The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Slavery in our Modern, Progressive World

I am always amazed at the historical myopia of those who actually believe that we humans have evolved into smarter and better beings, that we have continually progressed en route to some wonderful man-made utopia. The facts, of  course, tell us quite the opposite. But who wants to face the facts when they've already made up their minds?

There are plenty of available measuring sticks by which we can compare the present with the past. Warfare is a good example. Did you know that more people were killed during the wars in the twentieth century than in all previous wars combined? And if we add other kinds of government sponsored slaughter -- Hitler's death camps, the gulags of the Soviet Union, the Cultural Revolution of Mao's China, the "reeducation" of the Cambodian people, etc. -- the resulting comparison is even more lop-sided.

Another measurement, one that isn't talked about too often in polite company, is slavery. Indeed, about the only context in which slavery is discussed today is relative to the idea of reparations for the descendants of African slaves in this country. But how often have you heard any discussion of slavery as it is currently practiced in today's world? And yet, it is estimated that throughout the world 27 million or more humans are enslaved today. This is a higher number than at any other time in the world's history. People are enslaved everywhere on earth, with the exception, I suppose, of Antarctica...

Most people don't realize that in the Middle Ages, under Christianity, slavery virtually disappeared in Europe. Yes, there was serfdom, but even as a serf a man enjoyed all his personal rights except the right to leave the land he cultivated and the right to freely dispose of his property.  Even serfdom eventually disappeared in Catholic countries, although it remained longer in countries affected by the Protestant Reformation. It wasn't until the later wars with Islam that prisoners began to be treated as slaves and then, with the exploration of the New World, and the so-called Enlightenment, slavery once again flourished.

It is a blot on Christian civilization that this happened. But slavery was repudiated again and again by the papacy, even if these repudiations were most often ignored:

  • In 1462, before the exploration of America, Pius II declared slavery to be "a great crime"
  • In 1537, Paul III forbade the enslavement of the Indians
  • In 1639 slavery was forbidden by Urban VIII and by Benedict XIV in 1741
  • In 1815 Pius VII demanded that the Congress of Vienna suppress the slave trade
  • In 1839 Gregory XVI condemned slavery
  • In 1850 Pius IX, when beatifying the Jesuit Peter Claver, a famous opponent of slavery and minister to the slaves, called the practice of slave traders, "supreme villainy". (Photo is of the Church of  St. Peter Claver in Cartagena, Columbia which Dear Diane and I visited last year. The saint's remains are visible under the main altar.)
  • And in 1888 Leo XIII addressed the Brazilian bishops, instructing them to banish the remnants of slavery from their country. The bishops responded enthusiastically and many slave owners freed their slaves, as happened in the early days of the Church during Roman times.
The slavery we encounter in the world today is a relatively recent institution, quite different from that of the ancient world and a far cry from the kind of slavery, largely agricultural,  that existed in the United States prior to the Civil War. The sad thing is that slavery still exists and is a booming business in much of the world. 

How would you define slavery? Do you think of it only in 19th Century terms; for example, the slavery of Africans who were bought and sold and forced to work on Southern plantations in the United States? Or is your conception of slavery more expansive? Does your idea of slavery encompass the unwilling trafficking of human beings for a variety of reasons? I suggest that the latter is a far more realistic view, especially in today's world. Probably the most accurate definition of slavery is "forced labor with little or no pay under the threat of violence."

Slavery has changed over the years and, perhaps most surprisingly, it has also grown significantly since those days when it was common practice in a large part of our own country. And, believe me, just because slavery is now constitutionally illegal in the United States, this does not mean it isn't practiced here. In fact, the CIA estimates that between 14,500 and 17,000 victims are trafficked into the US every year. Many consider this a very conservative estimate, since for some victims the US is merely a place of transit, a way-point, so to speak, on their way to some other destination.

But what happens in this country is a mere drop in the bucket compared to other nations. These victims of modern slavery fall into a number of different categories: chattel slavery, debt bondage, forced labor, and sex slavery.
  • Chattel slaves are consider to be personal property and can be exchanged for money or other property (cars, trucks, etc.). They and their children are expected to perform labor and provide sexual favors. Chattel slavery was used as a weapon in the war in southern Sudan. And in Mauritania Arab Berbers bought and sold black Africans as inheritable property. Slavery was legally prohibited in 2007 there, but the "freed" slaves seem to be doing exactly the same work they did before being freed. Click here to read more.
  • Debt bondage, or bonded labor, is probably the most widely practiced form of slavery worldwide. Extreme poverty can force parents to offer themselves or their children as collateral against a "loan". And though they are told they will work only until the debt has been paid, inflated interest rates often make this impossible. This kind of debt can cut across generations and keep a family in bondage indefinitely. This form of debt bondage slavery still exists in some form here in the US; for example, the Immokalee workers right here in Florida.
  • Sex slavery usually involves women, and children of both sexes, forced into prostitution. They are often lured into slavery by promises of real work and then threatened, beaten and forced into working in brothels. Some are sold by their fathers or brothers to pay off a debt, while others are simply kidnapped from their rural villages. The brothels of Thailand are filled with sex slaves, but they exist as well in many other places throughout the world. Here's an example from the Middle East where a young 15-year-old girl was sold by her father in Syria and then taken to the United Arab Emirates to work as a sex slave: Sex slave girls face cruel justice in Iraq. (Sex slavery in the Islamic world is particularly cruel since the victim is often blamed rather than the actual perpetrator.)
  • Forced labor, another common form of slavery, usually results when individuals are promised a good job but then find themselves trapped in conditions of slavery; i.e., forced to work for no pay in harsh or hazardous conditions while being physically abused. And depending on how one measures it, this category could include hundreds of millions of people. Victims include domestic servants, construction workers, children forced to fight as soldiers or even act as human mine detectors. The UN estimates that there are upwards of 300,000 children forced to fight as soldiers worldwide. Many of these children have died or been disabled in armed operations, while others have been interrogated, tortured, beaten, or kept as prisoners of war. Teenage suicide bombers, brainwashed by their controllers, would also seem to fall into this category. Child domestic servants -- often as young as seven years old -- not only work 12 to 14 hours a day, but many are paid absolutely nothing. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexual as well as other physical abuse. At the extreme fringe of forced labor, children are kidnapped, held in remote camps, and chained at night to prevent their escape. They are put to work on road-building and stone-quarrying. Forced labor in one or another of its forms occurs almost everywhere but, in its worst forms, is probably most common in parts of Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East.
Every year nearly a million people are trafficked internationally, and approximately 80% of these are women and children. And make no mistake about it, human trafficking is an extremely profitable business. Experts estimate that trafficking just in the US yields more than a $ Billion annually. And around the world, trafficking in human sex slaves is a multi-billion dollar business. Interestingly, today human slaves are actually very cheap. In 1850 the average slave cost $40,000 in today’s money, while today the average cost of a slave is $90.

A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day SlaveryModern Slavery: The Secret World of 27 Million PeopleLogan Paul Gage wrote an excellent review of Benjamin Skinner's book, A Crime So Monstrous..., in the May 2008 issue of First Things. (Click here to read the review.) While Skinner's book offers a remarkable look into the world of modern day slavery, it is far too hostile toward some of the faith-based groups working to eradicate it. Gage's review helps to balance some of that hostility. Another book on the subject is Modern Slavery: The Secret World of 27 Million People. Written by Kevin Bale, Zoe Trodd and Alan Kent Williamson, it offers a reliable view of this horrific problem facing the world. It, too, is worth reading.

Some other relevant links:

US Bishops Coalition Against Human Trafficking

Polaris Project

American Anti-Slavery Group

Free the Slaves

St. Peter Claver, pray for us.

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