselves in the green classification, though I do know some who fit in the orange category but prefer the white section instead.

Still, wearing primarily orange to the Phoenix St. Patrick's Day Parade would be interpreted by many as a very offensive act. 

When my friend suggested I should wear orange, I know he just meant that I am not Catholic, which is true. I am not. My parents were both raised Catholic, but were "born again" in college and left the Catholic church to join, for lack of a better term, Protestant churches.

But while I am not a Catholic, I am also not a Protestant.

I am a Baptist.

I say that not as a point of pride but classification. People calling themselves Baptist have been guilty of the same sins as people calling themselves Catholic or Protestant--or Jewish or Muslim or atheist or any other label they want to use to describe themselves. Sin is a human problem, and I am just as susceptible to it as the next person, no matter what I call myself.  I do not think that being a Baptist means I am better than a Protestant. It is just a label that better describes my beliefs. 

Beginning My Baptist Journey

It wasn't until I was in college that I understood the difference. Before that, I would describe myself as "a Christian who attends a Baptist church." I would sooner use the word Protestant to describe myself than Baptist.

Until I learned what both words really mean.

As I said, my parents converted from Catholicism in college, and I grew up attending a wide variety of churches. For various reasons we never stayed at a church longer than a year or so, and when I was a teen my parents, though still firm believers in Jesus Christ, stopped attending church altogether. 

Accompanying the singing at an outreach service
at ASU with my boyfriend (now husband) 
When I turned 20 I decided it was time I took responsibility for my spiritual development, and started attending churches with friends. I got quite involved with one church, where my friend's dad was a pastor, and then started also visiting my boyfriend's (now husband) Baptist church. The pastor there started preaching a series on Baptist history, and for the first time I learned what it actually means to be a Baptist. And I realized that I really was a Baptist; I had been for a long time. (A few weeks ago he covered a lot of the same material in one message which you can listen to here.)

I learned that my spiritual forefathers had been persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. The English Protestants called the Baptists dissenters. That's not to say the Protestants and Baptists didn't agree about anything. They both placed a strong emphasis on individuals having access to the Bible in their own language so they could read it for themselves rather than rely on someone else to interpret it for them. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Bible was pretty much only available in Latin, which usually only the church leaders could read. We have many Protestants like Martin Luther to thank for the privilege we now take for granted today, of being able to read the Bible for ourselves.

But while Protestants had certain theological disagreements with the Catholic church leaders, they largely favored keeping the existing church/state structure intact. Baptists, on the other hand, broke completely from the Catholic church and established their own self-governed congregations, earning themselves the "dissenter" label.

That's not just because the Baptists were more cantankerous that the Protestants (though that might've been true; I've known a few cantankerous Baptists in my day and have probably been one myself from time to time ;-) but because their theological differences ran much deeper. It simply wasn't possible to remain a part of an organization that had such different views of the roles of the individual, the church, and the state. 

Baptists based their beliefs solely on a straightforward reading of the Bible, trying as much as possible to stay away from human traditions that had built up over time. For example, I'm studying the book of 1 Corinthians right now, which makes it extremely clear that God chose to use "the foolishness of preaching" as the ONLY way to spread the Gospel. Not the sword. Not political pressure. Not familial pressure. No, we are just to tell others about the good news about Jesus dying instead of us, and each individual is free to choose how they respond to that message.

A brief glance at Ireland's history shows that this view was not held historically by the Catholic or the Protestant church. Even today there is extreme cultural and familial pressure to remain in the church of your birth.

Since Baptists believed strongly in freedom of conscience and personal autonomy, they believed the church was made up of those who believe in Jesus Christ and his teachings--not those who lived in a certain area or fell under the jurisdiction of a certain political leader. Whereas historically Protestants and Catholics viewed the state as an arm of the church, Baptists have always believed in separation of church and state.

Today I think we all find the idea of forcing someone to join a certain church or profess certain beliefs repugnant. That is because freedom of conscience and separation of church and state were institutionalized in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (thanks in no small part to the diligent efforts of Baptists) and have become ingrained in American culture.

Continuing My Journey

So that's why I call myself a Baptist, and why I did not wear orange to my first St. Patrick's Day parade. I wore red--my dance school's uniform. The next year, when I was privileged to be the queen of the parade while serving as the 2005 Arizona Colleen, I wore green. 

Since then, my involvement with the Phoenix Irish community has continued. I competed in Irish dance for a few years, developing friendships that continue to this day. Then I taught beginning Irish dance at the Irish Cultural Center for four years, retiring when my first child was born. I served on the Arizona Colleen Selection committee, and to this day I do graphic design work for the community. My husband and I traveled to Ireland for our honeymoon, and would love to return someday. We take our kids to the St. Patrick's Day parade every year.

That's why I wear all the colors of the Irish flag on St. Patrick's Day--because I'm Irish. After so many years in the Irish community, I've seen both good and bad in the Irish. We are, after all--whether Catholic or Protestant, Baptist or atheist--human. And as C.S. Lewis (an Irish Protestant, by the way) wrote about being a son of Adam or daughter of Eve, "That is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content."

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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