Modern slavery: time to get on our knees and pray?
Sunday, 5 March 2017
| Jacob Sarkodee
Slavery past and present
In 2010, I travelled to Ghana to reconnect with my extended family. Having been born and raised in Australia, getting across a continent, an ocean and another continent comes seldom, if ever. And so, for just the second time in my life, I travelled back to a country that could so easily have been home.
In one sense I was returning to a country that is home, because of family. Yet at times it was also a very unfamiliar and disjointing experience. How do I understand the culture, the history, in order to engage well in the present? For me, I best understand my Ghanaian heritage as a story that has mostly gone before me, a story that also intersects with one of the world’s darkest chapters – the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
While visiting Ghana, I wanted to learn more about how it was that slavery was so engrained into the normal purview of the European conquerors. It is very easy to see the footprint of hundreds of years of empire building: the West African coast has hundreds of forts and castles built to exert colonial power over the land and its indigenous peoples.
I took the opportunity to visit one of the very first European castles built on the coastline at the end of the 15th century. The imposing castle, still with cannons in place, is called Elmina Castle. It was built by the Portuguese, and then taken over by the Dutch, before finally being handed to the British.
As I walked through the castle, I could see some of the remaining evidence of what may have inspired those occupying it over the centuries – a mixture of allegiance to the crown and Christian missional inspiration. I remember distinctly identifying bible references in Dutch on the inside of the walls where generals and commanders oversaw the abduction, abuse, rape and servitude of generations of men, women and children.
At one point during the visit, I was taken into a dimly lit dungeon in the lower region of the castle. In this dungeon, there were no windows or ventilation. The only hole was in the ceiling from where basic food and water were dropped for the 300 to 400 men, and in an adjacent room for women. The captives were confined in these horrendously hot dungeons for up to two months before being transported onto ships and across to the Americas (if they survived their captivity).
Despite being cleaned and scrubbed to make them fit for present-day tourists, the ceilings and walls are still caked with green moss and mould from the tens of thousands of people who suffered the brutal slavery and deprivation of liberty.
My visit there will stay with me for a long time. There is nothing quite like being at the scene of a grave injustice. There is also something gut-wrenchingly profound about the reality that, if I were born in another century, I too may have been subject to this cruelty.
Today, we are thankful for the Holy Spirit-inspired advocacy of the likes of Wilberforce and the Christian abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But we often don’t recall that the church and the state were blind to slavery’s deeply engrained sin for centuries.
And that is what it was: sin, both because of what was and was not done. Standing in the castle I couldn’t help but think: how could these self-declared Christians be so blind to this barbarity?
Slavery’s seemingly invisible nature has made it difficult for generations of faithful believers to detect or, even worse, fail to reject. Slavery is almost always ‘hidden’ amongst those most unable to advocate for themselves – the poor.
Sadly, a few generations on from the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the crime of human slavery, trafficking and abuse continues today.
I shared this news recently with a taxi driver. When I told him I work for International Justice Mission, the world’s largest anti-slavery organisation, he asked, ‘Slavery? Does it still exist?’ I said, ‘Yes, it does. And here is the shocking news - there are actually more people trapped in slavery today than ever before’.
According to the Global Slavery Index, some 45.8 million people are held in slavery right now. But what do we mean when we say slavery? It may not be the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the guts of slavery have not changed. Slavery has modernised, but fundamentally remains the use of lies or violence to force another person to work for little or no pay.
What can we do?
So here’s the rub. Are we blind as Christians to the ongoing sin of modern day slavery? When Australia is about to enjoy its 26th year of uninterrupted economic growth, what are we to do with our own high position (in global terms) of social and economic power in the context of rampant slavery?
In Leviticus 19:33, following the Israelites’ rescue from slavery at the hand of Pharaoh, Moses declares:
When an alien resides with you, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
In Deuteronomy 24:17 and 24:21, God reminds Israel that they are to render justice to the vulnerable because of what He has already done: ‘Remember you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. Therefore I command you to do this’.
Wolterstorff unpacks the Old Testament principle that ‘those with social power in Israel are to render justice to the vulnerable bottom ones as a public remembrance, as a memorial, of Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt … Israel is to do justice as a memorial of its deliverance by God from the injustice of slavery’.
Furthermore, God’s people are called to imitate the Lord’s character and commitment to justice in how He undoes injustice:
The Lord raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. (Psalm 113:7-8)
In fact, to imitate God in this is also described in Jeremiah (22:16) as what it is to know the Lord: ‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy… Is that not what it means to know me?’ The Lord is described as loving justice (Isaiah 61:8, Psalm 37:28); He loves the very presence of justice in society.
But it is God’s desire for us, His children, to flourish and live in shalom (sometimes understood from scripture as ‘harmonious peace’) that best illuminates why He loves justice so much: ‘injustice is perforce the impairment of shalom. Our flourishing as humans is premised on a justice that is inseparable from a vision of shalom.
Even more so, now that Jesus has rescued us from being slaves to sin in our own lives – moving us towards shalom – we are to imitate Him in His mission and character in how we live our lives. That is, we are called to live in preference towards the poor and oppressed:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovered of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
Now, two millennia on from when Jesus made this declaration, a gathering took place, chaired by the leaders of two of the world’s largest churches: the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church, Archbishop Bartholomew of Constantinople-New Rome; and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. At a forum titled ‘Sin Before our Eyes’, the leaders made a joint declaration on modern slavery:
We are convinced that there is an intimate and inseparable link between preserving God’s natural creation and protecting God’s image in every human being, especially those most vulnerable to the myriad forms of human exploitation that comprise the sin of modern slavery.
As followers of Jesus in Australia, we need to acknowledge that modern slavery occurs both on and just beyond our shores. God puts no limit on who our neighbour is and so we must not, like those who were present at the time of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, be blind to it. Welby identified this in the declaration:
Slavery is all around us, but we are too blind to see it. It is in our hands, and yet we are too insensitive to touch it. The enslaved are next to us in the streets, but we are too ignorant to walk alongside them. It must not be relegated to a footnote in history. It is still a living reality in all of our communities, as I have seen from personal experience in the United Kingdom, not because we think it is acceptable, but because our sin lies in blindness and ignorance.
If we can acknowledge the need for repentance for our inaction and blindness to slavery, then we can begin the journey of prayer and petition to our Heavenly Father for the freedom and justice that God loves. We have an opportunity this month to do just that by coming together at the Australian Prayer Gathering (March 31 - April 1) and begin to pray that God’s children held captive to violence would indeed experience life in all its fullness (John 10:10).
Jacob Sarkodee is the Advancement Manager at International Justice Mission Australia (ijm.org.au) and works with church and strategic partners across Australia.
IJM is a Christian human rights organisation that seeks to rescue thousands, protect millions and prove that justice for the poor is possible.
Jacob is here pictured in front of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, DC, where he is currently attending IJM's International Prayer Gathering.
Photos below: Elmina Castle
 Originally known as São Jorge da Mina (St George of the Mine) Castle, built in 1482. See http://www.elminacastle.info/.
 ‘What is slavery?’, https://www.ijm.org/slavery.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, 2008, 80-82.
 Tim Keller, ‘God created all things to be in a beautiful, harmonious, interdependent, knitted, webbed relationship to one another. Just as rightly related physical elements form a cosmos or a tapestry, so rightly related human being form a community. This interwovenness is what the Bible calls shalom, or harmonious peace’, http://dailykeller.com/shalom-harmonious-peace/.
 Justice: Right and Wrongs, Nicholas Wolterstorff, 80-82.
 Modern Slavery – A Joint Declaration, February 9th, 2017, https://www.patriarchate.org/-/modern-slavery-a-joint-declaration.