Book review: Slavery-Free Communities

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Dan Pratt (ed.), Slavery-Free Communities: Emerging Theologies and Faith Responses to Modern Slavery, (London: SCM Press, 2021)

by Cathy Ross, Head of Pioneer Mission Leadership, Oxford, CMS

This is an impressive book that I would highly recommend. Modern slavery is still an issue (to coin a John Pilger phrase) and this book informs us of the complexities of the issue, and offers some excellent theological reflection and engagement with it, as well as some practical resources. Dan Pratt has gathered a wide range of contributors to inform and challenge us. Dan himself is well placed to do this. He is a Baptist minister and it is out of that experience in his local community in Southend-on-Sea that he was confronted with this issue. Actually, that is the wrong way to frame it – it was not the issue, but rather people he got to know and their stories he heard that confronted him with modern day slavery on his doorstep. As a result of this he founded the Together Free Foundation and is an anti-slavery coordinator for the Southend Against Modern Slavery Partnership. This already highlights an important approach to anti-slavery: that partnerships and cooperation are vital.

The book is divided into six sections. The first section has a chapter by the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and this sets the scene for the rest of the book. He reviews the current state of modern slavery in the UK and emphasises the importance of churches and faith communities getting involved. The second section is vital for the rest of the book and frames the articles and responses. This section contains the stories of three survivors of modern slavery, each of whom experienced a different form of modern slavery. These stories are so important to read as they form the basis for the theologising and responses in the rest of the book. This is the lived experience of modern slavery, which we need to hear. The third section has six chapters by theologians and practitioners responding to and engaging with these stories. The fourth section explores wider church and faith community responses. The fifth section offers prayers of response, and the final section lists organisations and resources for further engagement and advice.

The contributors bring considerable experience and theological insight to their articles. These articles are written from a depth of experience and reflection on this painful and complex topic. I will mention just two here. One is a superb theological reflection by Dan Pratt using liberation theology as a framework and the pastoral cycle as a way for the community to see, learn and respond to modern slavery. The article demonstrates that with attentive listening to people’s actual lives and stories, awareness is raised, and with a willingness to partner with others and with some training, ordinary church members can make a real difference to those enmeshed in modern slavery.

The article on a restorative justice response offers a superb explanation of restorative justice, its more relational approach and how it can work for both the offender and the victim. It also offers a challenging analysis of how we understand modern slavery and human trafficking by asking us to consider why the modern slavery agenda falls outside the mainstream modern economy, e.g. nail bars, car washes, domestic servitude, sexual exploitation, and why these are a particular focus. The authors ask us to consider if there is less exploitation in the supply chains that manufacture the goods in our high street stores. No, but here the profits are rising to the top – to the powerful and wealthy who know how to hide and launder their wealth. Those who run car washes and nail bars tend to be of the same socio-economic class as their “workers”. Therein lies the rub for neoliberal economics, the writers argue, because big business is about the upward movement of money and power. That is acceptable – car washes etc. are not. They suggest that the entire governmental response is inaccurately and unhelpfully framed and so their measures are not just unhelpful but actually harmful. I found this to be an enlightening and disturbing article, which challenged my own naivete on so many levels.

So, take the plunge and read this book. You will never be unaware again. You will learn that modern slavery is the second most profitable criminal enterprise globally after the arms trade. It is estimated that around 40 million people are kept in modern slavery today, but it is a hidden crime. Perhaps by being more aware we can pray from the prayers at the end of the book, “Bring people across their path who see them and can help.”

More from this issue