To be silent is to be unfaithful

The Rev. Dr. Hilary Oxford Smith

12 May 2014


'Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.' [ii] So wrote the Enlightenment philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book of 1762, The Social Contract.
All of us have been and the generations to come, will be born into an inheritance of one kind of another. Part of that inheritance is that we are heirs of a world scarred by the internationalising and industrialising of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past and that much historic prosperity has been built on this atrocity.
Even if it is argued that we are not born free, are we not born for freedom and have to learn how to be free? Part of that process means facing up to the legacy we inherit without fear, excuse or falsity. It means thinking truthfully about where we have come from, how our cultures and habits were formed, how as people, communities and nations, we collectively got into situations that frustrated our best and good intentions.  
For centuries, if not millennia, slavery was taken for granted by many Christian and non-Christian people. The corporate sin of the Church was also complicit in and profited financially from it. Yet it was also a mass movement of Christians and other faith campaigners, slaves and free women and men, who woke up the conscience of an entire civilisation and brought about the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade over 200 years ago.
World leaders and the media are speaking and writing much about 276 schoolgirls kidnapped over a month ago by Islamist militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram roughly translated means 'Western education is sin.'   Boko Haram's leader knows deep down that education has the potential to liberate the mind and heart and be an equalising force in society. For him and his followers, there can be none of that. He also announced in a video message last week that, 'there is a market for selling humans.' Fears are, that these young girls will be sold into domestic or sexual slavery. There is international outrage and a social media campaign, 'BringBackOurGirls', is gathering momentum.
Deeply disturbing as this kidnapping is, the truth is that human trafficking - modern-day slavery: bonded labour, marriage/domestic/sexual slavery and slavery by debt or descent, still exists, yet it is not always worthy of the sustained, global attention we are currently witnessing.
Advocacy groups such as Walk Free [iii] and The Global Slavery Index [iv] estimate that today, nearly 30 million children, women and men are sold as commodities, trafficked within their own countries and across international borders. Even though slavery is illegal in most countries of the world, it happens on every continent and especially in places where there are major hubs of demand.
According to the United Nations [v] , it is women who are trafficked most. Many are kidnapped and sold into prostitution, sometimes by their own relatives. Criminal gangs bring them into countries illegally where they are made compliant by violence, intimidation, drugs and abused on an unthinkable magnitude. Children too are trafficked between countries, abused and exploited through bondage for labour, sex, warfare. Trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Men are also trafficked across the world, usually forced to work in unjust and inhumane conditions. The Global Slavery Index reports that in New Zealand hundreds of men have been and are working in slavery-like conditions on foreign fishing vessels chartered to New Zealand companies, threatened, abused and forced to work 30 hour shifts with meagre pay, without breaks and adequate food. The Second Reading of the Fisheries (For Charter Vessels and other matters) Amendment Bill was heard in the New Zealand Parliament on 15th April 2014 [vi] . It is intended that the passing of the Bill will enshrine in law by 2016, our country's moral and ethical obligations to the safety and employment of those working at sea. With yet more talking to be done, the Maritime Union of New Zealand is concerned that the proposed Bill, which has been discussed and debated for over a year now, may not become law before the national election in September 2014.  
Human trafficking though is largely a hidden crime, with the faces and cries of those who are sold usually unseen and unheard. It flourishes in places where there is poverty, injustice, conflict, vulnerability, gender discrimination and exploitation by those who are more powerful. The degree of criminality involved means that one of the largest difficulties for public sector agencies is bringing traffickers to justice, as a prevention and deterrent. Even once rescued, individuals often want to avoid deportation, family shame, threats to themselves or their families, so they do not always feel able or free enough to tell their stories.
Slavery is not too distant for it to matter to you and to me, yet we can feel powerless about what to do to bring about change. Social media, for all its problems and detractors, has given many people a voice. We are witnessing its power to mobilise a mass movement of protest against such atrocity. It is in the nature of fast-paced media and politics however, that if and when the girls in Nigeria are returned safely home and we hope that they soon will be, human trafficking and the enslavement of people will move down the list of newsworthy items. Social media posts will move on to another issue, another petition.
Nevertheless, we can harness our own anger and sadness at what has happened and use that in a positive way that works towards eradicating poverty and the enslavement of human beings in the production of our food, clothes, the running of our homes, the care of our elderly and disabled and keeping our sex trade in business.
We can be thankful that advocacy groups and other agencies continue to work hard to bring matters to the public eye and that some of our churches continue to find ways to work with such groups to keep the issue at the forefront of their social responsibility and pastoral lobbying governments to sign up to globally binding agreements, monitoring the ways in which traffickers are pursued and prosecuted and victims are supported and regularly engaging with other faith groups and the media to raise awareness.
On March 17th this year, the Global Freedom Network was launched to eradicate forced labour and sexual exploitation by 2020 after an historic agreement was signed at The Vatican. It was the outcome of a conference, which brought together Christian and Muslim people of faith and representatives of agencies working to end slavery. The signatories called for urgent action by all faith communities to 'set free the most oppressed of our brothers and sisters… Only by activating, all over the world, the ideals of faith and of shared human values can we marshal the spiritual power, the joint effort and the liberating vision to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from our world and for all time.' [vii]

In her book, Enslaved: The New British Slavery [viii] , Rahila Gupta writes, 'human progress must be measured by the extent to which we have ended slavery. We should be fighting for a future when the world truly belongs to all of us'.
To be silent is to be unfaithful.
©Hilary Oxford Smith
May 2014
Image Nicola Green
[i] I have borrowed this title from the title of a Church and Society Council Report to The General Assembly of The Church of Scotland, May 2007
[ii] Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract, 1762, (Pacific Publishing Studio 2010) page 1
[v] See for more information
[vi] See, Second Reading, Fisheries (For Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Bill 2014, and for more information
[viii] Rahlia Gupta, Enslaved:The New British Slavery, (Granta 2008) page 302