Despite the incredible leaps that our species have made in the last couple of centuries, one of the oldest scourges that has accompanied us throughout our history still remains alive and well today: slavery.
In the modern world, slavery is the primary human rights issue that has attracted international attention and aroused global concern. Yet, despite universal condemnation and numerous international efforts, slavery continues to flourish in many parts of the world.
Modern slavery is a complex phenomenon that covers a variety of practices. This includes traditional slavery and slave trades, child prostitution, child labour, human trafficking (for sexual exploitation), children in armed conflict, debt bondage, etc.
A United Nations document entitled, ‘Contemporary Forms of Slavery’ presents the enormity of the problem of modern slavery thus: ‘Slave-like practices may be clandestine. This makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the scale of contemporary slavery, let alone to uncover, punish or eliminate it’.
It adds that ‘[t]he problem is compounded by the fact that the victims of slavery-like abuses are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Fear and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out’.
A quick glance at slavery across the world would help us to appreciate just how grim the current situation is.
In Albania, 90 percent of girls in rural areas do not attend school because they are afraid of being abducted and sold as sex-slaves. One study estimated that about 80 percent of women traded as prostitutes in Western Europe may be from the Republic of Moldova, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe.
Muslim tribesmen from northern Sudan conduct slave raids on non-Muslim Dinka people in the south, taking with them thousands of women and children. And the United Arab Emirates (UAE) receives a constant supply of women trafficked from the former Soviet Union.
In India, debt slavery is prevalent in certain sectors of society. For example, Dalits are forced to accept loans from their landlords to perform social duties associated with death or marriage.
But as Justin Campbell explains: “These loans are designed to be impossible to pay back, and because Dalits are traditionally denied education, they are left with little recourse but to accept the loans and become indebted to their landlords. So just as one’s position in the caste social hierarchy is inherited, so debts are passed from one generation to another.”
Christianity has been woefully slow to condemn slavery. Many Christians have found justification for keeping the practice alive in the way in which certain passages in the Bible are interpreted.
Far from condemning slavery and urging its abolition, the Bible appears to take the practice – so prevalent in the Ancient Near East – for granted as an acceptable social norm. A number of passages from the OT even seem to sanction the buying and selling of slaves, both male and female, by the Israelites.
For example, in Leviticus 25, we read: ‘As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. And you may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property.’
In the NT, we find instructions on how slaves should behave towards their masters and how the latter should treat the former (E.g., 1 Timothy 6:5-6; Ephesians 6:5-6; 1 Peter 2:18-29). But there is no specific injunction for Christians to free their slaves or to oppose this dehumanising practice.
The great theologians of the Church appear to hold the view that slavery is in some sense necessary in the sinful world in which we inhabit. While both Augustine in the fifth century and Aquinas in the thirteenth insisted that slavery should never be understood as part of natural law – that is, as part of God’s intention for human beings – they maintain that it is an appropriate concession in a world crippled by original sin.
It must be stressed, however, that although Christians are slow in condemning slavery, the Gospel that they embrace has forced them to look at slaves very differently. For example, if all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore enjoy equal dignity and value, the Christian cannot look upon slaves as mere property for their masters to do as they wish.
It was on the basis of the Christian understanding of the dignity and value of the human being that the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th century conducted their campaign to end the transatlantic slave trade and to abolish the chattel slavery in the United States.
Although slavery today is vastly different from previous centuries, modern abolitionists must receive inspiration from their predecessors – Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce, the Grimke sisters, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Candy – and follow in their footsteps in the fight against this ancient crime and in doing so restore the dignity and humanity that slavery has stolen from its victims.