Editor’s note: This article first appeared on May 17, 2007. Mark Woods was editor at The Baptist Times, the newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, at the time of publication. It is republished today, a few days before the anniversary of the British Parliament abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire on March 25, 1807. Woods’ column serves as a reminder that slavery is still taking place more than 200 years later and reveals how consumers unknowingly support the enslavement of people through purchasing goods produced by enslaved, trafficked persons.
William Carey published his “Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Convert the Heathens” in 1792.
Its title was not exactly snappy, but its effect was seismic. From it arose the modern missionary movement.
We know about this, but there is a throwaway paragraph at the end of the Enquiry, where Carey is appealing for funds, which is worth noting.
“Many persons have of late left off the use of West-India sugar on account of the iniquitous manner in which it is obtained. Those families who have done so, and have not substituted anything else in its place, but have made a saving to their families, some of sixpence, and some of a shilling a week” – money, said Carey, which could instead go to missions.
Carey’s almost casual reference to the sugar boycott is a profound challenge to us.
At a time when life was a good deal harder than it is today, Baptists of the 18th century were prepared to forgo a luxury on moral grounds.
Today, consumerism is society’s god. Desire for the latest gadget or fashionable food or clothing drives one of the most successful economies in the world.
There’s no doubt that in many ways our lives are richer than those of previous generations. We have more choice, about how and where we live, and what we do with our resources.
There’s a greater responsibility on us, then, to make right choices.
In his Sunday night Assembly address, Jonathan Edwards said this: “Our society wants us to be more concerned about image than content, to become as materialistic as itself; to tone down the language of sacrifice and commitment because it’s not trendy and not fashionable.”
Every time we make a purchase, we are making a moral judgment. Most of the time we can be fairly sure that our use of money is at least morally neutral.
But there are some areas where we need to face the moral consequences of what we do.
In the enlightened 21st century, we too purchase our luxuries at the cost of human misery.
Alistair Brown’s powerful address last Saturday highlighted some of these. The bargain-price clothing sold in our high street shops, for instance, is only as cheap as it is because someone in the slums of India or China is working for a few pence a day, in squalid, dangerous and humiliating conditions.
Another example is chocolate. It’s marketed as the ultimate food of love, with scientists telling us it provides the same sort of emotional hit.
But 70 percent of the cocoa beans used in producing the chocolate come from Ivory Coast and the surrounding countries, where there are more than 280,000 slave laborers.
Most of them – 200,000 – are in Ivory Coast itself, and of these around 12,000 are trafficked children. Think about that next time you drink your cup of cocoa.
Of course, it may have been produced ethically, but whose life are you prepared to bet on that?
There’s a direct line between the sort of action that William Carey was able to take for granted – refusing to be guilty of perpetuating the evil system of slavery by taking advantage of its products – and the choices open to us today.
It’s just as wrong for us to buy clothes produced by sweatshop labor or to eat chocolate produced by slave labor as it was for 18th century Baptists to eat West Indian sugar.
As Baptists, we are good at evangelism. We are not always quite as good at identifying the content of our evangelical message.
But the notion of freedom is not a bad place to start, and freedom, as John F. Kennedy said, is indivisible.
Even the hymn written for the Assembly and sung every evening, “Cry Freedom,” contains the line, “None of us is truly free / While anyone is bound.”
If we haven’t done so already, isn’t it time to bring ethical discipleship into the heart of our gospel preaching?
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.