St. Nicholas vs. the Slave Traders

In his 2007 NYT op-ed and Union Seminary inaugural lecture, John McGuckin outlines the good bishop of Myra's enactment of God's love for the poor, especially those vulnerable to enslavement.

Few Americans are familiar with the figure of Zwarte Piet, still popular (though controversial) in the low countries of Europe. While the racial history of our culture makes a black-faced assistant to a nordic Santa a non-starter, McGuckin suggests that the eclipse of this tradition is not an unalloyed good, for it cuts us off from an important part of Nicholas's hagiography, in which the saint raided a slave market and liberated a young man, who then entered the church's employ and devotedly assisted the bishop, a type of Onesimus.

We are much more likely to know of the story of the origin of the Christmas stocking tradition: how Nicholas cast gold into the hung-to-dry stockings of certain dowry-less girls. "Charming though it sounds," McGuckin tells us, this tale "reflected a deplorable custom." Without Nicholas's intervention the alternate fate these young women faced was not spinsterhood but sexual slavery.

In honor of this most remembered and most mis-remembered of saints, it seems especially appropriate on this, his feast day, to turn our minds and hearts to those who today suffer the exploitation that we prefer to imagine is a part of history. The Not For Sale campaign chronicles the blight of human trafficking, intensified of late by the growing global economy, and offers resources for prayer and activism.

Far be it from me to suggest that shopping is a solution, but given that shopping (in particular, our insatiable hunger for cheap goods) is a part of the problem, I commend to your attention the store section of the website. If you are acting as Saint Nicholas's agent in procuring gifts for your loved ones this Christmas, wouldn't it be great if at least some of those gifts came from organizations that fight the same exploitative behaviors that Nicholas fought in his earthly life?

Almighty God, who through your servant Nicholas brought liberation to the oppressed, grant that we may not be blind to the slavery in our own age. Give courage, endurance, and victory to the abolitionists and strength, liberation, and dignity to the enslaved and vulnerable. In the name of Jesus who sets the captives free, Amen.

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