The End of Slavery

Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation, trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, trans. Colette Joly Dees (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997).

Child SlaveryEvery schoolchild knows that Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in 1865. If anything, slavery increased after this date. The Industrial Revolution’s insatiable need for oil enslaved millions of Africans on peanut oil plantations within Africa; and in the United States white Americans falsely arrested and then sold men and women of color as convict labor to mines, factories, and plantations. In 1900 an estimated 40% of African Americans living in the South were enslaved under the peonage system. Today between 21 and 30 million people are held and forced to work or have sex against their will – more than at any other time in human history. Human trafficking is now a $32 billion industry even though the price of slaves is so low. The market price for a slave who would have sold for $40,000 in 1850 (in today’s currency) is now $90. According to, there are 16 slaves working for me personally to make my food, clothing, and cars. With roughly 4.5 million people enslaved as victims of sexual exploitation, 14.2 million working as forced laborers, and 2.2 million in state-imposed labor (figures from, it is impossible to imagine that we do not live in a slave economy.

Gustavo GutierrezSlavery seems like an impossible problem to overcome, which is why I found the Lenten homilies from Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year (1997) so encouraging. This Peruvian theologian is most famous for his groundbreaking A Theology of Liberation (1971) in which he argued that “‘Christ says that the poor are blessed because the Kingdom of God has begun: ‘The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you’ (Mark 1:15).  In other words, the elimination of the exploitation and poverty that prevent the poor from being fully human has begun; a Kingdom of justice which goes even beyond what they could have hoped for has begun.  They are blessed because the coming of the Kingdom will put an end to their poverty by creating a world of brotherhood.” Gutiérrez believes in a God who reveals Himself in human history and who has “a preferential option for the poor.” Christ liberated us “in order that we might be free,” he writes,  “Free for what?  Free to love.”

Sharing the Word is a collection of homilies by Gutiérrez on readings from all three liturgical cycles of the Catholic church (a total of 180 sermons). These are short sermons written in simple language that even the least educated person can understand. But the insights into these well-known passages are profound. Unlike so many writers who imagine Lent as a time for penance and self-denial, Gutiérrez’s homilies for the Lenten season offer a message of hope. He encourages us in the midst of our struggles that “the desert with its profound silence is also a privileged place to encounter God. Freed from the daily turmoil, we are in better condition to hear God’s word, which can become firmly rooted in us.” He writes that “at the heart of Lent, the resurrection of Jesus must be the cause of profound joy and stimulating hope. It is from God’s love that his justice, that is to say, his saving work, comes to us. What it demands, in exchange, is our own surrender, without deceit or holding back, as in the difficult account of the sacrifice of Isaac, which did not take place (Gen 22).” The resurrection is a constant theme of the Lenten homilies, but Gutiérrez emphasizes that between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection lay the cross. We cannot, as Peter wanted to, “stay here,” but we must follow God through the hardships that are to come because we know that this is the path to salvation.

When he turns his attention to the blind beggar Jesus healed in John 9, Gutiérrez points out that Jesus not only healed the man’s eyes, but his soul as well. In place of the outcast who was unable to do anything but receive charity, the man Jesus leaves behind has the confidence to preach the gospel, to challenge the teachers of the law as their equal, and expresses an ever-increasing understanding about who Jesus is. When Jesus meets the adulterous woman and forgives her in John 8:1-11, Gutiérrez remarks, “forgiveness presupposes our trusting the person who has sinned. Without love, there is no forgiveness. Jesus’ attitude with the adulteress reveals his sensitivity and tenderness, his ability to trust another person and his rejection of any form of Pharisaism.” Jesus does not just “set the captives free” in material terms, he gives them new life and new confidence to live it. The message that Gutiérrez leaves us with in Lent is that no matter how inhuman our world seems, no matter how badly people are suffering, the resurrection is coming. Moreover it is not the rich who will paternalistically reach down and pick the poor up off the ground, for “the future of history belongs to the poor and exploited.  True liberation will be the work of the oppressed themselves; in them, the Lord saves history.” God redeemed the blind beggar and the adulterous woman in order that they might bring His salvation to the world, and He calls us to do the same. Gutiérrez’s homilies make me think that even though abolition might be impossible, it is a realizable goal, for with God nothing is impossible.

For those of you looking for concrete baby steps towards realizing God’s salvation today, try joining an anti-trafficking organization like International Justice MissionLove 146Polaris Project, or Free the Slaves. Learn how your consumption habits contribute to slavery at sites like and start buying free-trade items. Petition companies to ensure that no slaves work on their supply chains and support organizations that give jobs and support to freed slaves, such as Made By Survivors, Stop Traffick Fashion, Project Rescue Shop or Gems Girls.

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