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Slavery Lives Again
Evangelicals once led the campaign to abolish slavery—It's time to do it again.

"I can't believe there's slavery in the galaxy!" exclaimed an incredulous Queen Padme in the Star Wars instalment The Phantom Menace. Long before that (or maybe after) in a galaxy far, far away, neither could William Wilberforce. An evangelical British member of Parliament who led the charge to abolish slavery in the firmament that was the British Empire, Wilberforce is now the subject of a Hollywood treatment that is poised to deliver him from an undeserved obscurity.

William Wilberforce played by Ioan Gruffudd (see the movie website for Amazing Grace).

Amazing Grace, which premiered last autumn at the Toronto Film Festival where it garnered an Official Selection accolade, promises to do for Wilberforce what Braveheart did for William Wallace.

The film, lauded by Variety as "a tidy story of conscience and perseverance," was produced by Walden Media, one of the makers of the recent Chronicles of Narnia movie.

Amazing Grace opens in U.S. theatres February 23, 2007 (Canadian screenings were not announced at press time) to mark the 200th anniversary of the historic act that stamped out the transatlantic slave trade in the British dominions. (Upper Canada under Sir John Graves Simcoe passed a law in 1793 freeing children of slaves after they reached 25 and preventing new settlers from bringing slaves into the territory. But all existing slaves were not freed until 1810.)

To raise awareness of contemporary slavery and help Canadian churches and Evangelicals tackle the issue, the World Evangelical Alliance (of which The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is a national member) has prepared a Church Resource Kit of sermons, small group guides, PowerPoints and video clips from the film to underline that Wilberforce was "a wonderful example of a committed follower of Jesus who made a profound impact on his nation and the world."

Too often Evangelicals are known for what they oppose. Amazing Grace provides the perfect opportunity to showcase what they stand for, says Geoff Tunnicliffe, who serves as both the WEA's international director and The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's director of global initiatives. "What the film does for us is provide another mechanism in motivating evangelical Christians to be agents of transformation in culture," he says. "My sense is that there's a growing response to these issues [but] much more can be done."

Today there's good news, if one can call it that, but mostly bad when it comes to global slavery. International aid agencies, Christian advocacy groups and the United Nations (UNESCO) believe there are 27 million slaves worldwide, bought and sold at an average price of $100. That is the largest number of people ever enslaved at any point in world history.

And the good news? It would take an unusually sunny disposition to view that number as also being the smallest percentage of the total human population that has ever been enslaved at once. Small mercies indeed.

Not only does slavery exist on a shocking scale all over the planet—from the dank brothels of Southeast Asia to the cocoa plantations of Ivory Coast, where it is mainly children who are exploited, to the trafficking of women in Eastern Europe—but it has other no less horrible forms. The London, England-based Anti-Slavery Society lists bonded labour, pawnage (akin to bonded labour, an arrangement under which the debtor provides another human being as security or collateral for a debt) and servile concubinage, a polite way of saying sex slaves.

Neither is Canada immune as a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of labour and sexual exploitation. In 2004 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimated 600 to 800 people are trafficked into Canada annually and an additional 1,500 to 2,000 individuals are trafficked through Canada into the United States.

According to the United Nations (UNICEF), more than one million children are lured into the global sex trade every year. A U.S. government report published in 2003 estimated that nearly one million people worldwide are trafficked across international borders annually. This figure does not include those who are trafficked internally in places like Sudan.

For additional photos, see the movie website for Amazing Grace).

And the economics are stark. According to Free the Slaves, a Washington, D.C. lobby, those 27 million people are estimated to produce a gross economic product of $13 billion U.S. a year. Stoking the bottom line are the more than 300,000 Japanese sex tourists who visit the Philippines every year, where prostitution is now its fourth largest source of Gross National Product. The Netherlands is a major destination country for trafficked women, helping fuel a sex industry that is estimated to be worth almost $1 billion per year.

"When I see man's inhumanity to man, it just tears me up," sighs Jamie McIntosh, executive director of International Justice Mission Canada, a broad-based Christian agency based in London, Ontario, that rescues victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery and other forms of abuse and oppression around the world.

An ordained minister of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, McIntosh challenges activist Christians to do more to eliminate slavery—and non-activist Christians to get started. "While I think churches are waking up to the issue, the reality is most people are simply unaware of modern slavery," he says. "As the church does wake up, we find we have incredible power and resources to bring to bear on behalf of the oppressed."

McIntosh speaks from experience. In one operation, he took a team of Canadian lawyers to South Asia—he says he can't be more specific about time and place—and, working with local officials and social workers, managed to shut down a rock quarry where entire families were forced to toil for years in order to pay off relatively small debts. "Dozens" of slaves were thus freed.

Returning eight months later, McIntosh encountered the families. "They were now working and living in freedom. Their children were free to go to school for the first time in their lives. They were getting medical attention. They built their own schools on their own land."

Other agencies have taken to buying back slaves from traders in order to release them. Christian Solidarity International, based in California, has bought the freedom of an estimated 80,000 slaves in Sudan since 1995. While there's no hard proof of the adverse effects of slave redemption, some activists condemn it, alleging it drives up the price of slaves and thus encourages the spread of slave raiding. Some organizations that formerly did this work have now stopped, such as Christian Freedom International in Virginia.

Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves and dubbed the world's foremost expert on contemporary slavery, believes redeeming slaves is not a good idea. "If we're talking about a criminal activity that involves stealing a person and forcing him or her into slavery, you only abet that crime if you pay a slaveholder to get that slave back. It's a little bit like paying a burglar to get your television set back."

Christian Solidarity International cites "a longstanding Judeo-Christian tradition of redeeming slaves" rooted in the words of Isaiah that were cited by Jesus at the inauguration of his ministry: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to … preach deliverance to the captives … and … to set at liberty them that are bruised" (Luke 4:18). CSI says it "strives to serve in this tradition" especially when there are no better means of liberation at hand.

"If we love our neighbour as ourselves," John Eibner, the organization's CEO, told Faith Today in an e-mail exchange, "we do not leave slaves in bondage to be raped, beaten and otherwise terrorized when we have the means to free them and return them to their families.

"It is a dismal sign of the moral degeneracy of our post-Judeo-Christian age that a significant body of opinion exists, even amongst the human rights elite, that says it would be better for a child or a mother to remain enslaved rather than to pay the monetary equivalent of a cheap restaurant meal or a theatre ticket for their freedom," Eibner stated.

All anti-slavery activists face the awkward reality of unreliable law enforcement, often because there is none in places where slavery thrives or, in the case of Sudan, the government actively supports slavery even though the practice is officially banned (the United Nations has even cited the existence of open slave markets in the country).

"In that situation where there is no safe, legal mechanism for bringing people out of slavery you are sometimes faced with a choice," Bales says. "It's a tough moral choice." A child in direct physical danger with only redemption as a way out would be the sole such situation Bales would consider.

The author of the 1999 book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy(University of California Press), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Bales acknowledges that churches are involved in the campaign to end slavery, "but I wouldn't say adequately. Faith communities are just awakening to their role in the global anti-slavery movement. Very often, particularly Evangelicals—when they come to understand this issue and often that this issue even exists—are shocked and dismayed by it. [But] if they dig deeper, they often find the impetus behind previous anti-slavery movements has very much grown out of faith communities and Evangelicals in particular."

Like Wilberforce. Born in 1759, the son of a wealthy merchant, he entered Parliament at age 21 and was born again at age 25. He joined the Clapham Set, a group of Anglican Evangelicals, became interested in social reform and was approached by a group of prominent Quakers who had been campaigning against slavery for many years. His first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791 was easily defeated 163 votes to 88.

A gifted orator, he pressed ahead and in 1805 the House of Commons passed a bill that made it unlawful for any British subject to transport slaves. But the measure was blocked by the House of Lords. Two years later, on March 25, 1807, the upper chamber shifted course and passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, 41 votes to 20.

British captains caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found aboard ships. But that had little effect. Captains often reduced the penalties by throwing slaves into the sea, especially if smallpox or dysentery had broken out on the voyage from Africa.

Some captains like John Newton went on to see the errors of their ways. Newton had commanded an English slave ship in 1750, two years after he had accepted Christ as his Saviour. He could not, however, reconcile his profession with his faith and soon abandoned the former. In 1772 Newton wrote the words to the iconic hymn "Amazing Grace" and spent the last 43 years of his life preaching the Gospel.

Wilberforce, meantime, died in July 1833 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. One month later Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave the roughly one million slaves in the British Empire their freedom.

Yet he's still not a household name. Last autumn the New Statesmanpondered Wilberforce's anonymity: "He doesn't have the credentials that make someone newsworthy nowadays. He wasn't a rebel. He wasn't remotely rock 'n' roll. He was straight, white, wealthy and conservative. His crusade against the slave trade was driven by his devout Christianity. Today he would probably be written off as a religious crank."

Wilberforce was a trailblazer but he also provides impetus for today's Evangelicals to look inward. "When I looked closely [at slavery] I realized we didn't finish the job," says Bales, a Quaker like the early English abolitionists. "We didn't carry through on our commitment. That's something I had to think through carefully as a spiritual person and carry that question to my faith community and ask, 'What are we going to do about the fact that we made a promise?' "

The WEA's Tunnicliffe concedes the slave trade was driven largely by Christians for Christian consumers. To illustrate the issues Christians face he recalls a visit he made a few years ago to Ghana. "There was a castle there where slaves were held downstairs. Right above them was a church. Here you had a group of worshipping people and below them were a thousand slaves! That's a kind of bifurcated view of the world we sometimes have." The modern explosion in servitude in all its forms provides the reason for "why we as Christians need to be active in seeking to eradicate this kind of slavery."

McIntosh of the International Justice Mission of Canada doesn't pause when asked what motivates him and his organization—and what should drive others: "If we are to claim that we have the love of Christ in our hearts then we need to be fired up about going into the heart of darkness and helping bring light and love and rescue and hope for these people as if it were ourselves trapped in those situations."

Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Kevin Bales. University of California Press; 2 edition (Feb 3 2005). ISBN-10: 0520243846. ISBN-13: 978-0520243842.

Ron Csillag is a freelance writer in Thornhill, Ontario.

Related article

A History of the Slave Trade in Canada

Originally published in Faith Today, Janaury/February 2007.




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