Thanks to William Wilberforce, we already know the key to defeating slavery.
Wouldn't it be ironic if Western Christians were more excited about what God did through William Wilberforce to fight slavery in 1807 than about what God wants to do through us to fight slavery in 2007?
The question would seem absurd if not for the fact that there are more slaves in the world today than were extracted from Africa during 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade. More than 25 million human beings are slaves in 2007. They are not slaves in a metaphorical sense. They are held in forced servitude by other human beings. The statistics may seem incomprehensible, but my colleagues and I have known thousands of them by name.
Indeed, it takes far less time for an American in 2007 to hop on a jet airplane and see where slaves are held on the other side of the world than it would have taken Wilberforce to visit a slave in the British Empire of 1807 (which he was never able to do).
When Wilberforce sought to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, about 50,000 new slaves a year were being boarded onto British ships. While that was a nightmarishly large number for its day, there are far more children sold into sex slavery every year in the 21st centuryto say nothing of the millions of adults held in other forms of slavery in the mines, rock quarries, brick factories, plantations, and rice mills of our world.
What a tragedy it would be if amidst all the movies and memorials celebrating the life of Wilberforce in 2007, Christians missed out on the chance to actually be Wilberforce in 2007to be used of God to set slaves free, to bring an end to slavery in this generation, and to bring honor to the mission of Christ in the world. William Wilberforce and a vibrant movement of middle-class Christian abolitionists didn't miss their opportunity in 1807. So what will it take for us not to miss our opportunity in 2007? What follows are, in my opinion, the fundamental challenges.
Will our sense of mission reflect God's passion for the world beyond our borders?
The vast majority of modern-day slaves live in countries that are far away and unfamiliar to North Americans. But the slaves of the British Empire were infinitely more remote for the millions of common English Christians who nevertheless joined the abolitionist movement, all without the benefit of CNN, anti-slavery websites, television documentaries, or jet air travel. "Am I not a man and a brother?" pleaded the slave figure etched on campaign paraphernalia of Christian abolitionists 200 years ago. Indeed, with a leap of moral solidarity that still baffles historians to this day, common Christians of Wilberforce's England determined that these slaves, suffering in remote lands they would never even see a picture of, actually were their neighborsand that Christ's command of do-unto-others love extended to them as well.
This will be the most fundamental challenge for many American congregations, where we hear "for God so loved the world," but often don't think much about the world he loves. Relentlessly focused on ministering to those around us, we just don't have enough left over for "the uttermost parts of the earth"that broader world for which God also "gave his only begotten Son."
Will our sense of mission recognize the violence in today's slavery?
One of the greatest challenges facing Wilberforce and his abolitionist colleagues was to help English Christians understand the brutal violence that lay at the core of slavery. With no photography and few eyewitness accounts to learn from, most British citizens believed the slave industry's myth of benevolent paternal care for slaves. Thus, many earnest Christians engaged the question of slavery, if at all, only from the point of view of making sure slaves got the gospel and humane conditions.
Today, many North American Christians who have entered the joy of God's passionate global mission embrace evangelism and compassion ministries that bring food, housing, microloans, and medicine to the poor. Yet many are also beginning to see the true basis of slavery, which is another source of suffering for the pooraggressive violence. That is the core reality of forced labor: coercion and terror. Poverty, ignorance, and spiritual darkness are all part of a complex set of social factors that exacerbate slaves' original vulnerability, but once enslaved, they need someone to rescue them from the brutal hand of their oppressor.
For Nagaraj and his family, who worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, making bricks, there was no mystery about what kept them and 80 other slaves inside the four walls of their compound. It was the vicious beatings unleashed upon those who tried to run away. For Elisabeth, a 16-year-old girl held inside a brothel in Thailand, it was money for Bible college that lured her into the hands of a sex trafficker who lied about a job across the border. Once inside the brothel, however, it was sheer violent terror that forced her to submit to multiple rapes by the brothel's paying customers.
To love these neighborsand the millions of slaves they representthe people of God must be biblically and spiritually prepared to confront this violence. But how do we do that?
Will our sense of mission recover the work of justice?
Wilberforce could have done many things to show Christian love to the slaves of his era. He could have sent them Bibles or food or teachers, or he could have even paid for their freedom. He could have "transformed the cultural worldview" of slave owners and traders, or he could have provided African tribal leaders with an alternative model of labor economics to draw them from their ancient slave trade. But he didn't. Instead he gave them, of all things, a law, making the buying and selling of slaves illegal.
Why? Because he knew that the core ingredient of slavery was violence: the wealth and blood "drawn by the lash," in Lincoln's phrase. Like Lincoln, he understood that the problem of violence was properly dealt with in human society by lawbringing to bear the power of government to protect the weak. Of course, the work of abolition and emancipation had to be supported by a complex web of social and economic assistance to make "freedom" meaningful for the former slave. But those who knew slavery well understood that the violent forces of slavery had to be confronted by countervailing forces of a just law and vigorous enforcement.
Hundreds of millions of poor people in the developing world today are suffering under an epidemic of violencedomestic abuse, sexual violence, slavery, illegal detention, police abuse, land seizures, and extortion. In their moment of greatest need, Nagaraj and Elisabeth and these millions of others are not crying out for a sermon or food or medicine or housing or microloans. In due course, they may. But right now, they are crying out for someone to restrain the hand of the oppressor. They are crying out for the ministry of justice. You can give all kinds of goods and services to the poor in the name of Christbut if you have not restrained the hand of the oppressor from simply taking these things away, you have not done much that is significant or sustainable.
Thankfully, Wilberforce and two more generations of Christian advocates in the 19th century did confront violence. They transformed Britain and America by combating slavery, child labor, sex trafficking, public lynching, police corruption, violence against women, and other forms of oppression. As historian Sydney Ahlstrom observed about America's great social reform movement of the 19th century: "If the collective conscience of evangelical America is left out, the movement as a whole is incomprehensible."
Will our sense of mission reflect the God of justice?
Ultimately, this struggle to protect victims of violence and slavery is the work of God's kingdom. It is the Lord who commands us to "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow" (Isa. 1:17), and it is Almighty God who promises to go with us as we declare to the Pharaohs of this world, "Let my people go" (Ex. 5:1).
After praying to many gods for rescue, Nagaraj heard the name of Jesus and began to pray to him for freedom. Within a week, local investigators with International Justice Mission infiltrated the brick factory, documented the conditions, mobilized a police raid of the compound, and secured release for all the slavesincluding Nagaraj and his family. Now his children are in school, he and his wife operate a profitable brick business, and the slave owner is facing prosecution.
Likewise, by faith in the God of justice, Elisabeth scrawled in her native language the conviction of Psalm 27 on the wall of the brothel room where she was brutalized: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?" Eventually, IJM operatives were able to secure the rescue of Elisabeth and many other victims from their nightmare of sexual slavery inside the brothel. Now Elisabeth has been reunited with her family and has graduated from college. Moreover, after five years of enforcement actions in the city where Elisabeth was victimized, child sexual victimization there has been reduced by more than 90 percent.
Unlike Wilberforce's era, today's struggle to love the victims of slavery in our world will not be a battle to pass laws, but to enforce them. All over the world, where millions of people are held in slavery, such bondage is already against the law. The problem is that poor people, ethnic minorities, low-caste laborers, and children simply don't get the benefit of law enforcement. Fortunately, there are four steps that every American Christian can take to begin to change that:
1. Learn the facts about modern-day slavery, pray with others about what you are learning, and help your faith community become aware of the problem.
2. Petition your representatives in the U.S. government to make enforcement of anti-slavery laws a priority in relations with countries that tolerate high levels of forced labor.
3. Help pay for the investigative and legal advocates that slaves need to secure freedom and protection under the law.
4. Help pay to secure aftercare and rehabilitation services for the long-term restoration of former slaves.
The courageous story of William Wilberforce will be an inspiration to many this yearincluding many who may not yet share his Christian faith. No doubt many Christians will find in Wilberforce's life a powerful metaphor for steadfastness in their own particular ministries.
However, I imagine it would be quite a disappointment to Wilberforce if we looked past the millions of slaves in our world and found in his life only a metaphor for the zealous pursuit of what we are already doing. May we not only rediscover the story of Wilberforce, but also the joy of living it.
| Posted on February 26, 2007 | TrackBack