Much of the writing of Augustine was inspired by challenges he met in the service of the people in North Africa amidst the political and social problems of the decaying late Roman Empire. There are many examples of his experience of and concern for those forced to the edges of society.
Discrimination by gender (sexism)
Augustine also accuses the Roman law of injustice and discrimination against women. The woman is often punished, whereas the man goes free, especially in the case of a forbidden sexual relationship. Men do not admit that the same laws apply to them as to women, and they preferred the civil law to the law of Christ.
But Augustine replied: the civil law is not the same as the law of the Creator of the earth (Sermon 153, 5, 6. PL 38, 828; Sermon 392, 4, 4; PL 39, 1711. Sermon 9,4,4; PL 38,78-79; De nupt. et conc. I, 10, 11. CSEL 42,223).
Exploitation of children
In Letters 10 and 24, he is not only pleading for a new law against those who sold slaves, but he is also very worried about the sale of children. The Christian emperors had allowed the sale of children in order to prevent child murder when their parents were not able to feed their new infant. (This was a practice in the Empire that ceased with the growth of the Christian religion.)
The tenant farmers, especially, had to resort to the desperate measure of hiring out or selling their children. This led often their being slaves continuously, even though this was not permitted by the law. Augustine protested loudly against this abuse of children. He insisted strongly on the fact that selling of child labour was permitted only for the maximum period of 25 years.
After that period, the law established that they must become free again. Protection of children without parents or abandoned. Augustine had the protection of children very much at heart. He saw it as his task to protect the children without parents so that they would not be harmed by strangers (Sermon 176, 2, 2. PL 38, 951). He saw it also as his duty to care for abandoned children (Letter 98, 6. PL 33, 362).
After the destruction of Rome in the year 410, Augustine pleaded with the people of Hippo to help and give hospitality to the crowd of refugees. (Sermon 81, 9. PL 38, 506).
Against capital punishment and torture
His letter to Macedonius, Imperial Vicar for Africa, is a demonstration of this. So too is his letter to Donatus, the Proconsul of Africa, whom Augustine asked to avoid capital punishment, and his letter to Marcelinus, a military commander, whom he asked to avoid the use of torture.
The support of Augustine for the people without power in society
The recently discovered Letter 22 (one of the "lost letters" of Augustine) shows clearly the powerlessness of the weak against the local courts and government, which often were corrupt and poorly supervised. Augustine himself admitted feeling he lacked power when attempting to defend effectively the rights of the poor. In writing this, Augustine was not understating his limited influence on the local society.
The Augustinian scholar, Peter Brown, indicated that the North African bishops in the time of Augustine had not gained great influence over the ancient habits in their society that had been in place from before the church existed. Church sanctuary might protect a few victims of injustice; but the cities and the poor continued to be ground down by excessive and selective taxation, "while we (the bishops) groan and are unable to help," Augustine lamented.
For the spiritual and temporal benefit of the people of North Africa, Alypius, who was bishop of Thagaste and a friend of Augustine, sailed to Italy during the calm seas of many summers. In the 420s, Alypius lived much of his life "across the water" in Italy, going to the court of the Roman Emperor at Ravenna. He was a constant unofficial ambassador of the Catholic Church of Africa, ensuring that the laws against the Pelagians and other heretics were maintained. As indicated for the first time in the "lost letters" of Augustine, Alypius constantly brought the many ills of the society of North Africa to the attention of the emperor.
Augustine protests injustice in his letters
In Letter 247, he intervenes in favour of little farmers, who were forced by their landowner Romulus to pay taxes twice.
In Letter 251, his intervention is intended to protect farmers who have been treated in a manner that was not just on the estate of a certain Pancarills.
Four Letters, 113-116, are written in order to defend the administrator Faventius who had come into conflict with his master. Faventius sought refuge in the church of Hippo, where he enjoyed the rights of asylum. He was then kidnapped, however, and was missing. Augustine was terribly alarmed at this, and did all he could to find him again.
From Letter 268 we learn that Augustine intervened for a person who was bowed down by a burden of debts. Augustine himself had not the sum needed to help him. He borrowed the money from a rich man. However, in doing so Augustine himself got into difficulty himself when he was unable to repay the loan. He had to ask the help of the people of Hippo.
The foregoing summaries of the contents of these letters give only a small idea of the actions of Augustine for poor people. For more detail, these letters need to be studied at length. Augustine sought clemency from capital punishment. He occasionally interceded with imperial officials on behalf of persons accused or convicted of crimes, especially of capital crimes; he explained that he did so not because of any legal right given a bishop to do so, but as coming from his duty as a Christian to seek clemency.