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Slavery-Free Communities: Emerging theologies and faith responses to modern slavery, edited by Dan Pratt

07 January 2022

Peter Selby considers the contemporary fight to abolish slavery

HOWEVER many and however serious the disagreements were that Theresa May aroused as Home Secretary, there can be no doubting the passion with which she engaged with the issues of slavery and trafficking.

In her foreword to this wide-ranging and powerful collection of essays, she declares confronting these issues to be a “moral imperative”; and the Modern Slavery Act witnesses not just to her moral passion, but to the highly effective political energy with which she faced the complexities involved in eliminating slavery and trafficking from British society and from the supply chains of British businesses.

The question remains: can slavery and trafficking be addressed as discrete criminal activities, or do they raise questions about the operation of present-day capitalism in general?

The scene is set in two complementary ways: the opening essay by Kevin Hyland, the UK’s first Anti-Slavery Commissioner, is an authoritative laying bare of the scale and intractability of the problem, and is the fruit of his extensive experience with national and international agencies; it is also a hopeful call to faith communities to become involved with the issues.

His laying out of the large picture is then earthed through the personal stories of three survivors, told in raw detail, and revealing the interplay of their vulnerability and the sheer wickedness of those who exploited them.

Those stories are adduced again and again in the ten subsequent essays that form the bulk of the book, so that the reader is not allowed to move into statistics and abstraction: Stella, Richard, and Anna, the three survivors, are intensely present throughout, and their stories are different enough in the theological and practical issues for the essayists to examine. The title of the book is somewhat ill-chosen: there is not much here about “slavery-free communities” — more about societies and institutions in which slavery still plays a too dominant part.

It is the sub-title that accurately describes the aim and content of the book. The third part, following on from the three stories, contains five essays that involve “listening to survivors and emerging theologies”.

Marion Carson’s is an honest facing of the difficulties that the use of scripture has presented in the abolitionist debate and in relation to present-day slavery, and the way in which the “golden rule” cuts through many of them. Gale Richards tells the story of the Churches’ involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition, so as to provide further lessons in responding to its equivalent today. As with so many issues, a restorative-justice approach to today’s slavery and trafficking provokes the question, in Myra Blyth’s and Joshua Findlay’s essay, what it is that we are seeking to “restore”.

Enough reason for reading this book can be found in its two most creative theological essays. Dan Pratt, the editor of the volume, himself deeply involved in the struggle against slavery and trafficking and the support of those who survive it, applies the pastoral cycle — see, judge, act — as a liberation-theology approach to this issue. As with so many other applications, the result is challenging.

Paul Fiddis’s “Suffering, Slavery and Participating in the Triune God” should inspire deep reflection, taking us beyond problem-solving to a vision of human flourishing and of what it is to inhabit the dynamic of God’s love.

Practical issues are not avoided: the last five essays are about faith responses to slavery and trafficking. Alastair Redfern, who presides over the (Anglican) Clewer Initiative and chairs the Independent Slavery Commissioner’s Advisory Group, provides no fewer than ten challenges and opportunities for Christians to engage with slavery and trafficking.

Kathy Betteridge and Heather Grinsted write with impressive examples of the way in which the Salvation Army has continued its history of combating social injustice — “Christianity with its sleeves rolled up” — by confronting slavery and trafficking in pastoral and prophetic ways. A most valuable contribution from outside Christianity (would that space had been found for more) comes in Gabriel Kanter-Webber’s and Mia Hasenson-Gross’s immensely robust Jewish responses to the issue, “Thank God for not Making me a Slave”.

The last two essays widen the challenge of the issue of slavery, addressing in different ways the question posed at the start of this review: are trafficking and slavery manifestations of wider justice issues in the operation of present-day capitalism? Kang-San Tan’s “missiological” approach relates slavery to issues of international justice, and John Weaver rightly and topically connects the exploitation of people with the exploitation of the earth. Both of these concluding essays lay bare the challenge to our lifestyle of addressing the cruelty involved in slavery and trafficking.

The volume is bookended in prayer: it opens with a prayer composed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and closes with a variety of prayers for those who suffer, and those who perpetrate, slavery and trafficking.

This volume is a considerable achievement and a challenging read. Although the frequent use of “modern” rather than “present-day” or “current” with the word “slavery” might seem to soften the challenge of the inhumanity that is being described, this book leaves us with no place to hide from what is being done to our fellow human beings, its deceit, its prevalence, and its cruelty.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop to HM Prisons and President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards.


Slavery-Free Communities: Emerging theologies and faith responses to modern slavery
Dan Pratt, editor
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £28

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