Facing Social Revolution: The Personal Journey of a Quaker Economist

By Jack Powelson; Jim Corbett et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
Slavery

I once read an article about Africa, "where religion is more about joy than guilt, where the wounds of black-white violence and tribal genocide are healed by . . . the Africans' short memory of hate" ( Harden 1986:25). I thought long and hard about a religion filled with joy and not ridden with guilt, and I thought about the Africans. Are we guilty of destroying societies and economies in that beautiful continent by the slavery of our ancestors? We are guilty, but is our guilt unique? Does it matter whether it is unique?

Slavery and empires have existed from time immemorial. There is no historical record of a society in which they did not exist, in one form or another, until slavery was consciously abolished, and empires dismantled, by industrialized nations.

We sometimes hear of primitive tribes living in harmony, with equality because in the simple life there is no means to distinguish rich from poor and because clans formed "safety nets" for the poor. But this nostalgic vision has long been disproved by archaeologists. Tombs and mounds, and cities reconstructed by aerial photography, reveal great disparities of wealth and power thousands of years ago. Even if land existed sufficiently for subsistence, ancient peoples constantly thought that "others had better," so they migrated and conquered. Conquered people were sold as slaves. Walled cities and other fortifications in ancient times reveal how tribes and clans fought each other. Gold, obsidian, cattle, and housing distinguished rich from poor.

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