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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Human Slavery

Have you ever considered this whole notion of human slavery? I'm not talking about the angry accusations that blacks and whites hurl against each other, or even the struggle for freedom waged by the blacks in America. For you see, slavery is much older than that. In fact, slavery has never really been about race - except in America. Really? So what has it been about?

If you look at the history of human slavery, you'll find that there have been, thus far in the space of human history, four (4) different types of slavery. Let's see what each of them is about.

First, we find the Old Testament slavery, that we found among the Israelites. The first block of commandments after the Ten Commandments, seems to be about laws to protect the slaves. Slavery in Israel was very limited though. Households had slaves, but it wasn't really part of the economy. Still, it wasn't something you'd want to embrace. There were still abuses; Sarah abused Hagar, for example. But in general Old Testament slavery was pretty benign.

Second, we move to the Greco-Roman world of slavery. It was completely different, especially in terms of abuse. Not until the end were there any protections for the slaves. It was chattel slavery. You would die in slavery; your situation (as a slave) was hopeless. Sexual and physical abuse - or even murder - was a normal part of it too.

Some people think that this "New Testament slavery" was quite different from the African-American slavery that came years later. But there were important similarities. Chief among them was this notion that it was chattel slavery. In both cultures, when you were bought or sold, your name was changed and you would lose more of your identity. Even the instructions on care and feeding of slaves were a one-shirt-a-year kind of thing.

This Greco-Roman world of slavery was perhaps the worst that history has known. It was the era that Jesus Christ entered. And the more we can study the Roman influence at the time, the more we can see that it was truly a monstrous age. The abuses were grisly and grotesque. Still, there were people in the midst of that who would take a stand for principles and what's right. And one has to wonder if their taking a stand didn't have a real impact on bringing that era to an end.

Third, we have the African-American age of slavery. This of course is the one we are most familiar with. And it would seem that black Americans are more familiar with it than any of the rest of us too. It was very much like the Roman era slavery - where slaves were chattels to be bought and sold. Perhaps the primary difference here was that the slave owners themselves tended to be more civilized and humane in their treatment of the slaves. While some were abusive and cruel, there were also stories of slaves who didn't want to leave their owners when they were set free.

Ironically, this is the era of slavery that we seem to be paying a very high price for. In fact, how the people were enslaved, how they were treated during their enslavement, and how they were set free all have had extenuating repercussions for society as a whole. They've been less educated, more prone to poverty, more prone to violence, and often have had to struggle harder to make their way in our capitalistic society. While no one wants to blame their history on their struggles, it is hard to deny the apparent differences in how they live today compared to people groups that were never enslaved in the first place.

The fourth form of slavery is the current variety. It seems to be largely focused on sex and domestic trafficking. And while it isn't part of the formal economy, it has a much broader economic impact that most of us would imagine. Perhaps you're not aware of the fact that slavery is still a problem in our modern world. Why, you may be asking, am I writing about slavery in 2010?

The State Department of the United States of America has an entire division focused on, among other things, human freedoms. Naturally slavery is a part of their study. In fact, the State Department issues an annual report on human trafficking.

You can download the State Dept. report at But prepare yourself. It's a voluminous report. It's also very sad. Most of the victims are woman and children. In some cases, more than 50% of the people being enslaved are children - being enslaved for sex or war.

The U.S. State Dept. Report on Human Trafficking lists, country-by-country, the import and export of slaves for sexual and domestic, or even military purposes. It also digs into the laws of each country to protect people against enslavement, and analyzes how well those laws are enforced. Let's look at just a few highlights from this most recent State Dept. report.

There are more slaves now than at any other time in human history. Last year, more people became slaves than in the entire 300 years of African-American slavery. The report assigns each country a rating, based on the growth in imports and/or exports of slaves and the government's record of fighting this. (See the list at

In the first category, the best countries have strong records of fighting slavery, and don't exhibit alarming growth rates. They include places like Australia, Canada and the U.S.

The second category are countries that don't comply with international standards to fight slavery, but their governments are making serious efforts and they seem to be effective - because growth rates are not alarming. Countries like Indonesia, Japan and South Africa.

The third category are countries where the number of victims is severe and increasing substantially - and the governments appear to be doing nothing about it. This list includes countries like China, Egypt and India.

The fourth category are countries with deplorable records in slavery. It's serious and their governments aren't even pretending to do anything about it. This list includes places like Kuwait, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Examine the List
Now, maybe you don't think much of this list. But I think there are two important points here that we should all care about.

First, this is not just a third world issue. Human trafficking is a problem in every part of the world, regardless of economic conditions, forms of government, religion or any other perceived impact factor. A case in point would be the fact that an estimated 17,000 people are trafficked for slavery in the United States each year. (Some estimates range as high as 50,000 per year!) And it is mostly slaves being brought in to be sold to (enslaved by) Americans. (Shame on us.)

Second, many of the countries where the problem is most prevalent are countries that we see as our "allies." Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are among the worst offenders. We buy tons of oil from Saudi Arabia and consider them an important ally. We bailed Kuwait's butt out when Iraq invaded and took them over years ago. China and India are perhaps our most important trading partners. And both have dismal records. So it would appear that we'll cozy up to and do business with anyone, regardless of their standards of civilization. (Shame on us.)

Folks, slavery is not dead. And we can talk all day about the problem of racism in America. But the sad reality is that racism in America and the plight of African-Americans descended from slaves are just symptoms of the real problem.

Slavery is a bigger problem today than it ever was for the black slaves in America. Why is that? Because no president can set today's slaves free. Those people enslaved today have little reason for hope. In fact, perhaps their only source of hope is that you and I would care enough to pray, to donate, to fight and to take a stand for them.

Jesus said that we are to "Love your neighbor as you would yourself." (Matthew 22:39)

Will we?

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