In George Bernard Shaw’s provocative 1892 play, Widowers’ Houses, Sartorious, a shrewd, self-made business man is living off the rent of London slum dwellings; his son-in-law, Trench, tries to take the moral high ground but it is revealed that his income depends on interest gained from equally dodgy mortgaged tenements. Everyone is tainted in Shaw’s play which unsurprisingly was poorly received and seen as ‘unpleasant’; an ideological attack on the evils of capitalism. When I first read this play as a wide-eyed student, I was struck by that sense of tarnishing and the way in which, I too, feed on the poverty of others. I might not exactly be living off the rent made from hiring out my shed for housing a family of eight, but my hands in some way are sullied by my everyday, unethical consumer choices. I might feel free as I show off my latest fashion wares, and munch on my morning muesli; but can I be, if the way I live is enslaving others?
Anti-slavery day was created to raise awareness of modern slavery and to inspire people to help eliminate it. A report out today reveals that human trafficking to the UK is rising with most victims coming from China, Vietnam, Nigeria and eastern Europe via organised crime gangs. Stop the Traffik’s recent GIFT box campaign raised awareness of the complex issues involved, including how vulnerable people, particularly the homeless are being targeted. Forced labour is rife; agriculture, restaurant, hotel and manufacturing workers are susceptible to under-payment, bad working conditions and poor equipment. Many are trapped in harsh conditions against their will with a real threat of violence or penalty for any challenge or dissent.
Further afield, Stop the Traffik has been chasing down those in the chocolate industry who persist in using children to harvest cocoa beans. The problem is particularly accentuated in Cote D’Ivoire where a third of the cocoa that makes the world’s chocolate comes from and boys as young as ten are forced to work for no payment. They are currently encouraging chocoholics to bang on the door of Kraft, the globe’s biggest chocolate manufacturer to pledge to refuse to use child labour. Mega-famous Toblerone is the first line of attack.
It’s constructive and challenging to know there are ethical choices I can make and methods through which I can, helpfully, shout about these injustices. After all it is for freedom that I have been set free rather than just for my own sense of serenity. This will influence not only how we live globally but also, personally. Thinking wider and deeper, how far do I take this? Are there other ways in which I am enslaving others and myself?
A prisoner once said to me: “There are lots of people in prison but not all of them are behind four walls. Plenty of people outside are more trapped than those in here.” A profound and striking observation.
Having stood in a prison cell as part of arts company, Rideout’s, unnerving Cell Project, with the dank smell of sweat protruding, the walls pressing close and a panic attack threatening, I now know, I would run for my life from that kind of physical detainment. However, the visceral reality of claustrophobia can be something I experience walking down the street or lying in my bed, wide awake in the dead of night. There are ways in which I imprison myself – in fear, addictions and disbelief. At times I can feel palpably trapped in my own self, broken relationships, my growing resentment at a world that seems set against me and my envy of those things I have not got that, green-eyed, I want. Equally disturbing are the ways in which I am imprisoning others in unforgiveness, negativity and selfishness. Grace and compassion for myself and my neighbours, can sometimes seem like a weak, abstract notion.
Am I free?
Ultimately it is only the earth-shattering magnitude of what Jesus did on the cross that will bring release from these snares and thankfully true liberation for all creation. A freedom that is tangible. A freedom that makes you sleep better and fight harder. A freedom that goes beyond chains and human limitations to bring about a better, more just world for everyone. It is this freedom that helps me to get over myself and call on grace as the darkness turns to light each day. It doesn’t get me off buying fair trade chocolate or fighting to raise awareness of those today who are physically enslaved or probably hardest – loosening the shackles I’ve clamped onto myself and others. In fact it makes those things more important, more urgent. Imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela, has authority more than most to state: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
I strive to bring about the liberty of the world in small and big ways; to help usher in the good and fair kingdom that Jesus announced: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). This freedom that is so freely given is never for me to revel in alone, it is something to be celebrated, shared, pursued and for all.