Slavery: Then and now

Ken Connor

2/24/2007 12:06:34 AM - Ken Connor

"Never, never will we desist till we . . . extinguish every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of those enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonor to this country."

--William Wilberforce, opposing slavery before the House of Commons

Christians across the country have been eagerly awaiting this weekend's release of Amazing Grace—a movie about William Wilberforce, the British evangelical Christian who led the political movement against slavery in the eighteenth century. With Amazing Grace, modern evangelicals have an opportunity to remember the great cloud of witnesses that surround us—the brave and passionate Christians of generations past who worked tirelessly to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the enslaved. We also have an opportunity to take stock of our own situation. How far have we come in the struggle to defend human dignity?

Slavery: A Modern Reality

In light of William Wilberforce's campaign to rid his nation of slavery, it is important to remember that, for millions of men, women and children around the world, slavery is not just a historical tragedy, it is a present reality. The "bloody traffic" that Wilberforce considered a disgrace to his nation has not yet ended--far from it. The number of modern day slaves is estimated to be around 27 million. Furthermore, government statistics indicate that between 600,000 and 800,000 human beings are trafficked across international borders every year (roughly the populations of Vermont and Delaware, respectively).

Modern day slavery does not look exactly like the monster Wilberforce challenged, but it is no less dehumanizing. It sometimes takes the form of sexual slavery. Frequently the women and girls who become enslaved prostitutes are from extreme poverty. To earn their trust, captors promise impoverished women good jobs and new lives in foreign countries. Sometimes modern slave traders buy young girls from extremely poor parents and promise the parents that they will educate their daughters.

Of course, these women are not actually offered an education or given real jobs. Instead they are taken to foreign countries where they are helpless and alone, and often unable to speak the language. They are threatened, beaten, and forced to work as prostitutes in filthy brothels. Barely fed and never paid, enslaved prostitutes are required to work seven days a week and forced to service over a dozen men a day. Tragically, in some politically unstable nations, many of the men who visit enslaved prostitutes are law enforcement officers and government officials. Often enslaved women will contract deadly diseases and die after years of misery and suffering.

There are also millions of examples of modern day slaves who are forced into hard labor. In war torn African countries, orphans are all too frequently taken and sold into slavery or enlisted in child armies. Male slaves often labor on farms or in mines from dusk to dawn. For both men and women, slavery is an unspeakably cruel reality.

The Changing Face Of Slavery

Without diminishing the misery of slaves in Wilberforce's time, there are some ways in which modern slaves are in even greater danger. According to Free the Slaves, in "old slavery" slaves were extremely expensive to buy, and they were therefore seen as an investment. To protect the investment, it was in the "owner's" interest to ensure the general health of his slaves. The situation is different today. Free the Slaves reports that:

"On average a slave in the American South in 1850 cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today's money; today a slave costs an average of $90. In 1850 it was difficult to capture slaves and then transport them to the US. Today, millions of economically and socially vulnerable people around the world are potential slaves. This "supply" makes slaves today cheaper than they have ever been. Since they are so cheap, slaves are no longer a major investment worth maintaining. If slaves get sick, are injured, outlive their usefulness, or become troublesome to the slaveholder, they are dumped or killed."

An Unending Ethical Challenge

This disposable-man ethic is at the heart of many of our problems today. Slavery, like so many other modern ethical challenges, denies the inherent worth, value, and dignity of every man, woman and child. After denying their essential worth, defenders of slavery then suggest that it is okay to use people and own people— it is okay for the minority to suffer and die as long as the majority benefits. Of course, this involves widespread exploitation of the weak by the strong. In slavery, men abuse women, the rich exploit the poor, the educated deceive the uneducated, and adults injure children. When the slave's utility is exhausted, he or she is discarded or killed.

How is it that over two-hundred years since Wilberforce began his campaign against slavery, and almost 150 years since America's Civil War, we still live in a world where slavery is common and, in some places, accepted? Even in America, slavery thrives in the shadows of our society. Aside from the practice itself, the mentality that gives rise to slavery—the disposable-man ethic—is common in our nation. After all these years, one would hope that we would have come further in respecting universal human dignity, but we have not. Apparently there is something in our fallen nature that will always want to treat others like objects to be owned rather than people to be loved. Therefore, each generation must take Wilberforce's promise personally, "Never, never will we desist till we...extinguish every trace of this bloody traffic...