By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ, & Director, CREDI. Visit rcsocialjusticett.org for our columns, media releases and more.
Today, Sunday March 25, the world marks the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. There can be no moral justification for slavery. We are all diminished by this crime against humanity.
Raise your awareness of the grave sin of slavery—past and present. Modern-day slavery includes: human trafficking, debt bondage, forced marriages, and domestic servitude. The Vatican II Document, Gaudium et Spes, reminds us that “whatever is opposed to life itself…all these things are infamies indeed”.
In January 2015, to mark World Day of Peace on the theme: No longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters, Pope Francis “urged people of all religions and cultures to unite to fight modern slavery and human trafficking, saying…that everyone has a God-given right to be free…All of us are called [by God] to be free, all are called to be sons and daughters, and each, according to his or her own responsibilities, is called to combat modern forms of enslavement. From every people, culture and religion, let us join our forces.”
No Christian can ignore the fact that we need to pray for healing and for God’s mercy for the role of Christians, including the Catholic Church, in the transatlantic slave trade. CNN reminds us that Frederick Douglass wrote in his book (1845) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave that: “There is a chasm between Christianity proper and the ‘slave-holding religion of this land.’ One is ‘good, pure and holy,’ the other corrupt and wicked…’”
In 1985, Pope St John Paul II apologised to Africans for the involvement of Christians in the slave trade: “…we ask pardon from our African brothers who suffered so much because of the slave trade…”
On July 10, 2015, during a speech in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Pope Francis apologised and asked for forgiveness for the “‘grave sins’ committed by the Church during the colonial era…He called for a global social movement to shatter a ‘new colonialism’ that has fostered inequality, materialism and the exploitation of the poor” (New York Times).
On February 9, 2006, at the Anglican Church’s general synod in London, the archbishop of Canterbury, issued an apology “for the Church’s complicity in sustaining—and profiting hugely—from the trade”.
As the UK Guardian reported: “Rowan Williams, the archbishop, told the synod that the Church ought to acknowledge its corporate and ancestral guilt: ‘The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors, and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the Body of Christ, is prayerful acknowledgment of the failure that is part of us, not just of some distant ‘them’.”
“’To speak here of repentance and apology is not words alone; it is part of our witness to the Gospel, to a world that needs to hear that the past must be faced and healed and cannot be ignored … by doing so we are actually discharging our responsibility to preach good news, not simply to look backwards in awkwardness and embarrassment, but to speak of the freedom we are given to face ourselves, including the unacceptable regions of … our history.”
Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has stated (2011): “Telling the truth about history is an essential component of international reconciliation and the creation of societies based on justice, equality and solidarity…According to UNESCO, some 30 million Africans were forcibly uprooted from their homeland during the 400-year span of the transatlantic slave trade. Considered to be the largest forced displacement of people in history, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade have only recently been recognised by the international community as crimes against humanity.”
Between 1.2–2.4 million Africans died aboard the ships between the 16th and 19th centuries when they were transported to various parts of the world to work as slaves. Read about the uprisings by slaves throughout our Caribbean region and elsewhere; about the struggles for freedom of slaves such as Samuel Sharpe, Cudjoe, Nanny of the Maroons and about Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass. Read Isabel Macdonald’s article in the UK Guardian (September 16, 2010): “France’s debt of dishonour to Haiti.” Will there ever be restitution?
Let us honour the memory and the indomitable human spirit of the millions of victims of transatlantic slavery and be true advocates for justice as we seek to eradicate modern-day slavery.