Last night, one of my students asked me to pray for the father of a friend of hers. The man had apparently been sold to slave traffickers in Thailand, and no one knows where he is (nor, sadly, are they likely to find out ). I promised I would pray for him, and though I would have done so anyway, the likely (if unspoken) circumstances of the situation are particularly prone to arouse my sympathies and concern. The normal situation in such circumstances is for people to be sold into slavery to pay a debt to someone else. Either they sell themselves or they sell their children, in both cases leading to horrible experiences.
I happen to know someone who was sold into slavery as a child and had to be redeemed from slavery by others. Long before this happened I was particularly sensitive to slavery, a subject I blog about relatively frequently. For a variety of reasons, I find the lack of concern that many people have toward the institution of slavery to be troubling, because it is not that complicated of a situation for unfree labor of one type or another to become popular, since it could very easily be seen, especially in an atmosphere of plentiful labor and scarce capital, that the loss of productivity due to unfree labor is more than counterbalanced by the increased control and social status that result from having dependent clients as slaves or serfs or indentured servants of some kind.
Proverbs 22:7 reads: “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” It should be noted that like much of the wisdom literature, Proverbs is not speaking here to an ideal about the way things ought to be, but is rather speaking to the pragmatic realities of existence. Political campaigns in most nations are between different groups of elites or elite aspirants, very few (if any of whom) are genuinely common people. Rulers generally spring from the elite, and either the power comes with money (often through corruption) or the money gained by someone is used to get power, though very little difference exists between the two in its practical consequence.
What is worthy of note, if rather scary, is that debtors (that is, people who have debts) are slaves to those they owe debts to. For a variety of personal reasons, I find this rather unpleasant, though it is certainly an aspect of reality that must be admitted, however ugly it is. We must be careful and recognize that this slavery is not always the metaphorical kind, but is sometimes the literal kind as well, as it was for the father of my student’s friend . Metaphorical slavery, in terms of obligations (perhaps having to work long hours to repay debts, or work at unpleasant jobs), is bad enough. Literal slavery is far worse, and in an age where crushing debt is common among nations as well as their overburdened populace, we cannot dismiss the possibility of literal debt slavery as a solution to these issues in the eyes of increasingly harsh creditors with their demands for austerity. Slavery is about as austere as life can get.
Nonetheless, it seems a rare thing for people to be aware of just how difficult and unpleasant life can be. We have to be aware of the seriousness of what is at stake before we can be expected to take the wise steps to recognize that unpleasant actions taken now may be necessary to avoid even more unpleasant futures. But if our expectations are based on past experiences in ‘good’ times, we do not have a realistic understanding of our constraints and our true options. And that makes us less likely to act sooner and avoid greater problems when our inevitable day of reckoning comes. That day appears to be rapidly approaching, however unready we are to face it.