Faith in Action: Ending Slavery, Together

By Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin | Tikkun, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview

Faith in Action: Ending Slavery, Together


Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin, Tikkun


SLAVERY STILL EXISTS. IF YOU'VE BEEN PAYING ATTENTION OVER THE LAST FEW years, you'll have noticed this theme cropping up again and again. It started like a low rumble coming from human rights advocates, humanitarian workers, and missionaries the world over. A resurgence of a very, very old sort of exploitation was taking place among those least able to defend themselves. People at the margins of the economy, whether the global economy or their own village economy, were forced to do work with little or no pay and unable to leave because of violence and fear. That's what slavery is: forced work, no pay, and violence.

If you've been paying attention you've noticed that this issue takes an astounding number of forms: human trafficking, forced prostitution, bonded labor, forced marriage, forced conscription into armies... the list goes on, checked only by the limits of human imagination. These horrible things are happening to children, men, women-anyone caught in the fissures and gaps of an economy with nobody looking after them. And then there are the numbers : 27 million held in slavery worldwide, tens of thousands right here in the United States.

I've been working on this issue for years now and will be the first to admit that this steady stream of statistics and stories is bleak But I've got to tell you about what else I've been seeing-something beyond slavery. Flashes of hope. Glimpses of freedom. I work for an organization called Free the Slaves. The more we learn the more we're convinced that complex problems require ambitious solutions. And these solutions must get us all thinking about slavery in terms of freedom.

We recently released a book (Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves), written by sociologist and Free the Slaves president, Kevin Bales, that sketches this ambitious solution. We believe it's going to take a mass movement of people standing up against slavery. People like you and me. It's also going to take governments enforcing their laws against slavery. And it will take corporations that have the courage to take a hard look at their supply chains, removing slavery wherever they find it. International groups like the UN and non-governmental organizations have a role too, building infrastructure for large-scale anti-slavery work We think that together we can end slavery in twenty-five years. The book's most important contribution is that it opens a window into a world in which each of us has a role to play.

So lately, I've been asking myself: What's the role of faith communities in all of this? My search for answers has broadened my horizons and gladdened my spirit. In thinking about slavery and abolition, Christianity comes immediately to mind. The relationship isn't a clean one. Many a theological battle was waged before the notion of freedom for the enslaved took root in Christian consciousness. In fact, broader ideas of freedom were slow to catch on, as lauded abolitionist William Wilberforce painfully displayed when he said that "taught by Christianity, [freed slaves] will sustain with patience the sufferings of their actual lot... [and] will soon be regarded as a grateful peasantry" (Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains).

And yet, there they were, Christians leading the last anti-slavery movement (and a few rebellions) some 200 years ago. In retrospect it may seem natural that the church would get involved in this effort. But it's important to remember what else the church was doing at the time. The church was also busy using the Scripture to defend slavery. The sociologist Christian Smith has pointed out that the "worldviews, moral systems, theodicies, and organizations of religion can serve not only to legitimate and preserve, but also to challenge and overturn social, political, and economic systems."

So who was doing the challenging and overturning? Who had the gumption to stand up against slavery when it was at its zenith? We must remember that the slave trade was one of the most significant industries in the global economy.

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