Setting the Captives Free: Churches Raiding Slave Ships
by Nathanael King
January 19, 2012
There are a lot of hot-button social justice issues that come and go in Christian culture. Whether it be starving children in Ethiopia, orphans in China, medical relief in Haiti, or saving unborn babies, interest in these issues seems–at least to me–to come in waves. I can think of a few reasons these issues come and go. (1) Maybe they come and go because they are simply fads. What seems to be a cool unique cause eventually becomes tiresome and boring until a new cool unique cause comes along. This is a pretty cynical way of looking at these issues. (2) Perhaps they come and go because they are areas where God wants the Church to focus its attention and join Him in what he is doing. Maybe God is the one stirs the Church to be about certain issues at certain strategic times in history so that his love and justice can reach the maximum amount of people possible. If so, then the Church is simply reflecting God’s focus and heart for the world about these issues. (3) Perhaps they come and go because the Church sometimes neglects certain areas of ministry and justice, and needs it’s attention refocused and it’s heart rekindled so that the heart of the Church is realigned with the place where God’s heart and passion have been all along. I suspect that reasons (2) and (3) are somewhere close to the truth of the matter. The reality is that God deeply loves people, and because he loves people, he is doing something in this world to bring about justice and knowledge of Himself.
One current hot-button social justice issue is human trafficking. I recently heard about Augustine’s Letter to Alypius (# 10, ca. 428 AD) where he refers to an increase in slave trafficking by abduction in North Africa and how groups of Christians raided slave ships to set the prisoners free. Listen to this:
Even the examples of this outrage that I have personally encountered are too many for me to list, if I wished to do so. Let me give you just one example, and you can estimate from it the total extent of their activity throughout Africa and along its coasts. About four months before I wrote this letter, a crowd of people collected from different regions, but particularly from Numidia, were brought here by Galatian merchants to be transported from the shores of Hippo (It is only, or at least mainly, the Galatians who are so eager to engage in this form of commerce). However, a faithful Christian was at hand, who was aware of our practice of performing acts of mercy in such cases; and he brought the news to the church. Immediately, about 120 people were set free by us (though I was absent at the time), some from the ship which they had to board, others from a place where they had been hidden before being put on board. We discovered that barely five or six of these had been sold by their parents. On hearing about the misfortunes that had led the rest of them to the Galatians, via their abductors and kidnappers, hardly one of us could restrain their tears. (HT: Michael Bird)
This is a good reminder that Christians are called to action. If we want our lives to truly demonstrate our beliefs, then we should actively engage in acts of justice and mercy. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18 ESV). So what did you do after church last Sunday? Go out to a restaurant for lunch, went home for a nap, did some light shopping, or mounted a rescue mission for slaves? What would it mean for your church or your small group or your friends to get together and “raid a slave ship?” What is the “slave ship” in your life? Who is in need of justice that you are capable of supplying? The Church must always be about social justice because the Church must be about God, and God is about justice. God is about the oppressed, the alone, and the destitute. He cares for children, the weak, and the helpless–and so must we. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27 ESV). This gets dangerous when the message of the gospel is divorced from or blurred by the focus on the social justice issues, but that should not deter us from displaying and incarnating God’s heart towards the world. Instead, it should simply make us all the more vigilant to keep the gospel central to all that we do and to not separate the good news from good works.
The letter above goes to show that the efforts of Christians to set the slaves free did not begin with William Wilberforce but has ancient origins. Freedom for the captives is not just a fad, but a historical mantra for the church of God. This makes me all the more thankful for the work on the International Justice Mission who advocate for those caught in human trafficking. See also the following books: