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Abolished but Not Destroyed: Slavery in the 21st Century

A statement from the delegates of the ecumenical conference "Abolished, but Not Destroyed: Remembering the Slave Trade in the 21st Century" in Runaway Bay, Jamaica; December 2007

14 December 2007

A statement from the delegates of the ecumenical conference "Abolished, but Not Destroyed: Remembering the Slave Trade in the 21st Century" in Runaway Bay, Jamaica; December 2007

The 200th anniversary of the formal abolition of the British Transatlantic Trade in Africans in 2007 is a significant historical marker. We - the delegates from the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Church, and the Council for World Mission - gathered in Jamaica in December 2007 around the commemoration of this anniversary as representatives of the global ecumenical community. Gathered from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas, we are people representing churches and grassroots initiatives, and we assembled to analyze, and make recommendations around modern forms of slavery and the continued legacy of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans in the 21st century.

Between the 16th and 19th century, an estimated 15 million enslaved African peoples were forcibly taken from Africa, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean and landed in the Caribbean and the Americas. This horrific voyage was named the Middle Passage; and over these hundreds of years, an additional 40% of enslaved people who left Africa died en route. This Transatlantic Trade in Africans particularly profited England, Portugal, France, Spain, and Holland. An integral component of the European-American world's economy, the Transatlantic Trade in Africans powerfully linked together Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas.

Many churches were actively involved in the Transatlantic Trade in Africans and colonialism; hence, the church's mission has been seriously compromised and betrayed by its historic complicity with two of the most blatant forms of oppression that occurred within the 16th to 19th century. Further, the church's pastoral and prophetic roles in the contemporary period are obstructed by its voluntary amnesia about its past corporate sin and silence regarding the past - as well as regarding the present - responsibility to bring justice to those still suffering from the legacy of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans and cultural imperialism. While there have been some acts of repentance and confessional statements made by some churches, for the most part, those statements have not been effective enough in eradicating White supremacy, systemic racism and the ongoing legacy of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans.

We recognize that there were faithful members among churches and in society who worked alongside those who were enslaved, to ameliorate the conditions of enslaved peoples, and who continued the struggle to abolish the slave trade and gain freedom for enslaved peoples. Their witness should inspire us today for renewed action and faithful resistance against exploitative powers.

We also realize, however, that people of White European ancestry, whether they were anti- or pro-slavery, benefited from the entitlements accruing to them by virtue of being White-skinned peoples. For example, in late 1800s, in Brazil and many other colonies, although Black peoples were being emancipated from legal slavery, they were not given land, and had to pay high rent for tools and other resources; at the same time, White European immigrants were given incentives such as land and other resources. Thus, people of White European ancestry who had no direct involvement in the slavery or the slave trade became never-the-less beneficiaries of the enslavement system. Much has been written today about White privilege; this privilege is one of the legacies of the ideology of racial superiority that infused the Transatlantic Trade in Africans.

However, we, the descendants of this legacy of racism, are not without memory, voice, cultural resources, religious resources, and spiritual gifts prerequisite for helping the church address its current predicament. What our memories, voices, cultural expressions, and spiritual groans signify and articulate are the cries of the oppressed. If these cries are heeded by the church, both in its universal and local expressions, it will be better able to participate in the saving of the "oikumene" [1]. If our voices are heard, then, the church might be better able to realize true community in identifying with the oppressed through the cross of Jesus Christ, and the church might be better able to live out an action-reflection model by verily assuming the form of the enslaved.

With this in mind, we name several dimensions of the current struggle, and make recommendations for the future.

Theological Dimensions:

The Bible, as sacred text, is a key source for people of faith. But there are also several sources of theological reflection are embedded in the cultures, communities and individual lives of oppressed people. We believe that as people of faith, we need to recognize that God's creation, God's care, and God's presence encompass all of creation, and that this reality calls people of faith to a theology and engagement that cooperates with people of all religions and spiritualities who work for justice in the world.

We also believe that as people of faith, we need to engage heart, soul, mind, and strength in critically analyzing the historical context of the Bible as well as the text of our cultures, communities, and individual lives. As people of faith, we need to create support systems of teaching and learning for those with hardened hearts who reject the church's culpability and complicity in the Transatlantic Trade in Africans and colonialism. We believe that churches that were complicit in the slave trade need to name that the Transatlantic Trade in Africans - and other modern forms of slavery - are sin. And, as people of faith, we need to speak a new language which reflects the insights of God with all, and that fosters relationships which express the values of the reign of God, in which the lion and lamb live together.

Prophetic Issues and Action-Reflection Models:

We believe that reparations are essential for the healing of peoples who were once enslaved. Reparations go far beyond a financial figure; rather, reparations are about recognizing the wrong that has been done. It is a process that compels confession, contrition, restoration and reconciliation; it also involves a process or truth-telling that sets rights, makes amends and restores breached relationships. Reparations from both the church and society are needed, and these reparations are both praxis and prophetic - naming the wrongs that have been done is praxis or an action-reflection model; righting the wrongs, is a prophetic action.

The process of reparations requires the restoration of relationships that affirm the dignity and humanity of all parties in order to repair what has been broken. Reparations also challenge the perpetrator to confession and repentance and ministers restoration and healing to those who have been exploited.

The Transatlantic Trade in Africans destroyed the roots of nation building and enriched the oppressors to build its nations and states. Thus, we believe that mere financial aid is no replacement; rather, full nationhood and community restoration of peoples impacted should be the condition of reparations. In today's global context, a lingering effect of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans and colonialism has been the displacement of millions of people. Thus, reparations and immigration in a global context means dismantling communities of refugees, claiming and reclaiming the rights to movement of people regionally and inter-regionally without insults and suspicions. This includes the millions who are forced off their homelands to those who are internally displaced within their homeland in many places in the world.

We also recognize that oppression continues to operate in India through the caste system, a system whose origin precedes European colonization. The caste system may serve as a model for understanding the effects of slavery and colonialism in Europe and America. The fight, therefore, against racism can be linked to the Dalit struggle against the caste system. This parallel allows people of the African Diaspora and Dalit communities to be in solidarity with one another.

The reality of human trafficking, child labour, child soldiers, enslaved labour in the Amazon, and others, are modern forms of slavery that too need to be addressed. A strong solidarity system needs to be put into place so that concerted social pressure continues to be exerted against those structures which sustain the injustices.

We believe that in considering communities that have been marginalized, it is essential to avoid embracing a hierarchy of oppression, but instead to consider ways in which people's forms of oppression are interrelated; we cannot privilege one form of oppression over another. We need to stop reinventing the wheel of imitating the oppressors, or that of oppressive models. We must create alternative models of deconstructing oppression in relation to caste, race, gender, ethnicity, and other identifiers of marginalization. Enslaved peoples need to break into the entire hegemonic [2] power system, and disrupt it. In order to do this, we need a critical critique of the logic and assumptions, spoken and unspoken, that under gird this entire hegemonic power system. Enslaved peoples will no doubt continue to participate in this work.

We also recognize that all peoples have been impacted by the Transatlantic Trade in Africans and colonialism. Collectively, therefore, we need to destroy the power and institutional relationships of contemporary beneficiaries[3] of the historic and corporate sin and crimes against humanity. Thus, the descendants of the buyers of the enslaved also need to be actively engaged in this process of deconstruction and reconciliation, and in the process of reparation and the restoration of relationships. We believe that there needs to be a process of mutual education; the need to research more, to write, speak, share and tell our stories.

We maintain that it is essential to kill the root of what is sustaining the power structure. A triangular approach is needed, which includes people from Africa, people in the Diaspora, and the descendants of those who benefited from the institutional relationships of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans and colonialism. Among those who have benefited, includes the structures and assets of many churches. Many churches could not offer a prophetic voice at the time of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans because they were eating at the table of the hegemonic power. Many churches instituted, participated in, sanctioned and sustained the system, the enslavers and the buyers. Today, therefore, the church needs to offer a prophetic voice, and rather than be reactive, needs to be proactive.

We also believe that we need an organic, holistic approach to contend with the legacies of colonialism and of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans. The concept of ubuntu[4] may offer theological and sociological principles around which to move forward.

Cultural Sites of Memories:

Balm Yaad[5] sessions, and other cultural rituals, are important parts of religio-cultural expressions and strategies for healing in community settings. In addition, we believe that we must continue to write and creatively express our own stories and say who we are to start the process of healing and extend it to others, individuals, churches, and communities. Storytelling, iconic and creative expressions are critically important in the process of healing; therefore, the production of knowledge created through our lived stories must be part and parcel of sites of memories.

The church must also involve itself in the struggle of people who live new forms of enslavement, including human trafficking. We believe that open spaces must be set up and existing events such as and World Social Forums, the Zanzibar International Festival of Dhow (ZIFF), and many others should be used to create awareness and compel changes. These types of strategies would assist in healing stigmatized identities of marginalized peoples.

Theories of the Social Construction of Knowledge:

We have been asking the question where does knowledge come from, and how do we know what we know? We believe that if we are not questioning what we know, and how we know it, then we remain captives of dominant frameworks of knowing.

We believe that the Transatlantic Trade in Africans, and colonialism, call into question all systems and institutions, their structures, their constructions of knowledge, and the ways these constructions of knowledge function to endorse notions of hierarchies of rights and unjust practices. Some of these practices are grounded in understandings that are contrary to human dignity and the integrity of God's creation. The legacies of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans and colonialism also call into question all norms and conventions that implicitly and explicitly put in dispute the understanding of the centrality of the image of God in all human beings.

Two areas of human relations that exemplify these inequitable realities are race and gender. The basis of the social construction of race and gender must be challenged with regards to the interests they serve and for the purpose of discovering and disrupting the logic that govern the ways in which they were constructed by human beings. We must recognize how specific identities, including race and gender, function in overlapping ways to prevent human beings from experiencing life in its fullness. We must engage in gender and race analyses that approach oppression from the perspective of its interlocking, intersecting, and interrelated nature, so that we may recognize the ongoing multi-level construction and reconstruction processes that are involved, and the implications that they bear for economic justice. This process is absolutely necessary to provide appropriate frameworks from which we strategize for justice.

Oppression operates not only through physical force and coercion, but also at the discursive level of language where the ways in which knowledge is constructed, and the ways in which we use language to describe reality and human relations show elements of oppression. Since the Transatlantic Trade in Africans and colonialism were such essential components in the emergence of modernity, it, in turn, produced many categories related to notions of being human, the creation, and God that are often taken for granted. There is power in naming - and re-naming - our ourselves, our situations, and our relationships. It is essential, therefore, that we examine and critique the categories we use to define ourselves in relationship to other human beings and God. When we do not examine and critique our human-created categories, we remain enslaved to the old framework, and fail to fully appreciate how the system of oppression functions in its totality.

Pastoral Dimensions:

The church is being urged to re-assess its pastoral role. This role is derived from Matthew 22:36-39, in which Jesus explained that humanity's greatest duty is to love God and love thy neighbour as thyself. In a historical and current context of patriarchy, which entrenches hierarchies of caste, class, gender, ethnicity, and age, the local church is urged to make use of relevant rituals, including those inspired by indigenous religions and spiritualities towards the process of healing, restoration and reconciliation.

We believe that the process of healing, restoration and reconciliation must be built on a naming of sin and the claiming of salvation. Salvation encompasses the wholeness of life and the wholeness of humanity in all of its dimensions, and in the context of community. The issues of shame and fear, resistance and compliance, on the part of descendants of the enslaved and the enslavers must be central to the process of healing. Pastorally speaking, therefore, the church cannot make assumptions around the knowledge and conscientiousness of people based on age. Many young people who are descendants of the enslaved, for example, are already actively engaged in learning about their histories, resisting oppression, and striving to create alternatives to hegemonic powers. The church must create welcoming environments for the youth and young adults, and at the same time must seek to remove barriers of caste, class, ethnicity and insularity, which effectively exclude others.

Recommendations and Affirmations:

As representatives of the global ecumenical community, we, therefore, offer the following recommendations and affirmations as those who are numbered within the church and also among the descendants of the enslaved.

We the delegates of the ecumenical conference "Abolished, but Not Destroyed" commit ourselves to:

  • start a list of resources and recommended readings about the Transatlantic Trade in Africans, and its ongoing legacy. This recommended list is one step towards sharing stories and knowledge, and this list of information could be made available on ecumenical websites, including the World Council of Churches, the Council on World Mission, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches,
  • create a variety of media (including CDs of papers from the conference) to give to congregations for reflection, discussion, and action,
  • publish and share religio-cultural rituals, create and have rites of passages, link to women's international sites of memory, and also publish those rituals and sites for others to access,
  • continue to question our sources of knowledge (including bibliographies), and strive to address our knowledge gaps through continual learning and analysis,
  • share our collective resources within the global ecumenical community, including but not limited to sharing a statement and offering input into 2010 mission conference in Edinburgh; this input might include bringing discourses and analysis on racism, slavery, and patriarchy to this meeting,
  • rewrite history at the grassroots level and from the perspective of those who were enslaved and marginalized, and continue to do intergenerational storytelling,
  • maintain a system of communication among ourselves, and others who strive to become engaged in this work.

We recommend to the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Council for World Mission that:

  • a comprehensive and exhaustive history of the role of the oppressive theological ideations and actual church systems towards the implementation, sustainability, and expansion of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans be developed and institutionalized. Special effort should be made to ensure that such an undertaking is pursued from an African worldview,
  • to hear today's cries of oppression, and to respond to these cries, the global ecumenical church community should encourage and support the local churches and clusters of churches in collecting stories of oppression and resistance, and publish those stories,
  • an ecumenical youth initiative focused on the legacy of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans takes place, and that young people's authentic participation be affirmed. Further, that a comprehensive media strategy must be part of the ecumenical youth project so that the initiative not only affects those who go, but also those at home,
  • opportunities are created and enabled for interfaith and inter-religious dialogue, and work in solidarity with African indigenous religious,
  • a process is created to examine the tools of empire, and how these tools are used,
  • resources are created for churches on how to identify and challenge institutional racism, and that intentional racial justice analysis is built into church and ecumenical processes (such as AGAPE, Accra confession, millennium development goals, etc).

We recommend to governments that:

  • financial and human resources be identified and made available, in trust and otherwise, with appropriate church, community, and academic entities to effect institutional development and remedies from the transatlantic slave trade system and colonialism at the local, national and global levels,
  • support is offered to masters levels and doctoral levels research centers of excellence related to the Transatlantic Trade in Africans,
  • reparations are offered for the healing of peoples who were once enslaved.

We recommend to congregations and people of faith that:

  • new educational programs are created that build upon the best of the past, that produces pastors for communities whose folks are crying, and that intentionally address community problems,
  • churches to take on creative projects, for example, young people interviewing elders in communities to learn and write down stories.
  • resources are actively used in churches on that identify and challenge systemic and institutional racism, that a race analysis is built into church and ecumenical processes, and that churches teach those of privilege on how to divert privilege in the realm of Jesus and justice,
  • the church take seriously the social construction of knowledge and identities, and social location in its reading and understanding of scriptures,
  • churches be engaged in identifying historical sites of memory, and creating new sites of memory,
  • in recognition of the power of naming, and re-naming, that the church divest of language which can be disempowering,
  • churches that operate camps for children to develop creative curriculum to teach the history of the people, teach traditional songs, meet leaders from the community. This inclusive curriculum should be both interdisciplinary and intergenerational. Further, any curriculum that is used should embrace the fullness of the imago dei,
  • churches continue to be in solidarity with Dalit peoples, and other marginalized and oppressed peoples around the world,
  • reparations are offered for the healing of peoples who were once enslaved.
  • as the church has stated that it's mission was and is to spread the Gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ, the people of the church now request that the church speak truth to power by informing and supporting educational initiatives, at many levels, on the systemic impact of enslavement upon the lives of African descendant peoples and communities throughout the world.


[1] Oikumene is a term that refers to the whole, inhabited earth.

[2] Hegemony is all encompassing; it is focuses with overarching issues of dominance and control. It also names the totality of interconnected systems of power and oppression.

[3]Today's unequal flow of the world's goods and resources is due, in part to, the legacies of colonialism and slavery. Some economies were built through slave labour, and colonial exploitation of human and national resources. These legacies have benefited some and disadvantaged others over the centuries. The long-lasting impact of these legacies is made to appear natural through unspoken entitlements based race, class, gender, and other inequities, but in reality is unnatural and based on socially constructed ideologies of superiority.

[4] Ubuntu is an expression of human relations lived in community and in harmony with the whole of creation ('African anthropology and cosmo-vision lived in community').  Ubuntu a possibility of reflecting, analyzing and protecting life based on the Ubuntu principle "I am because you are, you are because I am." Both these principles are about the eradication of hate, anger, private wealth without sharing, oppression, exploitation as well as harmony and peace with the cosmos.

[5] Balm Yaad is a place for healing, reading and 'science', where persons who consider themselves ill, hurt, or in need of spiritual aid would seek the services of a 'Madda' or a 'science' man; a revivalist, who discerns the ailment and prescribes cures. A Balm Yaad can apply Christian principles, with distinctive blends of the folk tradition.