Ending Slavery Today: Ecumenical Theological Considerations

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary, World Council of Churches


  1. Freedom is coming - or not really?

Your eminences and distinguished guests, I appreciate deeply this opportunity to be with you in this conference. It is an impressive display of the deep concern and stern resolve of the international community—national governments, agencies of the United Nations and allies in civil society, churches and  other religious organizations, leading non-governmental agencies in the struggle to secure and defend human rights—to recognize and combat the scourge of slavery in our time. It testifies, too, to the benefits and indeed necessity of engagement by faith-based organizations and religious communities to fully address problems, such as slavery, that are widespread yet also deeply culturally and religiously rooted.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened by the yoke of slavery—Gal 5:1

The strong impetus and emphasis on freedom in our Christian scriptures has been and continues to be a great inspiration for people enslaved in all kinds of forms. We are grateful for the liberating power of our faith, and how it has also guided slaveholders and others to end their practices.

Yet it is shocking that we have to meet at all, again. Two centuries after slavery was outlawed by most nations, two generations after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed the fundamental dignity of every person, decades after the elaboration and expansion of these rights through international covenants and conventions, we still find slavery. In fact, the International Labour Organization estimates that 40 million persons are captive in some form of modern slavery, while 152 million suffer child labour and 300,000 fight as child soldiers in 20 different countries.[1]

As the ILO and IOM define it, “modern slavery covers a set of specific legal concepts including forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, other slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking…. 
Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.” We have heard about horrific examples of slavery in areas of war and conflicts, like those captives enslaved by ISIS. But the term also encompasses the one hundred Nepali workers who have died while building a stadium for the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and the thousands of South Asian workers in labor camps there.  It includes workers exploited in maritime seafood commerce, or stateless migrants trafficked for sex, or the virtual slavery of supply-chain workers in those commercial arenas (especially textiles, electronics manufacturing, food processing) we draw on every day here in the relatively rich global North. Slavery and its effects invisibly permeate every aspect of our lives. Slavery is powerfully present in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, but also in North America, Latin America, and Europe.[2]

Further, modern slavery disproportionately victimizes women and girls. The UNFPA estimates, for example, that 142 million girls will have been married before adulthood just within this decade.[3]

Finally, we are also realizing not just the extent but also the intractability of this worldwide problem. After all, it is rooted in and facilitated by a powerful new global technological and digital infrastructure, by the dominance of the globalized neoliberal economic and financial architecture, and by a deterioration in the longstanding geopolitical consensus on key matters of human rights.

As general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the global fellowship of 350 church bodies representing 560 million Christians around the world, I am here to address another deep cultural aspect of this problem: the philosophical, religious, and theological dimensions of slavery and both the problematic and prophetic potential of religious traditions to address it.

2. “Live as Free People”: Philosophical Underpinnings of Human Dignity

Philosophically, we know that the long Western tradition of human rights stems from the Enlightenment and its affirmation of universal rights. In turn, these affirmations are rooted in even older Jewish and Christian biblical foundations of the dignity of the human person. It is a true achievement of postwar international relations that such ideals were spelled out in the Universal Declaration[4]as the right to life and liberty and to be free of torture or slavery. It recognized freedom of expression, religion, peaceful assembly but also the right to choose one’s occupation and be treated fairly at work. The declaration enshrined a kind of civil consensus about philosophical anthropology; and, I think it is fair to say, until recently it was thought to be just a matter of extending and enforcing rights that were universally acknowledged. Now, we see that the foundation itself is being questioned, and the postwar consensus is sometimes dismissed as a form of cultural hegemony or a Western imposition or simply outmoded.

Yet we must hold the line here. There is no going back on human rights, human freedom, and human dignity. No “philosophy” that impugns human dignity is worthy of the name. No “law” that does not recognize the full humanity and rights of all others should be given. No religious claim that denies the dignity of nonbelievers or others can be accepted just because it is “religious.” We all have to be self-critical and accountable for how also religion has been and can be used today to accept or even foster inhuman practices, like slavery. Although we acknowledge that specific conceptual expressions may be derived from particular cultural matrices, the underlying rights and freedoms affirmed are universally valid. Especially in an age when governments themselves are losing power to global corporate and media power centers, it is all the more important to recognize these rights as a philosophical and political and even planetary baseline. They are, in effect, the basis for defending human rights and opposing slavery by expanding laws, tightening enforcement, encouraging activist exposure of abuses, and insisting on international transparency: Being human in today’s global framework entails accountability for ensuring that dignity to all others.

This is – and must be – strongly affirmed as a genuine interpretation of the theological basis in the belief that all humans, women and men, are created in the image of God. Even before it was officially established in 1948, the World Council of Churches’ first leaders were heavily involved in formulating the conventions for human rights. We continue to be committed to these universal principles, and we see them as genuine expressions of our faith.

3. Christian Theology as a basis for human rights and dignity

Modern slavery is a human problem rooted in humanity’s inability to appreciate the dignity and worth of the other, who, as the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures affirm, reflects God’s own image and worth, the imago dei (Gen 1:26). This monumental affirmation, at the very basis of the faith of the Abrahamic religions, including Islam, is reinforced for Christians in the magna carta of Christian humanism, Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “For there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Despite the near universality of slavery in the ancient world, Christians were distinguished by their acceptance of slaves as equals in their earliest communities and by their attempts to undermine the institution of slavery.

We do cite with confidence the crucial role of our faith convictions in the rise of the human rights tradition. To address the problem of slavery, however, it is not enough to repeat the principles and the values we are committed to. We have to analyze how human interests can lead to such inhuman behaviour.

4. Accountability: Christian faith as a motivation for radical criticism, through self-criticism

Therefore, we must also, as churches affirming human rights and human dignity today, pledge again our accountability before God and each other.[5]Our teaching about sin is not primarily to make us feel guilty, but to end the tragic effect of sins for the victims of sin.

An exercise of self-critique and learning, to frankly assess and address our own traditions’ role and even complicity in slavery, can help us to understand what we need to be aware of also today. This is necessary for our credibility, but also to see more clearly how our traditions and values can be misused:

a. The ambiguity of the biblical legacy: The Bible decries the mistreatment of servants and slaves, but it does not fundamentally challenge the right to slaves, especially the enslavement of captured or foreign peoples. And even the early Christian acceptance of slaves was hampered by the New Testament’s (deutero-Pauline) injunction, “Slaves, obey your masters” (Col 3:22). Most damning is Eph 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” It in essence reinforces slavemasters’ authority as derived from God. The use of the Bible in legitimating slavery, in reinforcing slaves’ obedience, in fostering a spirituality of acquiescence in oppression and suffering: these are among its most problematic aspects and still blunt the liberating edge of Christian freedom.[6]

b. Historical accountability: As Christians, we must also acknowledge, repent, and repair the churches’ role in European colonial history, the slave trade, the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples, and denigration and destruction of their cultural legacies.[7]Indeed, the colonial enterprise often was championed as a religious ideal and as a Christian missionary effort, and the authority of the Bible was used to legitimate slavery and manipulate slaves. With notable exceptions, it took centuries for Christians to disentangle themselves from this unholy alliance of religious, commercial, and national powers—amazing grace, indeed!—and the cost to Christianity has been immense.

c. Theological accountability: When we probe this history deeply, we must acknowledge that we have had much to learn theologically that has to be repeated and reactivated in our theological awareness today, as we are facing new forms of slavery. We have to be aware of how other interests can blur a clear sight, even for people of faith:

  • While initially an advocate of children during the Roman period, Christians eventually acceded to the prevailing norms and, over the course of the centuries, often treated children as chattel or as economic assets. The religious and ethical understanding of children as moral agents and precious as subjects with rights and privileges of their own is still developing, as is protection of them from abuse of all sorts.
  • Similarly for women: rooted in androcentric patriarchy that could lead to ignorance of the equal dignity of women and therefore the need for equal protection of and rights for women and men, women have become even more vulnerable also to the inhuman practice of slavery, and therefore also to sexual abuse.
  • Racism: Despite wide variation through the ages and in different confessions, we might generally consider elements that led to the denigration of and exploitation of classes of persons, through a racist approach to others and a racial pretext for slavery. This year we mark the 400thanniversary of the beginning of the slave trade from Africa to Jamestown in the Americas. Some forms of racism even led to genocide.

Theology has not been colour-blind, though we rarely acknowledge that there are roots of racism also in religious worldviews, especially evident in the modern period and most markedly in Apartheid. Therefore, it was so important to make the most comprehensive WCC Programme to Combat Racism in Southern Africa a church-driven and theologically based initiative from the WCC. It made a significant contribution to the transformation. Nelson Mandela said at the WCC Assembly in 1998 that without the WCC he would not have been a free man then.

The ongoing legacy effects of racism and xenophobia that we see in many parts of the world today allow some to dismiss others as inferior, to ignore their humanity, and to demonize them for political gain.

  • More broadly, our notions of the good life and what life is really for have opened the door to consumerism, most radically evidenced in the Prosperity Gospel. This has in turn encouraged us to accept as normal the exploitative aspects of commerce and consumption (including of nature and natural resources) that we find in today’s global economy. Commercial and general economic interests have become a system of values that in themselves almost serve as religion for many.
  • Finally, exclusivism is often the unfortunate corollary to strong faith and a quest for certitude in religion. And we must learn from the margins that we are all, in a sense, enslaved by our preconceptions and prejudices, reinforced by our self-centredness and greed, and even by our religious traditions.

Countering modern slavery requires not only deep faith and committed hope but also a fully self-critical understanding. This should happen in all communities of faith as we discuss modern slavery. Through serious and honest encounter with people and traditions very different from ourselves, who have lived through colonization and even slavery, we can also take more seriously the phenomenon and the root causes of slavery in all its forms even today.

d. Not just then but now, not just them but us: Though the contemporary period is freed of some of the worst historical and theological baggage, even today Christian politics and practice often prove unhelpful in the fight against modern slavery. Too often we see political leaders using religion, even the so-called Christian values and civilization, as a pretext for national interests, economic interests, racism, prejudice, exclusion, and hatred.

Too often religious commitment is seen as simply a source of personal comfort and a therapeutic balm rather than an incentive and incitement to loving service through an all-consuming passion for justice. We have to say to one another in inter-faith dialogues that such risks appear in all religions. Too often we use the Bible as a defense of our lifestyle or a weapon for condemning ideological opponents rather than as a spur to self-critical reflection and ongoing conversion to the needs of others.  Too often we see Jesus as simply a personal savior rather than as a redeemer of all humanity who leads the way in healing, lifting, helping people into life abundant—a prophet of justice, boldly calling out exploitation as evil.

5. The call today: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… He has sent me … to set the oppressed free.”—Luke 4:18

Theology is also a matter of what we do to follow the call to liberate others. As Pope Francis often says, “Actions are more important than ideas.” What is the role of the ecumenical movement in combating modern slavery? In ending slavery as in other arenas, it is to convene the fellowship of Christians in honest and loving encounter (beyond denominational or even interfaith barriers), to engender personal and ecclesial renewal, and to marshal Christians’ prophetic witness to the truth in love. As a privileged instrument of that movement, at the World Council of Churches we labor to unite Christians in solidarity and to help churches and their ecumenical partners and allies live up to their prophetic roles in action, advocacy, and service. In direct and indirect ways, and always in partnerships with churches and with agencies like those here today, we continue our pilgrimage of justice and peace, in such relevant areas as these:

  • In partnership with UNICEF, we have initiated a global network of churches committed to network for protection of child rights.[8]
  • In a concerted campaign against rape and gender violence, we have revived Thursdays in Black, a simple yet powerful way to heighten awareness of a reality directly connected to international networks of slavery.[9]
  • Through our programme on statelessness, we marshal the awareness and commitment of local churches to act with and for the stateless and to lobby their governments for life-giving legislative reforms.[10]
  • In partnership with the Vatican and others, we have sponsored international conferences on understanding and dismantling racism and xenophobia, particularly as they affect migrants and refugees.[11]
  • Especially through our WCC Commission of the Churches in International Affairs, we work directly with churches, governments, and international agencies for peacemaking and peacebuilding in several of the most conflictual countries in the world, e.g., in Columbia, South Sudan, the DRC, the Korean Peninsula, Iraq and Syria, in part to forestall the need for migration and refugees.
  • In partnership with the ILO, we sponsor the Decent Work initiative, an international effort to alleviate poverty, ensure just working conditions and workers’ rights and a fair economy.
  • Through our extensive ecumenical network of healthcare providers in Africa, we seek to make churches and church communities sites of preventive healthcare and safe spaces for youth to discuss health, HIV and AIDs, and sexuality.[12]
  • We continually foster intrachristian and interreligious dialogue on the theological issues that most directly affect human dignity and social justice.[13]
  • We seek, through a robust communications programme, to highlight the stories of people and communities that struggle through these issues and to offer encouragement for prophetic engagement in issues of justice and peace.[14]

I hope that I have been able to persuade you that religion is not only a key to understanding the deeper currents that drive human endeavour but also an indispensable vehicle of realistic hope for the world. I believe that self-critical faith and committed solidarity among Christians are and can continue to be a creative force for justice, peace, and an end to slavery in our time.

After all, slavery is not just a shameful legacy and a scandalous present reality. If we do not stand up for human dignity, slavery will become the sophisticated or advance guard of a future of exploitation of ever-wider portions of our populations. As churches, as Christians, as people of goodwill, we must say no to slavery, no to exploitation, and yes to human life, human dignity, and life abundant for all. At the World Council of Churches, in collaboration with you, we pledge to do our part, fully accountable to each other, to all those who suffer in the many forms of slavery, and to our one humanity before God our creator.



[1]See “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage,” at https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf. On child soldiers, see the work of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth at: https://www.un.org/youthenvoy/2015/02/4-10-child-soldiers-girls/.

[2]An excellent introduction is the Council on Foreign Relations website ”Modern Slavery: A CFR InfoGuide,” https://www.cfr.org/interactives/modern-slavery/#!/section1/item-1.

[3]See “Child Marriage” on the UNFPA site: https://www.unfpa.org/child-marriage.

[4]The text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

[5]On the notion of mutual accountability as an important thread in the ecumenical movement and particularly in the theological work of the Faith and Order Commission, see my volume, The Truth We Owe Each Other: Mutual Accountability in the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCCPublications, 2016).

[6]The bibliography on the history of slavery is enormous. See, e.g., Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity(Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2006); also Virginia Burrus, ed.,  Late Ancient Christianity, A People’s History of Christianity, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), esp. ch. 2.

On slavery in the New Testament, see J. Albert Harrill,Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). On the effects of New Testament teaching on slavery, see Tatha Wiley, Misusing Sin (forthcoming, Geneva: WCC Publications); and on the ambiguities of the Pauline and deuteron-Pauline legacies, see idem, Encountering Paul: Understanding the Man and His Message, Come and See series(Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

[7]On the role of Christianity in the development of modern slavery, see Katherine Gerbner, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,2018).

[8]See particularly the UNICEF- and WCC-sponsored “Churches’ Commitments to Children”: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/what-we-do/wcc-child-rights-engagement. The full array of WCC programmes in the areas of witness and service are closely aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

[9]Thursdays in Black, centred on a simple gesture for a powerful cause, has been launched at events around the world: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/get-involved/thursdays-in-black.

[10]In recent years, the WCC has stepped up its work on behalf of the roughly 10 million stateless persons around the world. The programme is a component of the WCC Commission of the Churches in International Affairs: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/what-we-do/statelessness.

[11]For example, see the recent World Conference on Xenophobia, Racism, and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration,” sponsored with the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. Their October 2018 message can be found at: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/message-from-the-conference-xenophobia-racism-and-populist-nationalism-in-the-context-of-global-migration-19-september-2018.

[12]See Mwai Makoka, “Health Promoting Churches: A Case for Congregation-Based 25 Health Promotion Programmes,” in Contact Special Series 5 (October 2018): 25-30, available at: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/what-we-do/health-and-healing/Contact2018Final.pdf.

[13]Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation, a programmatic initiative of the WCC, recently issued with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, an important statement on Education for Peace in a Multireligious World: A Christian Perspective. See it at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/publications/education-for-peace-in-a-multi-religious-world-a-christian-perspective.

[14]The WCC’s communication strategy for 2108-2021 can be seen at: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/executive-committee/uppsala-november-2018/wcc-communication-strategy-2018-2021.