Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Slavery Sermon: “Fat", Privileged & Uncaring

People just don’t care - I often find that infuriating!

But, the reality is that I don’t care enough about some things either, like modern day slavery for example. This sad fact came to my attention as I prepared to deliver last Saturday’s sermon as part of an interfaith initiative to combat modern day slavery.

I had prepared this sermon long in advance in collaboration with Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky (1) for the organisation, “Stop the Traffik”. So I began with the staggering figure from the 2016 Global Slavery Index which reported that nearly 46 million human beings are currently trapped in slavery.  This is the highest number of slaves in human history. I then shared the following anecdote.

Ashani’s (not her real name) father was sick, but the family had no money to pay for needed treatment. Ashani accepted a loan that she believed she would repay by working in a Mumbai factory, but when she reached Mumbai she discovered that her job would not be in a factory but in a brothel.

Trapped, powerless and penniless, she suffered in this place until finally she worked up the courage to escape. She returned home and soon married. However the brothel sent men to find her and force her back. They beat her up. When her husband tried to protect her, he was beaten too. She found herself not only back in the Mumbai brothel – but also pregnant. When her son was born, she was fortunate to get him back to his father.

Ashani owed 20,000 rupees, or around AU$400 but she was earning only a few dollars each day, and she was forced to pay rental for her cubicle in the brothel and for her room, board and clothing. She would realistically never be able to pay off the debt. She was enslaved. Ten women from Stop the Traffik readily agreed to pitch in $40 each to buy Ashani’s freedom.

I am ashamed to admit that Ashani’s story speaks to my mind but not to my heart. Perhaps this is related to what social scientists have discovered about the nature of empathy. Research has revealed a clear ‘empathy gap’ whereby our empathy is essentially geared primarily toward people we identify with, eg. neighbours or others who seem to be ‘like ourselves’ (2). This quirk of nature means it is harder for me as a white middle class Jewish Hasidic man to connect with the experience of an impoverished, brown skinned, non-Jewish, woman forced to work as a prostitute.

The challenge of the empathy gap must be met with a principled engagement with causes such as modern slavery. I look for inspiration from the prophets. Only a few days ago on Yom Kippur we read from Isaiah (3) about a person who cried out to God, "I have fasted but you have not seen!” God replied, “You fast but with a clenched fist!”  This is not the fast God desires. Instead, God demands that we “Loose the chains of let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke.”  The highest form of charity is not to share more crumbs from our tables but to ensure that more people have a seat at our tables of plenty.

My faith does condemn or shame me for having abundant material possessions. On the contrary, commentary tells us that God made the Israelites “ride on the high places” (4) (plural), giving them both material and spiritual blessings (5). Privilege, like power is an opportunity that can be harnessed for doing good but which also carries risk and responsibility. The Torah phrases the danger as the Israelites having become “fat and kicked” (6) also becoming “thick”, losing capacity to understand “fine truths” (7). Equally, privilege can dull people’s capacity to connect with the  brutal reality of the 46 million slaves who are, of course, really people just like me.    

The products of modern day slavery are found in the homes of ordinary citizens in every western city and town. They are present in our shops and supermarkets. Some years ago I was inspired by a teacher  who told me how her students learned to look for a Fair Trade label (8) on a soccer ball, so that when they play sport they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  

The Torah calls us to “cry freedom in the land for all its inhabitants!” (9). This phrase is surprising because the context is freeing slaves rather than everyone. However, a 17th century scholar explained that “in any country where freedom is incomplete even if only a few are slaves, all the people are slaves. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts both slave and master” (10).

Having focused on these traditions, I have jumped the empathy gap and now care more about my fellow humans who deserve freedom as much as I do. I commit to doing what I can to advance this cause.   

  1. for another version of this sermon that was prepared in collaboration with Shoshana, the version on my blog is closer to the sermon I actually delivered.  
  2. Prinz, J, Is Empathy Necessary For Morality, accessed 14.04.2015
  3. Isaiah 58:3-7
  4. Deuteronomy 32:13
  5. Samson Raphael Hirsch on Deuteronomy 32:13
  6. Deuteronomy 32:15
  7. Seforno on Deuteronomy 32:15
  8. Stop the Traffik  is a rich source of information for us when we shop for clothing and for foods that are sadly connected with slavery, including fish, coffee, and chocolate.
  9. Leviticus 25:10
  10. Pnei Yehoshua, Joshua son of Joseph Falk, 1593-1648,

No comments:

Post a Comment