It’s been a while since the Crusades ended. As a general rule, when our president goes abroad, he does not get waylaid and find himself in the hands of brigands who send back to the vice president wax-sealed notes saying, “Give us 40,000 ducats and we will release your dread sovereign, that he may return to his people amid much rejoicing.”

That’s not to say kidnappings and ransoms are unheard of in the modern world. They are, alas, all too common. But one of the differences between the modern and pre-modern world is that we don’t tend to think of ransoming the captive as a work of mercy. We tend to think of it as a sign of weakness. These days our standard reply to those who demand ransoms is, “We do not negotiate with terrorists!”

The idea of ransoming somebody as a virtue is an almost completely pre-modern notion. It depends on two conditions:

  • a society built on slavery (and therefore the taking of slaves); and
  • a not very centralized state that is spotty in its ability to keep people from being enslaved.

Under those conditions of frontier semi-justice, the guy who will buy your brother out of captivity after a bandit raid or a skirmish with Saracens, when the king and the nobles have no power to do so, is a guy you are going to lionize. But since slavery is (thank God) dead in the Western world (due, in the end, to the influence of Christianity) and cops are now the ones who deal with hostage situations, we no longer have a living experience of how ransoming might be virtuous.

Our principal encounters with ransoming the captive as a virtuous work of mercy tend to come via historical dramas like Les Miserables. The kindly bishop, on finding Jean Valjean in custody for stealing the clergyman’s silver, insists to the gendarmes that the silver was a gift rather than stolen — and that Valjean must take the candlesticks as well. Having thus set him free, the bishop tells him, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

Those are beautiful and moving words to be sure, but how do we live out this precept in this day and age?

One way is to support agencies like Anti-Slavery International, which exist to remind us that just because slavery has been largely banished in Christian lands doesn’t mean it’s banished everywhere. In fact, at this hour, slavery is a thriving concern in many parts of the world. It is also, in all but name, supported by global corporations that outsource to countries where they can turn a fatter profit by paying sweatshop drudges bare subsistence pennies instead of dollars. Child slaves, sex slaves, slaves of all ages and nationalities toil across the globe at this hour.

Of course, there is always a spiritual application to these social evils as well. Thus, Jesus announced his own ministry by proclaiming the words of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)

And yet, in the political sense, Jesus set no captives free, liberated no oppressed people. He led no storming of the Bastille, no Underground Railroad, no ransom of King Richard Lionheart. So how did our Lord fulfill this prophecy?

Jesus gave us several hints. For instance, he exorcised and healed the demoniac who, “kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters ... broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert” (Luke 8:26-39). The man had been “liberated” in the merely physical sense when Jesus found him. And yet the iron chains he broke were nothing compared to the spiritual chains Jesus broke for him. Likewise, the woman with the infirmity (Luke 13:10-17) was described by Jesus as “bound” (16), and her healing foreshadows the complete healing of body, soul and spirit he intends for us.

So not surprisingly, the way Jesus described his mission was precisely in terms of slavery and ransom for the captive. It is worth quoting a relevant passage of Mark’s Gospel in full, for it reveals how radical Jesus’ approach to the issues of power and slavery were:

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45).

Note the big picture here. James and John were seeking to sit at Jesus’ right and left because they believed this new Son of David was much like the old son of David, Solomon. What had Solomon done? He had built a splendid kingdom — on the backs of slaves. That’s what oriental potentates did. That’s why Solomon was remembered with a mixture of pride and resentment in the Old Testament. On the one hand, his reign was a golden age of immense national pride. On the other hand, he became a new Pharaoh in order to achieve these goals. When his son Rehoboam promised to continue his policies, the news was greeted not with excitement but with civil war and the permanent loss of ten tribes of Israel (see 1 Kings 12).

Now someone greater than Solomon was here, and James and John were all about getting in on the action as top dogs over a new kingdom of slaves doing their bidding. It was this ambition that Jesus rebuked with his new definition of greatness. And what a new definition it is! He proposed not merely to ransom the captive with money or gold, as a king like Solomon might have done. He proposed to ransom the captive by taking the captive’s place as a slave!

For as he made clear, the ultimate form of slavery is spiritual, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (see 1 John 5:19):

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house forever; the son continues forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31-36).

Slavery to sin, with its various spin-off forms such as slavery to addiction, fear, violence and so forth, is the root of all the slavery in the world. Attack that and you ultimately attack physical forms of slavery.

This is why one of the craziest complaints about the Christian revelation is that it is somehow responsible for the existence of slavery. In fact, it’s the only worldview that, in the long run, ever expunged the cursed practice from the face of the earth. To complain it happened progressively, over time rather than instantly is like complaining that an Olympic weightlifter took a long time to stoop down, get a firm grip on the bar, summon his might, and then hoist the three thousand pounds over his head. Slavery has been endemic everywhere in the human race since the dawn of time. The one and only movement that ever succeeded in beating it back and rooting it out is the Christian tradition.

That it took a long time and a lot of back-and-forth struggle to eradicate this cruelty is due not to some peculiar and disgusting weakness in the Christian tradition but rather to the fact that the Christian revelation was born into a world of mortals who took slavery for granted as the normal state of things, just as we take all our favorite sins as normal and resent having them challenged. The reaction of the Jews in the passage above — the Jews who had believed in him, mind you, not the Jews who rejected him — is our reaction: “Whaddaya mean, calling us slaves?” Our culture’s conception of freedom is “doing whatever I feel like.” Usually that means “doing what everybody else does.” In antiquity “everybody else” lived in a slave culture.

Meanwhile, in our culture we continue to live with a false conception of slavery and freedom. We have no notion that “doing whatever we feel like” is often a straight road to bondage. Addicts to drugs, alcohol, violence, pornography and sloth all “do what they feel like.” Indeed, we may be quite decent citizens who pay our taxes and recycle, all while living in slavery to raw, unadulterated pride — the sin that made the devil the devil. Confronted with a real saint who is a slave to Christ (and therefore truly free), we may find our conversation with him goes uncomfortably like the conversation between the ghost and the heavenly spirit in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The ghost, after boasting about what a decent chap he is, says, “I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.” To which the blessed spirit of his old comrade replies, “Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.”

In short, the first captive you can ransom is yourself, sold as a slave to sin. Or more precisely, you can submit to the ransom already offered when, for your sake, Jesus Christ was sold as a slave for thirty pieces of silver and, with that silver, said, “My brother, you no longer belong to evil but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” This hostage exchange is made every time someone is baptized, or goes to confession, or celebrates the Eucharist or one of the other sacraments.

Once you have accepted that ransom, pay it forward as best you can by telling somebody else about the great ransom. Then you will be well on the way to living that work of mercy in the highest sense of the word.

Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.

Previous parts in the series on the corporal works of mercy:


Feed the Hungry

Give Drink to the Thirsty

Clothe the Naked

Harbor the Harborless

Visit the Sick