The Common Good

Time For the New Abolitionists

Sojomail - February 8, 2007


"I don't want to impose my religious beliefs on you, but I believe God used you to correct us, and I appreciate that."

- Rob Brendle, Associate Pastor of New Life Church, speaking with Mike Jones, the former male prostitute who exposed former New Life pastor Ted Haggard's history of drug use and adultery. (Source: J-Walking)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Time For the New Abolitionists

In a new book being released this week - NOT for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade – and How We Can Fight It – my friend and colleague David Batstone turns a spotlight on one of the greatest moral scandals of our time. Many of us believe that slavery ended with the Civil War, but a look at reality in the 21st century quickly reveals otherwise.

He begins the book:

"Twenty-seven million slaves exist in our world today. Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug looms of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa. Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings."

In writing the book, Batstone traveled to Cambodia, Thailand, Peru, India, Uganda, South Africa, and Eastern Europe, investigating the situation and interviewing hundreds of people whose stories the book tells. In poorer countries of the world, poverty and inequality create the conditions that lead to slavery. From destitute parents selling their children, to young rural women looking for work in the cities, to people being trapped in debt with no way out – the pool of potential slaves continues to grow. The International Labor Organization estimates that the work performed by trafficked individuals generates $32 billion a year. Stories of these horrendous injustices have been trickling out over the past few years, but now somebody has put it all together, describing both the magnitude of the problem and the solutions that could really stop modern slavery.

Two hundred years ago, British parliamentarian William Wilberforce and his group of friends profoundly changed the political and social climate of their time by taking on the slave trade. Wilberforce was a convert of the religious revivals that transformed 18th-century England. His life and his vocation as a Member of Parliament were profoundly changed by his newfound faith; he became a force for moral politics. His mentor, John Newton, worked in the slave trade before he became a minister, and became well known for writing the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace." Later, Newton used his influence as a religious leader to lead the battle against slavery. In light of his efforts, we can read his immortal words, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me," not merely as a testimony of private guilt and piety, but also as a turning away from the sin of trafficking in human flesh. His conversion produced a social and political transformation as well as a personal one. And that’s what Batstone is calling for today.

That kind of conversion became true in the life of Wilberforce, who first heard Newton speak when he was young but regarded his real conversion to be confirmed following a series of conversations in 1785-86. At the conclusion of their conversations, Newton said: "The Lord has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation." Two years later, Wilberforce introduced his first anti–slave trade motion into Parliament. It was defeated, and would be defeated nine more times until it passed in 1807. It was a historic and moral victory, but Wilberforce wasn't satisfied until slavery was abolished altogether. Finally, in 1833, the House of Commons passed a bill abolishing slavery in the British Empire, and Wilberforce died three days later, his work finally done.

A new film about to be released, Amazing Grace, tells the story of William Wilberforce. On February 18, "Amazing Grace Sunday," churches around the globe will sing "Amazing Grace" and pray for the end of modern slavery. On February 23, 2007, the movie opens at theaters across the country. Click here to watch a trailer of the film.

Dave Batstone has been converted on the issue of modern slavery, and is now calling for our conversion. Today, as then, there is a growing abolitionist movement: heroic individuals who are rescuing slaves and creating a modern-day underground railroad to carry them to freedom, and organizations that provide social services and legal advocacy for victims of human trafficking. Batstone’s remarkable book tells the story of this new abolitionist movement. He ends his book with a chapter on "ending the slave trade in our time." It begins, "I believe in the power of individuals to change the world. Social movements take root and blossom when enough individuals take personal action." The chapter then offers creative ideas for becoming an abolitionist, and a listing of the major abolition organizations. A new campaign is being created around the book – the Not for Sale Campaign. It’s time for all of us to join the campaign.

Recently, I was preaching at an evangelical Christian college in the American Midwest. I called for a new generation of Martin Luther Kings and William Wilberforces. Afterward, two young women were waiting to talk to me at the end of a long line of students. When they finally got their turn to speak, they looked me straight in the eye and said, "We are going to be the next Martin Luther King Jr. and William Wilberforce, and we just wanted to tell you that." I told them I was glad to meet them now, before they became famous! But they were serious, and so was I. The history of earlier centuries can inform a new generation of Christians in their struggle to reunite faith and social justice in our own time.

David Batstone has been getting ready to write this book for a long time. His broad experiences in global issues, business ethics, and Christian social justice movements have all been forms of preparation for this work. When he talks about the modern slave trade, I can hear and feel the passion in his voice. Wilberforce was almost obsessed with slavery, and Batstone can’t let go of it either. He has seen too much now: He has talked to too many victims, and thought often of his own kids, who are about the same ages as the children he’s met who are being trafficked. Dave is on a mission, and invites us to join him. Read his book, see the film, and join the campaign to abolish slavery.

+ Read and respond to comments on this article on the God's Politics Blog

+ Download the new Sojourners On the Issues discussion guide: "Amazing Grace: Christians and the Global Slave Trade"


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