Editor’s Note: Maurice Middleberg is executive director of Free the Slaves, which has launched The Passover Project. Passover is an eight-day Jewish holiday that begins at sundown on Friday April 22. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
There are an estimated 21-36 million slaves in the world today
Slavery is repugnant to all faith communities, writes Maurice Middleberg
"Communities of faith must continue to lead a shared effort to end slavery once and for all," he says
Slavery – turning human beings into property used up for profit – is a heinous offense repugnant to all faith communities.
This was captured beautifully in the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders, representing Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. The Declaration calls modern slavery a crime against humanity.
The concepts of empathy for our fellow human beings, and the obligation to respect the rights and dignity of others, are themes found in all the world’s major faith traditions. Many of history’s great civil rights advancements have been started and nurtured by religious leaders and activists. This is also true of the anti-slavery movement. Ending slavery unites all faiths and no twisting of texts can obscure that fact. That is why faith leaders are at the forefront of the effort to eradicate modern slavery.
Shockingly, slavery persists at a massive scale. The most conservative estimate places the number of slaves at 21 million; there are estimates of as high as 36 million. And slavery is a big business – the International Labor Organization estimates that the profits from slavery are $150 billion a year.
About a fifth of slavery is sex slavery, but most slavery consists of forced labor in seemingly ordinary businesses – farms, mines, stone quarries, fishing boats, construction and brick kilns. The majority of slaves are women and girls; about a quarter of all slaves are children.
Slavery stems from vulnerability. Overwhelmingly, slaves come from the poorest, most stigmatized and most marginalized communities in the poorest countries in the world. Slavery exists in every country and traffickers unfailingly prey upon those who are the most defenseless.
Religious faith and the debasement of human beings cannot be reconciled. That is why people and communities of faith are mobilizing and must continue to lead a shared effort to end slavery once and for all. The following is a quick look at faith voices raised against slavery.
Christian abolitionism took root in the 17th century. In England, prominent Anglicans joined forces with Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and other faith groups to form the world’s first anti-slavery movement. Together, they forged a moral consensus to ban the trans-Atlantic slave trade and then outlaw slavery itself throughout the British Empire. Today, Christians worldwide regard slavery as immoral and unjust. “Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society,” says Pope Francis. “It is a crime against humanity.”
· The epistles of St. Paul condemned slave traders and called for slaves to be treated as “brethren.”
· Quakers believed that everyone, including African-American slaves, was “equal in the sight of God.”
· Men and women of faith often led slave revolts on colonial plantations, and many revolts occurred during Christian festivals.
· In the 1800s Quakers and other religious groups assisted the Underground Railroad, helping thousands of slaves to escape southern states in the U.S.
Muslim voices have called for the abolition of slavery since ancient times. The Quran teaches that all people are equal, like the teeth in a comb. The Prophet Muhammad declared: “There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgment. Of these three, one is he who enslave a free man, then sells him and eats this money.”
· Sura 90 in the Quran states that the righteous path involves “the freeing of slaves.”
· In the 1800s, Muslim jurists in India concluded it was improper to kidnap Africans and transport them to other countries as slaves.
· Adopted by 54 countries in the 1980s, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam takes a definitive stand against slavery, stating that “human beings are born free, and no one has the right to enslave, humiliate, oppress or exploit them, and there can be no subjugation but to God the Most High.”
Judaism is deeply connected to the themes of slavery and freedom. The Torah instructs in Deuteronomy 24:18: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there. Therefore, I command you to do [justice].” The enslavement of Jews during biblical times – and their subsequent exodus – are a central narrative not only for Jewish people, but for others who have found hope in the biblical story.
· In the 1800s, Rabbi David Einhorn, the leader of Reform Judaism in the U.S., called slavery “the greatest possible crime against God.”
· The Rabbinical Assembly has called the presence of slavery in the goods we enjoy and the food we eat, “an almost unbearable reality” and has enjoined the rabbinate to play a leading role in educating and galvanizing the Jewish community.
· The Central Conference of American Rabbis has said that “we cannot stand idly by as trafficking continues.”
· At every Passover, Jews remember the Exodus, declaring, “We were slaves, now we are free.” By this declaration, they also assume a responsibility for helping to end slavery in our time.
Most Hindus live in India, where the slavery question has been historically intertwined with the caste system. Varna religious tradition dictates that the dirtiest and most difficult work in Hindu society is relegated to “untouchables”—making many Indians even today vulnerable to slavery. During the struggle to liberate India from British colonialism in the 1900s, Mahatma Gandhi said: “The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fail. He frees himself and shows the way to others.”
· Early reformers drew on an understanding of Hinduism that saw the caste system as a means of control used by elites to dominate and exploit others, rather than as an integral component of Hindu faith.
· In the 1980s, laws in southern Indian states ended devadasi, a traditional practice where lower-caste girls are forced into sex slavery in Hindu temples.
· In 1976 Hindu activists helped convince the Indian government to ban bonded labor slavery.
· India’s current constitution outlaws caste-based discrimination.
The Buddhist belief in karma and reincarnation had been used in the past to justify slavery, reasoning that a person’s enslavement must be a result of punishable actions in a previous life. But the eightfold path of Buddhist beliefs actually teaches explicitly against the trade in living beings. In fact, the Chinese Emperor Wang Mang, a Buddhist, may have been history’s first powerful abolitionist – he outlawed the slave trade in 9 A.D.
· Buddha’s “Discourse to Sigala” in the Sigalovada Sutta states that an employer should care for workers by paying just wages, providing health care and granting leave time.
· Buddhist temples have often served as safe-havens for escaped slaves.
“Brute force, no matter how strongly applied, can never subdue the basic human desire for freedom. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individual and nations are free.” –The Dalai Lama
The good news is that much has been learned since the founding of Free the Slaves in 2000 on how to end slavery: empower vulnerable communities, clean supply chains of slavery-tainted goods, strengthen law enforcement and place slavery survivors at the center of the anti-slavery movement.
Practical experience, evidence and faith are combining in an ever-stronger movement against slavery. Those of us engaged in the fight against modern day slavery are inheritors of a proud tradition. The central message of all faiths - hope for human dignity and freedom – is uniting people across traditions in the struggle to eradicate slavery.
Part of this text is adapted from the Faith in Action section of freetheslaves.net.
Maurice Middleberg is executive director of Free the Slaves. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.