You may remember the scene in the movie Crash (2004) where Anthony, a car thief played by rapper Ludacris, discovers a van with the keys dangling in the driver’s door. Since no one is around, he hops in and drives to a chop shop to sell off the parts. When they open up the back of the van, Anthony and the white shop owner are startled to find a dozen Asian men, women, and children. In stunning immediacy, the shop owner offers Anthony $500 for each one without a tinge of reluctance—haggling for humans like used auto parts.
As the 2006 Academy Award-winning morality tale, Crash is loaded with gut-wrenching scenes meant to prick our racial prejudices and stereotypes. The chop shop scene came to mind when I saw Amazing Grace, a recent film about British abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833). The movie’s release was timed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in England. At that time, the British Empire was heavily reliant upon the slave trade and Wilberforce dedicated his entire life to fighting the injustice.
Played by Ioan Gruffudd (superhero Mr. Fantastic in Fantastic Four), Wilberforce was elected to parliament at 23 years old. After experiencing a dramatic spiritual conversion a few years later, he struggled with his “secular” political vocation. He was ready to call it quits until John Newton, a former slave ship captain and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” convinced him that combating slavery would be doing the work of heaven. “The principles of Christianity,” says Newton (Albert Finney), “require action as well as meditation.”
Despite suffering from various illnesses, Wilberforce spent his life trying to ensure that others might be free. He even stopped taking the prescribed opium for his pain because it diminshed his mental alertness and rhetorical agility.
The British slave trade was shut down in 1807 because of Wilberforce’s tireless efforts, yet he continued to work until the end of his life to completely abolish slavery in England. In 1833, a bill to outlaw slavery was finally passed. Wilberforce died three days later.
But even today the global battle against slavery is far from over. “Although most nations have eliminated servitude as a state-sanctioned practice, a modern form of human slavery has emerged,” states the 2006 U.S. State Department “Trafficking in Persons Report.” “It is a growing global threat to the lives and freedom of millions of men, women, and children. Today, only in the most brutal and repressive regimes, such as Burma and North Korea, is slavery still state sponsored. Instead, human trafficking often involves organized crime groups who make huge sums of money at the expense of trafficking victims and our societies.”
The report profiles horrific examples: “Reena was brought to India from Nepal by her maternal aunt, who forced the 12-year-old girl into a New Delhi brothel shortly after arrival. The brothel owner made her have sex with many clients each day. Reena could not leave because she did not speak Hindi and had no one to whom she could turn. She frequently saw police officers collect money from the brothel owners for every new girl brought in.… Reena escaped after two years and now devotes her life to helping other trafficking victims escape.”
As sad as her story is, Reena is one of the lucky ones. In researching his book Not For Sale, professor David Batstone traveled to Cambodia, Thailand, Peru, India, Uganda, South Africa, and Eastern Europe to investigate modern-day slavery. His findings are breathtaking. “Twenty-seven million slaves exist in our world today,” he writes. “Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug looms of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa. Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings.”
The United Nations estimates that there are 10 million children being exploited for domestic labor. Hundreds of thousands of children are forced into domestic slavery in countries such as Indonesia (700,000), Brazil (559,000), Pakistan (264,000), Haiti (250,000), and Kenya (200,000). “These youngsters are usually ‘invisible’ to their communities, toiling for long hours with little or no pay and regularly deprived of the chance to play or go to school,” states a U.N. report. UNICEF estimates that 1 million children are forced today to sell their bodies to sexual slavery.
“The good news about injustice is that there is a God who hates it and wants to stop it,” says Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission. His organization of lawyers, criminal investigators, and social workers has been on the frontline to investigate human trafficking, collect evidence, and work with local authorities to rescue the victims and put the bad guys behind bars.
Abolitionists like Haugen are true superheroes. Despite the agonizing stories of slavery told in Batstone’s book, it really is a profile of the men and women who are using their unique skills and perseverance to fight injustice. “The women who embrace the child soldiers of Uganda move in a different universe from those abolitionists in Los Angeles who confront forced labor in garment factories,” he writes. “A Swiss-born entrepreneur launches business enterprises for ex-sex slaves in Cambodia, while an American-born lawyer uses the public justice system to free entire villages in South Asia.”
At the conclusion of Crash, Anthony finds a moment of redemption by freeing the Asian slaves from the back of the van. That cinematic scenario is what abolitionists hope and pray takes place wherever the darkness of slavery overwhelms the light of freedom.
Freedom matters—and now is the time for us to speak up for those who don’t have it.
Steve Beard is the creator and editor of Thunderstruck Media.