This is the sermon I delivered to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist
on Sunday, March 22, 2015. You can click here to listen to the podcast.
on Sunday, March 22, 2015. You can click here to listen to the podcast.
On the page of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council website that talks about the work of Ms. Urmila Bhoola, the SpecialRapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, are these words
Slavery was the first human rights issue to arouse wide international concern yet it still continues today. […]
The majority of those who suffer are the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized social groups in society. Fear, ignorance of one’s rights and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out.
In order to effectively eradicate slavery in all its forms, the root causes of slavery such as poverty, social exclusion and all forms of discrimination must be addressed.
By its very nature, contemporary forms of slavery operate in the shadows and, so, are hard to quantify, but researchers estimate that today in 2015 somewhere between 21 to 36 million people are enslaved worldwide – that’s more than ever before in our human (or, perhaps, it’s better to say our so-called human) history. And slaves today are cheaper than ever. In 1850, an average slave in the American South cost the equivalent of, in today’s money, $40,000. The worldwide average cost today is around $90. (That’s according to Kevin Bales’ 2004 book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.)
Now some of us, on hearing this kind of thing, find ourselves looking for a way out. Oh, he can’t really be talking about slavery slavery, right? I mean, slavery’s been outlawed for a long time, right? Here’s a fact that might blow your mind: the last country to abolish slavery was Mauritania … in 1981. Yet even with that, it didn’t become illegal to own slaves there until 2007. Let that sink it. It was still legal in part of the world for one person to own another person less than a decade ago.
Of course, just because it’s now illegal everywhere doesn’t mean it’s over and done with – organizations that are working on this issue say that one form or another of modern slavery, to one extent or another, exists today in every single country on the planet. Including ours. It’s estimated that there are some 60,000 enslaved people in the U.S. today.
Contemporary slavery takes many different forms, but the group Free the Slaves defines it this way: “Slavery is the holding of people at a workplace through force, fraud or coercion for purposes of sexual exploitation or forced labor so that the slaveholder can extract profit.” They sum it up even more concisely: “slavery is being forced to work without pay, under the threat of violence, and being unable to walk away.”
Although the international sex trade gets the majority of the headlines, this actually accounts for only about 22% of contemporary slavery. It is estimated that something like 78% of today’s enslaved people are forced to work in industries requiring plentiful, cheap, labor – farming, ranching, logging, mining, fishing, and brick making. Others work in service industries in jobs such as dish washers, janitors, gardeners, and maids. More women than men are enslaved, and 26% of today’s slaves are children.
There’s a website called SlaveryFootprint.org. You answer a series of questions about your lifestyle – and you can answer generally or in great detail – and it calculates the number of people who are working in slavery to support you. Gimmicky? Yes. Illustrative? Absolutely. Disturbing? Without a doubt. According to the website there my lifestyle depends on the work of some 46 enslaved people. (And I think that had I gone into detail in my answers that figure would probably be higher still.)
So … not only does slavery continue into the present day, but I’m involved. I’m complicit. I’m part of the problem. And I hate to say it, but so are you.
It seems to me that there are at least six likely responses any one of us might have to hearing all of this this morning:
- We might feel really bad about it for a while and, then, pretty much forget about it as we go about our daily lives. This is a really simple response, and one which a whole lot of folks tend to make. Out of sight; out of mind.
- We might feel really bad about it for a while, and then keep feeling bad about it. We might feel guilty, and overwhelmed, and overwhelmingly guilty to the point that we get paralyzed. The problem’s too big, and we’re too small, and we wouldn’t know what to do anyway. This one’s a pretty popular response, too.
- Of course, we might find ourselves fired up, inspired to take this on as the cause we want to engage with. You may remember the immortal words of Edward Everett Hale, whose portrait hangs in the stairwell going down to our lower hall – “I cannot do everything. Yet still I can do something.” Perhaps we will respond to this sermon this morning by becoming active in the modern abolition movement. There’s a FaceBook page for a group called (here's their website) – and some of our congregations have active anti-slavery committees. An organization like Free The Slaves has suggestions for concrete things we can do to work for a slavery-free world.
- We might not be ready to dive that far into
the pool. We may know that we’re already involved with another cause
that we’re committed to. We may know that it’s all that we can do to
do our jobs, or focus on our schooling, or take care of our elderly
parents or our young kids (or both). We may know all this yet still
want to do something so, of course, we can learn. We can educate
ourselves. Lots, believe me, lots of websites are just
waiting your perusal, and groups like, again, Free the Slaves have
suggested books and videos for people who want to learn. Don’t
underestimate the power of education. Contemporary slavery thrives
on its invisibility and the tendency toward denial that is so
prevalent. One anti-trafficking group I came across has as its
mission, “Educate to Eradicate.”
We might not want to – or feel able to – learn everything there is to learn about modern-day slavery, yet we might want to learn about how we are involved and how we might at least extricate ourselves. I mentioned the website SlaveryFootprint.org. There’s also KnowTheChain.org, which makes it possible for us to look at the official statements on issues of human slavery that have been made, if any, by companies with which we often do business. We can learn more about their supply chain and what might be going on in the background. This information can help us make decisions about where we put our money and for what – choosing fair trade chocolate, for instance, instead of brands that might be cheaper but depend on slave labor for the picking of the cocoa beans. Same with the clothing we buy – it is possible to find out who made the clothes we’re wearing. We might have to spend a little more, but if it makes slave labor unprofitable because there is less demand for their products, isn’t it worth it?
- And I know that that’s easy to say but that for some of us “spending a little more” is not a possibility. I do recognize that, so spending more might not be the way but, instead, spending more carefully, choosing with more awareness, buying more at thrift stores so that our money doesn’t go into the slavery chain. (With even small changes I might be able to reduce the number of enslaved people I depend on from my current 46.)
- We might bring this issue with us into our prayer or meditation practices, consciously holding the women, children, and men who are currently enslaved, as well as their families who may not know where their loved ones are or how might live in fear of the traffickers; we might pray for the traffickers themselves, and for the government officials who know about the practices going on in their countries yet who look the other way; we might dedicate the merit of our meditations to ordinary people like you and me who are caught in this web as well.
There are so many ways we can respond – it’s up to each of us to choose the response that makes the most sense for us. What I don’t believe we have a choice about, though, is whether to respond. Even if we decided to forget about all this and go on about our business, I know that I cannot un-see what I have seen or un-hear what I have now heard. Neither can you.
I want to come back, again, to part of the reading I began with, from the UN’s Human Rights Council:In order to effectively eradicate slavery in all its forms, the root causes of slavery such as poverty, social exclusion and all forms of discrimination must be addressed. We live in a fundamentally inter-connected world – a web of existence that is not simply a metaphor or a lovely poetic image. It’s a scientific fact. The child forced to labor without pay in Asia is making component parts to a device that’s in my pocket right now, or maybe that pocket itself. We are not just connected, but interconnected. As the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we “inter-are.”
Those “root causes” the Human Rights Council identifies – poverty, social exclusion, discrimination – are not present only in Brazil, the Congo, or Nepal (three of the places Free the Slaves works). Poverty, social exclusion, discrimination are here in the United States, too. Here in Charlottesville, too. Our Unitarian Universalist faith affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person and encourages us to do all that we can to address such conditions, wherever and however they manifest. As for TJMC, our Mission Statement speaks our goal of having, “a lasting influence on local, national and global programs that promote equity and end oppression.” [Sounds like this could fit with that, no?]
We live in a fundamentally inter-connected world. And as much as our theology paints a glowing picture of human potential, we know that it’s an often cruel and painful world. Even so, we do believe in hope; we do believe in redemption; we do believe in the power of love. Let us renew our faith in these, and remain open to the tugging of the Spirit that can show us where to go and what to do.
We pledge ourselves here today to do all in our power, within our faith communities and beyond, to work together for the freedom of all those who are enslaved and trafficked so that their future may be restored. Today we have the opportunity, awareness, wisdom, innovation and technology
From the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery, December 2014