Friday, November 02, 2007

Ending Economic Slavery

Two centuries after the British parliament passed the bill outlawing the transatlantic slave trade, one might expect that enough time had passed to eradicate slavery completely. Tragically, slavery persists in the world in greater and lesser degrees around the world today. In Nepal, families in abject poverty will sell their daughters into the sex trade in Thailand. Elsewhere the promise a job in a foreign country can turn into the nightmare of forced labor in a factory without even knowing where you have been taken. While these extreme examples are isolated, forces at work in the global economy are creating what the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches sees as the equivalent of slavery.

The recent meeting of WARC produced a statement that said in part, “We live in a scandalous world that denies God’s call to life for all. The annual income of the richest one per cent is equal to that of the poorest 57 per cent, and 24,000 people die each day from poverty and malnutrition.” This extreme income disparity can all too easily be manipulated by the unscrupulous rich to so control the lives of the desperate poor to indeed be a form of slavery. People of goodwill cannot ethically remain idle and silent while the distribution of the world's resources means luxury for a few and suffering and death for multitudes. People of faith who embrace the story of the Hebrew Exodus should also understand the consistent demand of their faith to seek economic justice. Time and again, God's chosen people are reminded not to be like the Egyptians who enslaved their ancestors through the accumulation of wealth. In the story, during the time of famine only Egypt had stores of food. As peoples came from far away to buy from Egypt they eventually had to offer all their labor for their very existence. This was what Moses led the people out of, yet they didn't learn the lesson and had to be reminded not to enslave their fellow Israelites once in the Promised Land. The practice of the Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25) involved releasing slaves, forgiving debts and returning land to those who has sold it so that the original balance of wealth and resources could be restored. The Hebrew Bible seems to understand that extreme wealth will lead to slavery.

As we in America struggle with the question of what to do with immigration, we should be careful not to ignore the influence that wealth disparity plays in luring the poor of other nations to come here to work for slave wages. Using the threat of deportation to exploit workers is exactly the sort of sin that the ancient prophets decried repeatedly. It is wrong to ignore the behavior of the oppressor and focus only on the illegal actions of the oppressed. Would it make more sense to punish the parents who sold their daughter to brothel or to work to end the sex trade? Until the day when sharing by all means scarcity for none we will need to use the rule of law to combat exploitation.