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Date: 29 January, 2007
The following resources - a reflection, a set of prayers, and two articles for your church magazine - were published by Christian Aid for the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition
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‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.”’
Both the Old and the New Testaments are ambiguous about slavery. Stories of the Exodus and Jesus’ proclamation of freedom for all prisoners (Luke 4:18) contrast with passages that seem positively to endorse slavery.
Later in the book of Exodus, for example, the writer permits slave-owners to beat their slaves severely. As long as the slave gets up after 24 hours, the owner’s action is not criminal: the slave is his property (Exodus 21:21).
The Bible has been interpreted differently at various times as condoning slavery, merely describing it as a social reality and advocating the abolition of slavery.
The Bible is not ambiguous about human rights, however.
The Bible is quite clear about the fact that each human life has infinite value. God created each human being in his own image (Genesis 1:27) and in doing so, has given each one of us an inherent dignity.
To take this away from another human being is to steal from God what is his by rights.
When a human being is reduced to property, he loses his human rights and becomes a slave. It may feel very easy to distance ourselves from the concept of slavery in the literal Old Testament sense, as described in Exodus 21.
But the reality of using people as property and denying them access to choice and their own dignity is happening all over the world.
Millions of people around the world are enslaved by poverty, by injustice, by the greed of others, by violence.
This enslavement provokes desperate responses: families are torn apart as people search for work; homes and communities are destroyed as countries slip into anarchy; women and children are forced into sex work to survive.
Philip Mthobwa, from Christian Aid partner organisation ELDS in Malawi, explains that during the worst months of the recent food crisis, people were ‘selling their body just to get a meal. Mothers, girls and boys are selling themselves.
'And I personally know three men who are doing this. They have families, so the parent sells their body to feed their children.’
In the story of the Exodus, God sets his people free and makes a covenant with them. It is as free people that they could serve God. We are members of a new covenant – to serve God and one another.
Until we recognise humanity in every encounter – and in every life across the world – slavery will always exist.
As Christians, we are called to see the face of Christ in every man, woman and child and to work for a world in which everyone has choice and dignity.
To make a slave of our fellow human beings is to make a slave of Christ.
Keep a-inchin’ along, keep a-inchin’ along, (Massa Jesus comin’ by an’ by);
Keep a-inchin’ along like a po’inch worm, (Massa Jesus comin’ by an’ by);
I died one time, guine di no mo’, (Massa Jesus comin’ by an’ by);
O you in de Word an’ de Word in you, (Massa Jesus comin’ by an’ by);
How can I die when I’m in de Word? (Massa Jesus comin’ by an’ by).
(Spiritual of enslaved Afro-American people)
In the name of the one who brought good news to the poor,
Let us pray to the Lord for
Those longing for something other than the hope that this life fails to give;
Those needing something other than momentary compassion;
Those yearning for something other than mere survival;
And for those wanting something other than political rhetoric.
For the time has come for God’s people to act.
In the name of the one who called for repentance in the wake of the kingdom,
Let us pray to the Lord
When we fail to see the injustice;
When we refuse to name the abuse;
When we ignore the challenge to speak out;
And we weaken the impact of the gospel to strengthen our own position.
For the time has come for God’s people to act.
In the name of the one condemned the hypocrites, whose actions lack substance
Let us pray to the Lord for those who
Bring hints of good news, while the poor remain poor;
Bring rumours of liberty, while the captives remain imprisoned;
Bring whispers of enlightenment, while remaining blind to injustice;
And celebrate their liberty, while the oppressed cannot go free.
For now is the time for God to save his people,
May the scriptures come true in our hearing and seeing and actions.
(© Helen Garton/Christian Aid)
Pray for the people of this day,
Forced into slavery out of want,
Traded as expendable commodities,
So desperate for food they sell their offspring,
Those too young to be at the behest of other’s desires.
‘Whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me’
Calling us to take up the mantle of the people of days gone by,
Who campaigned relentlessly to abolish slavery
Whose hearts would break to know of slavery today.
Pray for campaigners and activists
Striving for an end to poverty
Speaking out against injustice
Giving slavery a name
And drawing it to the world’s attention.
For Christ said:
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy’
But no mercy shall be shown to those who
Force, control, dehumanise and restrict other’s freedom.
Pray for people of compassion
Whose work breaks the cycle of poverty
Bringing a better future
With bread and shelter,
Self-worth and confidence.
(© Helen Garton and Wendy Whitehead)
You might think that slavery is a thing of the past, but you’d be wrong. Modern day slavery exists – people are forced to work for little or no money and around the world people are trafficked for profit.
No land, no rights
Emmanuel Mbele is a South African farmer who has repeatedly faced the prospect of eviction from his homestead. For years white landowners threatened Emmanuel and his neighbours with relocation to a ‘black area’.
‘We had a very bad relationship. They stopped us from accessing resources and they impounded our livestock.
‘We had to pay to get the animals back. It was about 100 rand per cow, per day, and if you couldn’t afford it they just kept them.’ Emmanuel explains.
Emmanuel’s story is not unique. Years after the end of apartheid rule, most land still remains in the hands of a white minority.
There are huge wealth, power and education gaps between landowners and tenants and poor families are particularly vulnerable to abuse and eviction if the landowner is ruthless.
Although some landowners treat their tenants well, many endure appalling living and working conditions. They work very long hours for very low wages, with no say over their own lives.
Mistreatment of farm dwellers ranges from widespread economic exploitation to violent abuse. In 2005, one farmer was found guilty of beating a farm worker and then throwing him to the lions to be eaten alive.
Since 1994, families have been able to make claims to have land returned to them but this is a long and complicated legal process.
Christian Aid partner AFRA helps poor families to negotiate these proceedings and it has helped Emmanuel claim land of his own, so he and his family will never face eviction again.
No freedom of choice
Emmanuel is one example of someone who has been forced to live in conditions one might consider tantamount to slavery. But Tanu Khantin from India is a slave in every sense of the word.
Tanu Khantin from India was abducted when she was 11 years old and taken to the red light district of Mumbai.
She was moved from brothel to brothel as she refused to be drawn into being abused. She tried to run away many times, but was always brought back and tortured.
She was finally rescued and held in a remand centre by the authorities and was referred on to Christian Aid’s partner, Sanlaap, a women’s rights centre helping young female sex workers to escape from the sex trade.
Tanu has found out that she is HIV-positive and now receives counselling to cope with her ordeal and the knowledge of her HIV status.
What Emmanuel and Tanu have in common above all is their lack of choice.
They have both been forced into exploitative situations that, without the help of outside agencies, they could not escape.
Supporting organisations like AFRA and Sanlaap is to help combat modern forms of slavery and enables individuals can choose to live with the dignity that is due to them.
While remembering the abolition of the slave trade should encourage us to celebrate liberty, it should also encourage us to commit to bringing that liberty to men, women and children across the world today.
• View other slavery abolition articles