Today is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in the middle of the US Civil war, which abolished slavery in the ten southern states who were still in rebellion against the Northern Union. Freedom for slaves in other states came a few years later but anyone familiar with American (and Canadian) history knows that abolishing slavery and eliminating it are two different things.
The nature of slavery in the twenty-first century is more elusive and vague. By virtue of a much, much larger global population today, there are more slaves in the world now than any time in the past (as many as 27 million), and most of the modern day slaves are trapped by poverty in some form of sexual predation or economic bondage. In the twenty-first century, the chains are invisible. The chains are extortion, coercion, and a systematic denial of economic rights, and it doesn’t just happen in other countries. It happens here in Canada and the US.
At 17 years old, Eve escaped her trafficker after two and a half years of sexual slavery, but instead of hiding she went to the police. She led them to where her trafficker kept another 14-year-old girl in a motel room. As a result, the police arrested Imani Nakpangi of Niagara Falls. Eve’s courage led to Canada’s first ever human trafficking conviction in May 2008. However, Nakpangi only received a sentence of five years in prison. Nakpangi earned more than $360,000 over the time in which he exploited Eve. His illicit profits were used to purchase himself a BMW and a large home in Niagara Falls. Nakpangi brutally controlled Eve by assaulting her and threatening to kidnap her brother if she ever “got out of line”. Stories like this continue to happen, (click here, here or here) especially in border towns between Canada and the US.
Christians would like to point to people like William Wilberforce, British member of Parliament who led the abolitionist cause in the UK in the 19th century, and say that the church has been at the center of freeing slaves for over 200 years but the truth of the matter is that “the slave trade was driven largely by Christians for Christian consumers.” Geoff Tunnicliff of the World Evangelical Alliance recalls a visit he made a few years ago to Ghana. “There was a castle where slaves were held downstairs. Right above them was a church. Here you had a group of worshiping people and below them were a thousand slaves! That’s a kind of bifurcated view of the world we sometimes have.” Christians need to confess our involvement in slavery today and choose to be part of the solution, but how?
When I can buy a shirt at Walmart for $2.99 I need to ask myself, “who is paying for this shirt?” This shirt costs more than $3 so either the retailer is taking a loss (it’s marked down to make room for new stock) or it is likely that someone out there is being underpaid to make that shirt. Is it made in a sweatshop by children? A pound of name brand coffee grounds costs $6 and the same amount of from a fair trade brand is $12. Why such a difference?
You can easily drive yourself mad questioning every purchase you make wondering if it economically disadvantages someone. I am resigned to the fact that I can’t know everything about every product I buy but there are some small things I can do that can help. Julie and I have decided that we will no longer buy coffee unless it is certified to be fair trade. Fair trade certified coffee is grown in economic partnership with farmers in a way that is environmentally responsible, in many cases carbon neutral, and sustainable for the farmer.
The Emancipation Proclamation is a political document, a product of the US Civil war, but it is also a reminder of a promise to oppose human objectification in every form. It was a promise that Kevin Bales, author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy reminds us that we have to continue to keep, “When I looked closely [at slavery] I realized we didn’t finish the job. 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?’ ”
In the past Christians helped lead a campaign to abolish slavery. It’s time to do it again.