Abolitionist Sunday

This past Sunday was ‘Abolitionist Sunday’. If that name is totally foreign to you, you might do well to start here: Abolitionist Sunday (World Vision Australia).

Basically, it’s all about challenging the Church to take seriously the issues involved with modern-day slavery and, very importantly, to do something about it. Now, although these issues are becoming more well-known, many people are surprised to find out that slavery still exists in the world today – genuine, bona fide, proper slavery.

Unfortunately, it’s true.

There are a number of forms that this slavery can take, like child labour, forced labour, or sexual exploitation to name but a few, and it’s usually the poor and the socially vulnerable who are most affected.

And the effects are obscene.

Innocent children are exploited. Generations are kept in shocking poverty. Human beings are ‘traded’ like any other commodity.

And some people are getting filthy rich off it all.

The figures are astounding: something like 28 million people are caught in this vicious cycle, and those responsible are making billions, and billions, and billions of dollars.

But it’s not just them. It’s us too.

We are profiting from the exploitation and oppression of other human beings. We are able to buy cheap food and clothes and electrical goods, and so often the supply chains for these products are stained with exploitation at some level.

So, Abolitionist Sunday, as I said at the beginning, aims to raise these issues and to put out the call to action.

In the rest of this post, then, I want to outline two very simple points that I believe are quite helpful to remember in all of this.

Firstly, the idea behind it all is the hope that we can help build a strong movement. These issues cannot be challenged strongly enough or systems changed deeply enough by just one or two of us.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was younger I thought I was going to change the world. Single handedly.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that it’s probably not actually going to be the case. In fact, I know that it’s definitely not going to be the case. Of this I am 100% sure.

It’s not that I suddenly have really poor self-esteem. It’s more that I’ve come to realise that, beyond my immediate family, I’ll be, for all intents and purposes, all but forgotten not more than a couple of years after I die – if I’m lucky. Hopefully I can make a little bit more of an impact on my immediate family, but it seems to me to be the case that most people are promptly forgotten by the general population well before the worms even get time to do their thing.

And this is ok.

I really don’t care if my name is forgotten when I die (…I don’t particularly like it anyway, and can’t even work out what to call myself while I’m alive…). What I really want to do, though, is to be part of something good while I’m alive that will live on well after I’m dead and buried (or cremated, or whatever).

I think I can be part of something like that with the ‘Abolitionist’ movement.

My name might not be remembered, but perhaps I can play a small part in something much larger than myself. Perhaps I can make some choices that, combined with all the millions of other choices made by like-minded people, starts to put pressure on companies or governments to change business practices or legislation.

Of course, sometimes in these sorts of movements there are the ‘great ones’. There are William Wilberforces, after all. What I’ve come to realise, though, is that for every William Wilberforce there are thousands, probably millions of people who are never really recognised for their hard work.

That’s ok too.

If I can be part of a movement that accomplishes what Wilberforce and his many friends and helpers achieved, I will die a very happy man. The goal is what is important, not whether they make a movie about my life.

This is a movement. This is something bigger than any one of us, but something that only works when we each decide to work together. And the amazing thing is that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not exactly sure how it works, but I do know that a movement that is focused enough and disciplined enough can easily change a nation, and can quite possibly achieve that goal of worldwide influence.

Secondly, then, the focus is on the Church spearheading this amazing movement.

Why the Church?

With all this talk about Royal Commissions into institutional abuse of children, isn’t brand ‘Church’ way too tarnished to be of any use in all this?

I actually don’t think so.

In fact, I think it’s precisely this sort of thing that should be part of the Church’s core business. Rather than focusing on short-sighted power plays or lusting after poorly defined ‘influence’ or proclaiming a quasi-gnostic theology that focuses only on the ‘spiritual’ things, I think that the Church should be standing firmly on the side of the exploited and the marginalised and the oppressed – where Jesus was and where his Church should have been all along – and advocating for and embodying new possibilities.

But this is about far more than trying to help the Church’s image in the context of the painful yet very necessary Royal Commission; it’s an assertion that rises out of the belief that the Church is the perfect, and indeed only organisation capable of really taking up this challenge powerfully.

I make this (no doubt, to some, extraordinary) statement due to a) my belief that it’s not really in the interests of powerful people and powerful nations to disturb the status quo on these issues (on account of the ludicrous profits that can be made – and the ‘standard of living’ that can be achieved – through such activities), and b) because my (perhaps naive) understanding is that the Church is supposed to look like Jesus and embody the hope of new, more fully human, possibilities.

In regards to the first point, the question must be asked: who else is going to do this?

It’s most likely true that seeking to break down these structures of oppression will have wider impacts than just seeing people have better working conditions or children having childhoods or people not being forced into sexual exploitation (basically people being free to be more fully human). It might mean, for example, that some things become, perish the thought(!), more expensive. It might cost more than $5 to buy a t-shirt if the person making it is paid a living wage. Coffee or chocolate prices might rise if farms aren’t allowed (or practically forced) to rely on child labour.

Why would anyone want this? Why would I want to inconvenience myself in this way? It doesn’t make any real sense to do so. Individuals in nations not directly affected by it all wouldn’t really be directly ‘benefitting’ by doing anything about it (based on dodgy, but nevertheless very common, understandings of how that word might be interpreted), but possibly inconvenienced. The people and companies making massive profits out of the exploitation certainly don’t want to deal with declining profits, and politicians pretty much don’t care unless it’s an issue that will affect votes.

The only people who really should want to do something about it all are Christians, and this is because it’s part of the very DNA of what Christianity is all about.

And this brings me to the second point.

It is my belief that the group of people who are best equipped, or at least most called, to do something about all this is the Church. This is because, as I have already noted above, I believe strongly that the Church is supposed to look like Jesus – to continue on his mission in the world. This was the Jesus who, in his own words, defined his mission as, among other things, ‘setting at liberty the oppressed’. This was the Jesus who, due to his firm belief that all people were created in the image of God, treated people with the dignity they deserve. This was the Jesus who loved in a way that didn’t focus on what he got out of it; it was a perfectly self-sacrificial love that was displayed in full on the cross.

And this is why Christians are not only the best candidates to do something about these issues, but are compelled to act. In fact, I’m not sure that one can truly call themselves ‘Christian’ unless they are doing the sorts of things Jesus did. This includes working towards true freedom, and this true freedom should be for all. After all, where the image of God is denied in one, the whole of humanity suffers.

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

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