BANISHING SLAVERY FROM BEFORE THE SUN
Why final words from John Wesley to William Wilberforce were meant for us
Between the fifteenth and the nineteenth century, it is believed that thirteen million people were captured and sold as slaves. 13 million over four centuries. It is estimated that there are 45 million slaves in the world, today. Ten million of these are children.
These slaves are forced into agriculture, construction, hospitality, manufacturing, retail, domestic settings, sexual exploitation. They are all around us and yet they are not. Like ghosts, they are not visible to most and not believed in by some, either. They clean houses, make clothes, pick fruit and veg, dig minerals for our smartphones, trawl the seas for food. Lawlessness and cruelty on the seas are especially pronounced. And slaves are making the stadiums that will host the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
In the UK, most slaves are drawn from five nations: Albania, Vietnam, Nigeria, Romania and Poland. Nigeria is Africa’s most populated country, with 186 million people. This is projected to double in size in the next thirty years. Unemployment runs at 55% among under 35s. You can see where this is heading.
The modern slavery expert Siddharth Kara has calculated that slave owners find their trade thirty times more lucrative than in those earlier centuries. A forced labourer usually delivers $8,000 profit each year. Sex traffickers make $36,000 profit out of their desperate victims.
I won’t give you any more statistics at this point. What you have heard shows the colossal scale of the problem. What I want to say now is to remind you why you are part of answer.
Successful campaigners distinguish themselves from others on five points.
1. They learn as much as they can about the issues they care about and ensure their knowledge expands with time. Knowing stuff empowers and motivates people. It enables them to speak with some authority when the moment comes, either because someone else wants to know more or wants to deny the facts - or is someone with influence, who can take steps themselves. When we don’t know about things, we begin not to care about them. We doubt their existence; we lose our desire. Education remains the most powerful weapon in confronting injustice.
2. Campaigners are active, not passive, in the face of complexity. Modern slavery is difficult to get a handle on. If the law enforcement agencies are struggling to understand and respond to the mutating face of trafficking and slavery, it is no surprise that the rest of society is confused. Globalisation, aided by technology, is evolving at dizzying speeds. Almost every main sector of the economy is supported by slavery, but knowing who these people are, where they work, who they are enslaved by, what supply chains are affected, how companies can respond, what the ordinary citizen can do, are awkward and complicated questions to answer.
The passive citizen responds by thinking they cannot understand it and there is nothing they can do to influence outcomes. They also tend to minimise the problem as a way of excusing their inaction. This is one reason why campaigners often face criticism from others, because their action challenges lethargy. The active citizen sees the complexity of the slave trade as a problem to be solved. They know they can’t do it alone, but are aware of the power of crowds to source solutions.
3. Campaigners are willing to stand out and confront lies. William Wilberforce is a national hero now, but was a deeply unpopular man when alive. At the heart of Trafalgar Square lies Nelson’s column, another hero of the nation. Nelson and Wilberforce lived at the same time, leading Nelson to attack ‘the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies’. From which we learn two things. One: vicious trolling is nothing new. Two: allegations of hypocrisy against Christians isn’t either. Today the challenge is different. Few would defend slavery, but an increasing number of people, in this ungenerous era, think that everyone coming to the UK illegally is here because they want to be and think Britons are a soft touch. Patiently drawing distinctions between those who make the journey here for a better life and those who are forced or deceived into coming here – and explaining there is a grey area between the two – is one of our callings. We won’t be admired for it, because our culture has grown impatient and careless around evidence, but if falsehood isn’t tackled, it takes root and grows like weeds.
4. Campaigners believe that change is possible. Hope is not fashionable today. Cynicism, world-weariness and mistrust are the staple of our conversation. The idea that things could and should improve has taken a hit. There are grounds for anxiety in some fields, like climate change. But believing there is nothing we can do about a warming planet is the surest way of enabling it to happen. Hopelessness is a modern curse, and it applies to slavery too. We will not be able to stop vulnerable people being abused by evil others, but we are able to break the supply chains that depend on slave labour. To disrupt this iniquitous trade and expose its dealings. In 1 Corinthians, St Paul says that love ‘hopes all things’. There is an intrinsic link between hope and love. To love someone is to share in hope for them. And hope is not wishful thinking, but a pillar of the world to come.
5. Campaigners believe their own contribution is valuable. It is tempting to think it isn’t, but this is the preserve of those who want a reason for doing nothing. Culture is changed by a thousand small actions. The anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who spent her life studying human society said: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; it is the only thing that ever has. She could have been speaking of the twelve disciples. She could be speaking of the walkers in front of me today. To quote the words of John Wesley to William Wilberforce shortly before Wesley died, and refreshing them for you: Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even modern slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish away before it.
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