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Kevin Bales: Every day gives us hope

Faith communities of the past were instrumental in ending legal slavery. Today their help is needed to finish the job and free millions of enslaved people around the globe, says Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves.

August 25, 2009

Many modern people of faith are unaware of the nature and extent of slavery in the world today. Using his passion for justice and a gift for communication, Kevin Bales works to end this situation and to bring integrity and healing to enslaved people worldwide. The good news, he says, is that despite the size of the problem, the end of slavery is in sight.

Bales is president of Free the Slaves, the American sister organization of Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights organization. It is based in London and dates back to 1787, when Quakers and Anglicans began the first anti-slavery campaign. Bales helped found the American organization in 2001.

His 1999 book “Disposable People” helped energize the present movement to end slavery. His recent book “Ending Slavery” is a roadmap for the global eradication of slavery. Bales earned a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics and is professor emeritus at Roehampton University in London.

Bales spoke with Faith & Leadership while visiting Duke Divinity School.

Q: Describe the situation your organization is trying to remedy.

The problem that we face is the situation of about 27 million people in the world in slavery today. And when I say that, I don’t mean people in sweatshops. I don’t mean people in bad marriages. I mean people in real slavery, absolute slavery; the kind of slavery that would be recognized as such at any time in human history. People completely controlled by violence, the threat of violence. They can’t walk away. They’ve lost their free will. They’re economically exploited and they’re paid nothing beyond subsistence. The fundamental attributes of slavery across all time.

Our big challenge in that is that a significant number of people in the general population and in faith communities are unaware that there are 27 million people in slavery. There’s been a very large expansion in the number of people in slavery in the last 50 years. And there’s a lack of awareness of that. So one of our most important jobs, particularly when we work with faith communities, is the idea of raising that awareness. Helping to reclaim what has been, for many denominations in the past, a central point of action, that of helping people toward freedom, helping people toward achieving lives of dignity and lives that they can control.

Not least because people in slavery have no opportunity for spiritual development. They live lives that are totally controlled by other people who have, in a sense, usurped the position of God in their lives because they take total control over them, even to questions of life and death. And our goal is to bring that to an end.

Q: What can people of faith do to help?

It’s absolutely the case that everybody wants to know what they can do. And when people find out about modern slavery, and they find out about, for example, the raids that we do in India or Nepal where we rescue children from slavery and take them to a rehabilitation center, they look at things like that and say, “I know what I want to do. I want to go over there. I want to kick in a door. I want to take a slave child out. I want to punch the slaveholder in the nose as I run out the door. I want to be up in a sunset with a Hallmark-card look as I lift this kid out of slavery.”

But the truth of the matter is, for those of us who live in North America and Western Europe, we can’t do that. We don’t speak the languages. We don’t fit into the culture. We need to use the talents that we have -- which include both the gold and silver “talents” as well as our own personal talents -- to make a difference.

And what that tends to mean is helping our communities and our faith communities understand this issue and this problem. Helping them to see a way to support those who are on the front lines of liberation and rehabilitation. And that literally goes back to the very simple ideas of raising awareness through Sunday school classes or adult education classes, and then mobilizing the resources that will support those people who are on the ground.

Because I have to tell you: There are people today who are [like] the Frederick Douglasses and the Harriet Tubmans of the past, people who literally, every day, put their lives at risk to get people out of slavery and help them to new lives. Those are people we hardly ever hear about; but they are great heroes of abolition and they need our support.

Q: How do you engage people who have so many other matters demanding their attention and resources?

I suppose that any religious group in the United States today may wonder, Why this issue? Why should we concentrate on contemporary slavery when it’s something that’s small and far away?

From my perspective, this is a fundamental social justice issue. Slavery separates human beings from interaction with other human beings, including in the direction of their spiritual growth.

Also, the problem is not far away and it’s not small. At minimum 50,000 people are in slavery in the United States. Every American state has now had a federal slavery and human trafficking case adjudicated within it; within our world millions and millions of people are caught up in slavery.

The alarming expansion of slavery has been caused by a significant economic shift in the market. Throughout almost all of human history, the average price of a slave in today’s money was $40,000 to $50,000. Slaves have been capital purchase items. Because of the population explosion, because of the increased vulnerabilities of people in the developing world, the price of human beings has collapsed.

Today the average price of a human being globally is about $90. In the United States or Western Europe it may be in the low $1,000s, but basically the price of human beings has shifted from human beings as capital purchase products to being disposables, more like Styrofoam cups. Slaves are so inexpensive that criminals are able to take control of their lives, use them up, then crumple them like a Styrofoam cup and throw them away.

Q: How did you become a leader in the anti-slavery movement?

It has surprised me. I came to it through my work as a university professor and particularly through my curiosity about what on earth was going on with these new forms of slavery. When I began to do research in the field, I saw brothels in Thailand; I saw hereditary forms of slavery in Mauritania and India and witnessed the degradation of slavery in jungle regions of Brazil. The things I saw changed me. I realized I couldn’t just stay in the classroom. I needed to get out and act.

Q: How have anti-slavery movements of the past informed your approach to your present work?

When we founded Free the Slaves, I made a point of reading histories of leaders in past abolitionist movements. One of the things I learned was that virtually every person in my job in past anti-slavery movements had a nervous breakdown. William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison -- all of them had breakdowns. All of the histories of these movements are shot through with people burning the candle at both ends until they collapse and then have to remove themselves from their human rights movement for several years as they recover. I’m glad I did my homework because at the very beginning of the organization here in the United States we said, “Let’s see if we can be the first anti-slavery movement that doesn’t have its leader suffer breakdowns.” And so far -- knock wood -- we’ve achieved that, though we’ve come close a few times.

Q: What sustains you in this demanding work?

Many things help us through the trials. One is, of course, our faith. Though we are not a religious organization, many people in the organization are members of faith communities. Quakers like myself have a long history of anti-slavery work in our faith tradition.

Another thing that helps us [persevere] is the work that we do on the ground. We are helping people out of slavery and into lives of dignity, citizenship and autonomy. Every day gives us enormous hope because almost every day there is a big victory and lives are changed.

The thing that’s so exciting about work on modern forms of slavery is that we’re actually at a moment in history where the end of slavery is in sight.

After some 5,000 years of slavery in human history, we’re actually at a moment where it can be brought to an end. That’s because, while 27 million people is an extremely large, raw number, it’s also the smallest fraction of the global population to ever be enslaved. The amount of money they put into the global economy, some $30 billion each year, is a lot of money but it’s also the smallest fraction of the global economy to ever be represented by slave labor.

There’s a law against slavery in every country, which means the abolitionist campaigns of the past succeeded. There is almost universal moral agreement that slavery needs to come to an end and there are no large vested economic interests holding it up.

It’s literally pushed to the edge of extinction. It’s right on the edge. If we become aware of it and if we direct our attention there, we can give future generations the gift of a world without slavery.

Q: Could you speak a little more about your own faith and its impact on your work?

My personal faith informs this work in several ways. A fundamental tenet of Quakerism is the light of God in every single person. The issue of slavery was opened up for Quakers at the end of the 17th century through our belief that, as God inhabits every person, there is the potential for godliness in every person. There can be no sub-humans who are reasonably enslaved. That’s a fundamental for me, and until we are able to make a world where that which is divine can be actualized and realized in every person, then my job is not done.

Quakers are not afraid of taking a long view. Our peace testimony says we will work on war until war ends, and we will. We also said that about slavery in the early 18th century but we largely stopped work when the legal institution of slavery ended, not when slavery ended.

As a Quaker I was shocked to realize the extent of slavery’s persistence, because, while we may be a bunch of wooly-headed, confused, theologically suspect liberals or whatever, we do pat ourselves on the back and say, “Oh, Quakers, didn’t we do a great job on slavery?”

It is part of my job to go back to my own faith community and speak at national gatherings of Quakers and say, “Guys, we didn’t finish the job.”