Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Combatting Modern Day Slavery

Michael J. Gerson


July 15, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

The social conscience of modern Christianity was, in many ways, shaped in the fight against slavery.  Quakers and Methodists made strong, early contributions to that struggle.  “Liberty,” wrote John Wesley, “is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air. And no human can deprive him of that right, which he derives from the law of nature.”

In the abolitionist movement, evangelicals found their great statesman-hero: William Wilberforce.  Northern evangelicals provided Abraham Lincoln some of his most loyal political support during the Civil War.

It is a great history – worth remembering and honoring.  But it is not merely history.  Recently, I visited South Sudan for their independence celebration, watching the flag of a new nation rise. During my visit, I also met a number of people with recent experiences of slavery – people captured by raiders during Sudan’s long civil war and held in captivity in Sudan’s north.

At an encampment near the border, I talked, through an interpreter, with a young woman who had been redeemed from slavery only weeks before. It was impossible not to notice the crude notches in her ears.  It was her job, she told me, to collect water from the river.  One day she was not feeling well and delayed her work. Her angry master said: “Since you don’t listen with these ears of yours, I’ll cut them out.”  He forced her to continue fetching water while her ears bled. 

Her master was the father of the child she held.  Both the master and his wife had beaten the young woman until she agreed to be circumcised.   

I also met a south Sudanese teenager named Ker, who had been captured in a slave raid as an infant along with his mother and freed about a year ago. Ker is an exceptional young man – inquisitive, bright and cheerful.  He is rapidly learning English and pleased to practice it on Americans.  He is also blind, for the most horrifying of reasons.  For some failure in his duties, his master hung him feet-first from a tree and rubbed hot peppers in his eyes.  His corneas are now white and opaque.  He can see light and darkness, but not much else. 

It is one thing to read the sad history of slavery in books.  It is another to talk to slaves – to hear their voices and stories. It is a reminder to me that the work of abolition is not finished.  For many years, a Zurich-based organization called Christian Solidarity International has worked to free the slaves of Sudan. Other organizations engage in similar efforts around the world, focusing on other forms of modern slavery such sex trafficking or bonded labor. 

As it was two centuries ago – and two millennia ago – Christianity is a creed of liberation. We still believe, along with Wesley, that liberty is the right of every human creature.  And we still demonstrate the essence of our faith, along with Wilberforce, by setting the captives free.

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).





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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”