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:
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:
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:
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:
“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.”
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.