Ransom the Captive


It’s been a while since the Crusades. 
As a general rule, when our president goes abroad, he does not get waylaid on his triumphal ride home and find himself in the hands of brigands, who send wax-sealed notes back to the vice president saying, “Give us £40,000 and we will release your Dread Sovereign, that he may return to home 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 it is to say that 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. 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 things: 1) a living society built on slavery for its power, and 2) a not very centralized state. Under those conditions of semi-frontier justice, the guy who is willing to buy your brother back out of slavery after a bandit raid or a skirmish with Saracens when the king and the nobles have no power to do it is a guy you are going to think very well of. But since slavery is (thank God) dead in the Western world (due, in the end, to the influence of Christianity), and the cops now tend to be the ones who have taken over hostage situations, we no longer have a living experience of what it means to be ransomed, nor of how it might be seen as a virtue.

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, upon 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.”

Beautiful and moving. But how do we live this precept out in this day and age?

Well, one way is to support agencies like Anti-Slavery.org, which exist to remind us that just because slavery was banished in Christian lands doesn’t mean it has been banished everywhere. In fact, at this hour, slavery is a thriving concern in the Islamosphere and Asia. It is also tacitly supported in all but name by global corporations that outsource their labor to countries where they can turn a fatter profit by paying sweatshop drudges bare subsistence pennies instead of dollars and call it “employment.” Child slaves, sex slaves, slaves of all ages and a multiplicity of nations toil across the globe at this hour. So there is still cause to ransom the slave, though it is primarily the slave bound by foreign shackles, not domestic ones.

That said, of course, there is always a spiritual application to these things as well. 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.” (Lk 4:18-19)

And yet, in the traditional sense, Jesus set no captives free, nor liberated any oppressed people. There is no storming of the Bastille in the Gospels, no Underground Railroad, no ransom of King Richard Lionheart. So in what sense does our Lord fulfill this prophecy?

Jesus gives us several hints. For instance, He exorcises and heals the demoniac who “was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert” (cf Lk 8:26-39). The man had been “liberated” in the merely physical sense when Jesus found him, and yet the iron chains he broke are nothing compared to the spiritual chains Jesus breaks for him. Likewise, the woman with the infirmity (Lk 13:10-17) is described as “bound” by Jesus, and her healing foreshadows the complete healing of body, soul, and spirit He means for us. And, not surprisingly, the way in which Jesus describes His mission is precisely in terms of slavery and ransom for the captive. It is worth quoting the passage in full, for it reveals how radical Jesus’ approach to the issues of power and slavery are:

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.” (Mk 10:35-45)

Note the Big Picture here. James and John seek to sit at Jesus’ right and left because they have every confidence that He is the Messiah. That is, they think the new Son of David is much like the old Son of David, Solomon. What did the old Son of David do? He built a splendid kingdom — on the backs of slaves. That’s what oriental potentates do. That’s why Solomon is 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 becomes something like a new Pharaoh in order to achieve these goals. When his son Rehoboam promises to continue his policies, the news is greeted not with excitement, but with civil war and the permanent loss of ten tribes of Israel. But still, his legend goes down in the memory of the Jews as a time of national glory.

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

For, as He Himself makes clear, the ultimate form of slavery is spiritual, and the whole world lieth in the power of the Evil One:

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 any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (Jn 8:31-36)

Slavery to sin — with its various spinoff forms like 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.

That’s why one of the craziest complaints
about the Christian revelation is that it is somehow responsible for the existence of slavery in the world. In point of fact, it’s the only thing that, in the long run, ever expunged the cursed thing from the face of the earth. To complain that it happened in the long run is like complaining that an Olympic weightlifter actually took a long time to stoop down, get a firm grip on the bar, summon his might, and then hoist the 3,000 pounds over his head. Slavery is a phenomenon that has been absolutely endemic everywhere in the human race since the dawn of time. The one and only thing that has ever succeeded in beating it back and rooting it out is the Christian tradition. That it took that tradition a long time to do it, and not without a lot of back-and-forth struggle, is due not to some peculiar and disgusting weakness in the Christian tradition, but 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 sole conception of freedom is “doing whatever I feel like.” Usually that means “doing what everybody else does.” In antiquity, what “everybody else” did was live 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 into 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 lives 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), our conversation with him may go uncomfortably like the conversation between the Ghost and the Heavenly Spirit in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce:

“Look at me, now. I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it. You may think you can put me down because you’re dressed up like that (which you weren’t when you worked under me) and I’m only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?”

“Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.”

“What do you keep on arguing for? 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.”

“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 involve yourself in ransoming 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 30 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.” Once you have accepted that ransom, pay it forward as best you can by telling somebody about the Great Ransom, and you will be well on the way to living that work of mercy in the highest sense of the word.

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Austin

    For centuries, Christianity condoned slavery, serfdom, etc., but we moved out of this, and for about two hundred years have condemned these practices. In the 19th century, Christianity was instrumental in abolishing slavery in the Western World. To be fair, much of this effort was from English speaking Protestants. Even if their theology is “flawed” people can still do the right thing.

    Islam, however, to this day, has not condemned slavery and it is practiced in many Islamic countries, especially in North Africa. Many Muslims seem to have no problem with slavery, especially of “infidels.” This is a pretty big stumbling block towards integration of Islamic nations into the modern world.

    Christianity, with all its faults, was able to move away from embracing obvious evils such as slavery and persecution of people of other faiths, however, Islam so far, has not been able to do this, nor do many militant Muslims seem so inclined any time soon. The bottom line is that we, in the near future, have a problem with Islamic nations, and while we do not need to be mortal enemies, neither can we really be friends, given where so many of them are coming from. We can try to be fair and just, but we cannot allow ourselves to be pushed around. This will result in some conflict, but I don’t see any way around it.

  • Ryan Haber

    One of Mark’s overall points is very salient to any discussion of Christianity and slavery. Christianity (as headed by the Church of Rome) tolerated the existence of slavery, but has always, since the time of Philemon and Onesimus, had a corrosive effect on slavery by building up a sense of human fraternity. As the Roman world was overrun by Germanic tribes and the ancient systems gave way to the feudal, the Roman slave system gave way to serfdom, a marked improvement. We can lump them together, but especially as the middle ages progressed, the serfs would not have been happy to do so. For starters, days of rest were introduced – beginning with Christian slaveowners in the Roman world and continuing among the feudal lords with their serfs. Secondly, serfs gained entitlement to more and more of the fruit of their labor until eventually they were not getting allowances, but paying rents – a very different situation, if only different by degrees. Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, serfs were tied to the land as much as the noble lords were, and could no more be bought and sold that the landlord could. They were subject to trial without jury, and had no free speech, could only bear arms with their lord’s consent, and so forth – but that was the exact legal condition of their lords and of their lords’ lords, generally speaking. Serfs were not chattel, even if they weren’t exactly free. These were all the results of the influence of Christianity.

    The serf systems continued to erode, notably in England as middle ages transitioned to high middle ages. They were replaced by yeoman, as known in England, and peasants as they were called in Europe. The marked difference is that they were no longer bound to the land – and in this sense were freer than their lords who were attached to their property. Industrious peasants could and did save and buy from their lords their parcels of land and thereby free themselves even from rents.

    The black plague not only demolished the population of Europe, but also the last vestiges of serfdom in the West. The intense labor shortages and social vacuums created by the sudden death of about 30% of the population created all sorts of new possibilities for social and geographic mobility. It also introduced a number of problems probably less obvious to us 650 years later. It is important to remember, though, that outside of Russia, serfdom was already rare by the time of the plague. Christianity did that.

    Enemies of Christianity have always opposed it because of its pretension (as they see it) to stifle their will and their ego, to contain and limit their power. Going back throughout the history of the Church, political powers have resisted it at many turns. The highpoint of the Church’s political power – enforced through spiritual means – was perhaps when the Emperor Henry IV was made to wait outside in the snow for three days at Canossa while the Pope decided whether to forgive his transgressions. But from 1077 to 1303 was a short heyday. In 1303, Philippe IV the Fair, king of France, had elderly Pope Boniface VIII arrested at Anagni, kept without food, and beaten for three days – and all with impugnity. The pope was released when townsfolk drove Philippe’s soldiers out, but the old man was broken by the incident, and died a few months later. From that time onward, the scales have tipped. Whereas the Swabian tyrant, Frederick II, raged in vain against the Church in the 1240s because of the nobles’ and commons’ fierce commitment to it, the Austrian tyrant Hitler easily laid it aside, for the most part, because by the 1940s so many Europeans had forgotten they were Christian in any meaningful way.

    Since then up until now, the powers that will not be restrained by Christ have used everything in their means to enslave Christians and the world. Where chains cannot work, where they are too foreign, the passions have been aroused, because these crafted masters know that men who cannot control themselves will be easily controlled by others.

    One of the best ways that we can help free people is to learn and teach self-control, moderation, and prudence so that people can order their lives not according to their fleeting feelings and impulses, but according to good common sense and long-term goals. That’s a good first step toward learning to order our lives toward the Kingdom of God, instead of having them ordered for us by the powers of the world.

  • Steve P

    Though Austin correctly points out some of the issues with modern-day slavery and the tolerance it enjoys in some cultures, we ought to be cautious of the “Thank God I’m not as bad as that wicked tax collector” syndrome.

    The very name “Islam” refers to “submission”, as in submitting the will of the believer to the will of God. That’s a lesson we could all stand to learn in our enlightened “Christian” culture. And even from a secular standpoint, we need to call into question those institutions and practices that keep much of the world in a de facto state of slavery.

    For my part, I think I’m better served seeing the merits of Mark’s piece here and how I might apply his reflections to my own life and milieu. I think there’s a lot more fruit to be had there than worrying about international relations.

  • James Pawlak
  • Tom

    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.

    Reading this reminds me of a counter argument to the old calumny “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” I always ask: whom did Bill Gates rob? In fact, in a society informed by Catholic ethics, wealth can be obtained by serving the many, effectively. Serve and benefit a few, and your reward will be less, unless those few are wealthy or can pay you with the taxes extracted from others. Serve the many, and you might become wealthy yourself. But you must put yourself in service to the many, abase yourself to be servant, rather than master.

  • Sarah

    thank you for reminding me of some great books– the Greta Divorce, and Lewis’ space trilogy. I still have yet to fully figure them out (even though he wasn’t Catholic, his near- Catholicism is still rich for my ex-protestant blood), but that name, Ransom, haunts me. You might have also quoted the verse (i’m not sure where it’s from), that “you are not your own, but have been bought at a price.” THat’s the funny thing about our REdemption; it happened, and is available, whether we want it or not.

  • Ryan Haber

    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.

    Reading this reminds me of a counter argument to the old calumny “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” I always ask: whom did Bill Gates rob? In fact, in a society informed by Catholic ethics, wealth can be obtained by serving the many, effectively. Serve and benefit a few, and your reward will be less, unless those few are wealthy or can pay you with the taxes extracted from others. Serve the many, and you might become wealthy yourself. But you must put yourself in service to the many, abase yourself to be servant, rather than master.


    You’ve used the word “serve” in a fairly equivocal way. When a businessman “serves” somebody, he does it for his own self interest. When Christ serves somebody, he pours out everything that He is without any reward anticipated. In economics, “service” does not necessarily include the idea of looking out for the genuine, long-term interests of the one served, nor does it necessarily include voluntary humility. Instead, only their desires are addressed, and not their actual good. Hence the sale of any number of vicious commodities, for instance. In fact, in as much as the service is oriented toward one’s own profit, there can be no humility, since humility is self-forgetfulness. In Christianity, service is necessarily self-forgetful in favor of another’s genuine good. If love is stricken from service, for the Christian, it is not service (1 Cor 13). The word “service” is being used in your post in two different ways, with two different meanings.

    It will take more work than simply to note that “service” is profitable in a capitalist economy to reconcile such an economy to the Christian faith.

    First we must bear in mind the forgotten truth that capitalism is not the same thing as free markets. Capitalism is an ideology like any other in that it includes a worldview. That world view is predicated upon basing evaluating things at their exchange value – that is, things are worth what somebody will pay for them. This system of evaluating things is a direct assault on Christianity, which insists that things have their value based on their role in God’s plan. Exchange valuation denies or ignores God-given values, and teaches people to do likewise. The effect is a corrosion of morals because whatever people will pay for attains social and moral value. It leads to the denigration of motherhood and authentic fatherhood, toleration of abortion, the proliferation of pornography, and will lead to the euthanizing of the infirm and retarded. This all happens because we are gradually taught to value things based on how much we can get for them. Capitalism is thus as materialistic as socialism is; I wonder how many religious apologists for capitalism notice that our society suffers all the same moral depradations as that of the Soviet Union.

    A genuine baptism of our economic system will need to incorporate a number of principles that are, currently, beyond the pale in the eyes of the business community. I immediately think of the Church’s perrenial insistence on observing the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day, as well as the traditional and biblical rejection of charging any interest on any loan for any reason as sinful (CCC 2249). Free markets, integral to a free society and even to the healthier instances of capitalism, cannot be values-free, or they will never reconcile with Christ, who insists on being the source of value and on reigning over all things in the universe.