On Sunday, September 23rd we will participate with other churches in “Freedom Sunday”, a day to alert Christians that slavery is all too alive and well on planet earth – even in the United States! To be sure, slavery is illegal throughout the world. The last nation to formally outlaw slavery was Mauritania (a very poor, Muslim country in northwest Africa) in 1981. But slavery continues in nearly all the nations of the world. It goes on in conditions of secrecy in nations with good law enforcement and quite openly where the government is corrupt or uninterested. It is estimated that there are now more the forty million people on earth who are living as slaves. That is an historic record for slavery. What is worst, one out of four of these slaves are children!
There is a good reason why slavery still exists: it generates around one hundred and fifty billion dollars every year for slave traffickers. Two-thirds of that amount is generated by sex trafficking. In 2016, 3.8 million adults were victims of forced sexual exploitation. An additional one million were children. The great majority of those coerced to work in the sex trade are women and girls. This goes on here in California. In January of this year, state law enforcement agents conducted a crack-down on sex traffickers, arresting thirty of them, along with hundreds who participated in their crimes. They were able to free forty-five adults and eleven children who were the victims of these perpetrators. Just a month ago, a postal worker rescued a sixteen year old girl from her captors here in Sacramento.
Slavery comes in many forms. Desperate people are recruited to work in a foreign country. They do not have enough to pay their plane fare but the recruiters say, “No problem, we’ll cover it!” It sounds like a great deal. But once they reach their new place of employment, their passports are taken from them and they are informed that they will have to work until their travel expenses are paid off. But they never are. They are completely at the mercy of their “employer” who either holds them through fear or actually imprisons them and makes them work long hours every day, without pay.
Bhavani is a little girl who lives in India. Her parents worked as slaves on a sugar cane plantation. They had taken a loan from the plantation owner and now they had to work it off. But the owner set their wages so low it was taking forever to pay it off. Bhavani’s parents one day asked their “master” for permission to go home to celebrate one of their annual festivals. Angered by this request, he increased the size of their debt and then took Bhavani, their beloved daughter to work in his home. Finally, they decided to escape and seek help. Thankfully, they found a local International Justice Ministry worker who helped them get their daughter back and release them from their bondage.
IJM is a great organization that works around the world to intervene when people are being held against their will, contrary to the laws of their country. They sometimes have to shame the local authorities into doing their duty or go higher up the chain of command until they find someone who will act. They also seek to raise awareness in the community about this sometimes hidden but often “open secret” of slavery. Many other organizations also work to end slavery, including some locally. On Freedom Sunday we will highlight the work of these good people and show how we can lend a hand.
As we become more aware of the problem we need to ask God what He wants us to do. Of one thing we can be certain: God wants slavery to end. Our Quaker forbearers became convinced of this and did all they could to help slaves escape their bondage. They read their Bibles where God said, You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16) Among the Israelites, those who became slaves were to serve no longer than six years. (Exodus 21:2) While God allowed slavery under the Old Covenant, He laid down a principle that would, in time, undermine the very existence of slavery: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
Jesus underscored this ancient principle of conduct, saying it was second in importance only to the command to love God with all your being. (Matthew 22:34-40) Does anyone want to be slave? Do you? Then if you love your neighbor as yourself you cannot enslave your neighbor. Yes, it is true that the Apostles of Jesus told slaves to serve Christ by serving their masters but they also told masters to “do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” (Ephesians 6:9) This was effectively to end the whole master/slave relation and replace it with a fellowship of equals. That is why, when the slave Onesimus escaped his Christian master and fled to Rome and there met Paul who converted him to Christ, Paul sent him back, saying to the master, Philemon, “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother…” (Philemon 15-16) Gradually, as the Christian faith spread to more and more people and had a stronger hold on society, the practice of slavery was greatly diminished.
Sadly, with the discovery of the New World and because Europeans desired to exploit its resources, they first enslaved the natives and when these became too few through overwork and disease, they turned to sub-Saharan Africa for slaves to do the work. Thus slavery was revived and became worse than it had ever been before as the slaves were accorded absolutely no rights at all and slavery, for the first time, became racialized. Searching for support in the Bible, they seized upon a few texts, ripped them from their contexts and convinced themselves that it was God’s will to enslave the Africans and other “inferior races”. Thankfully, their errors were eventually exposed and formal slavery ended but economics and lax enforcement still create incentives for some to engage in that evil practice.
God wants us to enter the fray again, to pick up where our abolitionist mothers and fathers left off and slay this beast of slavery wherever it rears its ugly head.So join us on “Freedom Sunday” and learn more about how to enter the fight to free slaves here and around the world!