A Christian Response to Modern Slavery
by Gabriel Cairns
Why should Christians care about modern-day slavery? The answer is almost immediate: because slavery denies people their inherent, God-given dignity as those created in His image; because the Holy Spirit calls and equips us to follow the example of Christ, who was filled with compassion for the oppressed and needy; because of our mandate from God to “set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Is. 58:6); and because to turn a blind eye to our suffering, oppressed neighbour denies not only Jesus’ core command to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mk. 12:31), but the truth that the freedom we enjoy is not a reward we have earned but God’s gracious gift to us, intended for His glory alone. And yet, despite nearly a third of people worldwide professing to be Christian throughout the world, there are an estimated 40 million people still in slavery worldwide. How can the global Church, even without the backing of those of other faiths and none, tolerate such a grievous and widespread injustice? Maybe a better question is: why don’t Christians care about modern day slavery?
The answer calls right to the core of our human nature: our wickedness, selfishness, and denial of God’s rule, which pervade our hearts even as we seek to live a life in Christ. God commands us to love others, in accordance with his unbounded, unconditional love for us, yet we too often choose apathy instead. The exploitation of forced workers infiltrates every corner of our society, often in plain sight: from the food we buy to the clothes we wear, to the technology we use, to the taboo topic (at least within Christian circles) of pornography, we unknowingly yet unquestioningly enjoy the products of slaves and forced labourers on a daily basis, and in doing so are complicit in their exploitation. The way of the world is to claim that it’s not our place to ensure companies don’t include slaves in their supply chain, and we have no way of really knowing who picked that coffee or stitched that shirt, so while we might agree that slavery is a moral atrocity, we have neither the power nor the responsibility to make a difference. But do such excuses really hold up in the face of God’s call for wholehearted, self-sacrificial love? Can we profess to love God and our neighbour, yet thoughtlessly benefit from the exploitation of the vulnerable while claiming ignorance as our defence?
There’s also the issue of slavery’s troubling presentation in the Bible, in which the law books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy not only fail to condemn slavery but actively make provision for Israelites to own slaves (Lev. 25:44-46); even in the New Testament, Paul instructs slaves to serve their masters wholeheartedly and masters to love their slaves (Col. 3:22-4:1). Many atheists would cite such passages in claiming Christianity is morally backward, reflecting the values of its time rather than divinely originated ones. However, the claim that slavery’s moral permissibility is a thing of the past doesn’t hold up to the reality that our western lifestyle of cut-price food and fast fashion is ultimately dependent on forced labour. Moreover, a wider reading of the Bible clearly reveals a gracious and compassionate God (Ps. 145:8), who loves righteousness and justice (Ps. 33:5) defends the cause of the needy (Ps. 140:12) and is outraged by exploitation and oppression of the vulnerable (Jer. 22:13, Prov. 22:8, Ez. 45:9). Even more than this, the God of the Bible is a liberator.
We first see this in the story of the Exodus, where God powerfully intervenes to lead the enslaved Israelites to freedom. But this story itself foreshadows God’s greater plan of liberation for all who believe in Him, revealed through the Gospel: in our human nature we are all bound into slavery to the power of sin and death, and yet God in His great mercy and power, with the ransom paid through Christ’s sacrifice, leads us to freedom.
If you are a Christian, therefore, Christ has set you free from a spiritual slavery deeper than the most profound human oppression. This demands a response: to rejoice in the God who has delivered us, but also to share with others the same freedom we received through grace. And although this freedom from sin and death far surpasses any physical circumstance, this doesn’t absolve us of our duty to fight for the oppressed. In fact, this spiritual freedom is precisely what enables us to liberate those bound by physical chains and subject to human masters; for if our God has delivered His people with a mighty hand from the power of death itself, how much more will He be able to break chains made by human hands, and bring the perpetrators to justice? As Christians we have nothing to fear in pursuing God’s call to set free the oppressed, because we have a God who leads by example, and who has promised an eternal future where all oppression will be brought to an end and perfect justice will rule – and even in the difficulties of this struggle, we can rejoice in the knowledge that the greatest battle for freedom has already been won.
It was the knowledge of this freedom that stirred the abolitionist movement in the late 18th century, originating with Quaker groups and spreading among evangelical Christians appalled by the injustice of the transatlantic slave trade, including the MP William Wilberforce, who campaigned for its abolition in parliament, spurred on by his faith in God and desire to serve Him. The same freedom transformed the life of John Newton (known for writing “Amazing Grace”) whose conversion to evangelical Christianity drew him to abandon his work in the slave trade and become a prominent abolitionist and popular priest. Among the slaves themselves, the story of God’s liberation of the Israelites resonated powerfully, inspiring the spiritual music which sang simultaneously of freedom from sin and a future freedom from their oppressors.
Centuries later, the transatlantic slave trade is by God’s grace consigned to history, yet slavery remains an ugly truth in our global society. So once again we ask: how do we approach this as Christians? As a bare minimum, we can’t be complicit in it, and this applies to every Christian, no matter where God has called us to minister. On an everyday basis, this can be as simple as looking into the brands we buy our food and clothes from to ensure the produce we buy is ethically certified (e.g. Fairtrade, WRAP); helpful websites for this include Ethical Consumer, Good Shopping Guide, Good on You, and Tearfund’s Ethical Fashion Report. The issue of slavery and exploitation is also one of many reasons Christians should fight at all costs the temptation of pornography, with even mainstream websites regularly featuring victims of sex trafficking under the guise of paid actors, profiting from their abuse in doing so. Don’t just stop at yourself – encourage your friends and everyone around you to take these same steps.
However, there are some of us whom God has allotted a greater role in the struggle against slavery, for example through working with the victims of slavery, or campaigning for change in the law and in corporate policy. For those of us, our faith is what calls us to take heart in the face of difficulty, frustration or despair. If we feel powerless to change the world in our capacity as humans, then we’re right – but our God is powerful beyond measure. More than this, He is gracious and compassionate, faithful and just (Ex. 34:6-7). Whatever part we have in striving to rid the world of the evil of slavery, let us do as the abolitionists and so many others did: seeking God’s glory, relying on his power, and resting in His love, remembering that, whether spiritual or physical, He alone can break all chains.
Gabriel Carins is a second-year Mathematics student at Worcester College.
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