Chris Gooding / Slavery Is Legion

[The following essay is excerpted from the first chapter of Chris Gooding, Beyond Slavery: Christian Theology and Rehabilitation from Human Trafficking (Cascade, 2023). Pick up a copy of the book here.]

In May of 1865, the American Anti-Slavery Society met for what many members hoped would be the last time. The US Congress had officially approved the 13th Amendment back in February, formally abolishing slavery. Abolitionists in the society were euphoric. The May meeting of the society was to be the Society’s official “Mission Accomplished” declaration. Many of its chief members—including William Lloyd Garrison, the president of the Society—moved to disband the Society in the wake of the Amendment’s acceptance. But some members thought such a move would be horrendously short-sighted. They felt that the work of the Society was not yet done.

Frederick Douglass was one member of the Society who felt this way. In a plea he delivered for the Society not to disband, Douglass argued that the Amendment would not stop former slaveowners from continuing attempts to subjugate Black Americans. In a closing statement that would later be proven to be horrifyingly prescient, Douglass argued that slavery would try to reassert itself under a different face:

They would not call it slavery, but some other name. Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names. It has been called “the peculiar institution,” “the social system,” and the “impediment,” as it was called by the General conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth.[1]

Slavery would return, Douglass claimed. The Society needed to be eternally vigilant in seeking out its newest incarnation.

When I ask anti-trafficking professionals about the challenges they face in their work, they often speak in these same terms. Slavery evolves. It responds to your efforts to combat it. It recedes, only to come back with a new face. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by anti-trafficking advocates of all types, whether they be lawyers, social workers, investigators, aftercare home staff, or what have you. Take, for example, the following excerpt from an interview with “Chitra,” an attorney who has worked on sex trafficking and bonded labor cases for over a decade:

Chris: Where would you like to see [your organization’s] strategy go in the future? Are there areas that you’d like to see change in, or see expansion in?

Chitra: I think really nabbing the main traffickers. Really developing our strategies to the point where we’re able to track these people and see how they operate and then expose that entire system of theirs. Actually being one step ahead of them. Right now (as I said), they know most of our strategies and the way we operate. We have to really re-think the way we do things.[2]

This feeling of being one step behind trafficking networks is a common one. Earlier in our interview, Chitra mentioned that her organization had seen a decrease in minors found trafficked into brothels in Mumbai’s red light districts. Now traffickers were shifting the concentration of minors more toward call girl rings, presumably because, in call girl rings, victims are less exposed to the public and traffickers have more control over which customers see them. It was one way in which the tactics of trafficking organizations had evolved in direct response to the work of anti-trafficking NGOs in Mumbai over the past decade.

These statements by Chitra and Douglass raise an interesting question: When slavery arrives wearing a new mask, how do you identify it? US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said that he was unable to intelligibly define the kinds of material that fit under the category “hard-core pornography,” yet when it comes down to it, “I know it when I see it.”[3] Is slavery similar to pornography in this way? Even if we can’t define slavery precisely, is it the sort of thing that we will simply be able to identify when we see it?

Unfortunately, this test may not be enough. The precise reason why slavery switches up its appearance is to avoid detection. This is a strategy taken by many forms of social evil: as soon as it is named as an evil, it attempts to rebrand itself as something else to avoid further scrutiny. Thus, as prolonged solitary confinement becomes recognized as a human rights violation, it gets rebranded as “administrative segregation.” Or, for similar reasons, waterboarding was touted by the Bush administration not as “torture,” but as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Slavery, as Douglass has pointed out, has gone under several new names, often to avoid detection. We could add “teenage prostitution,” “convict leasing,” and “human trafficking” to the list of alternative names slavery has gone by in the last century and a half. Thus, while the debates over the core nature of slavery have been extraordinarily complex and long-standing, it will be necessary to weigh in, however briefly, on the question “What is slavery?” Our goal will not be to construct a bulletproof definition of what the phenomenon is, but to operate with a working definition that is fruitful in exposing new dimensions of the problem. In other words, a heuristic definition. Special focus will be put on two questions, both about return: Why does slavery keep coming back in new guises? And what draws people such as Jyothi [a victim mentioned earlier in the chapter] back to slavery?

You could define slavery in a variety of different ways, depending on which discipline you represent. Most countries have legal definitions of various forms of modern slavery. There are also sociological definitions of slavery available, which attempt to get to the heart of the broader social problem of which all forms of human trafficking are subspecies. But this evolutionary aspect of slavery that Douglass and many modern abolitionists point to asks for a very different language. They describe slavery in terms of a monster: something that thinks, breathes, moves, and responds to threats to its continued existence. This is the language of the demonic. This is the language of the great beasts found in Daniel and in the Apocalypse of John. And this is where theology can enter in to give its own definition of slavery. What if there is something real to these descriptions? What if this language is used for reasons beyond the fact that it makes for effective oration?

I find that the perspective of all three of these disciplines (law, sociology, and theology) are necessary for a holistic response to slavery. As it happens, if we move through treatments of slavery in these three disciplines in this order, we also gain an understanding of slavery that moves from very specific forms of slavery to a more general understanding of slavery as a power (in the New Testament’s sense of the term), a living, breathing, social system.

[1] Douglass, “Need for Continued Anti-Slavery Work,” 579.

[2] “Chitra,” interview with the author, Mumbai, India, October 13, 2014.

[3] Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

Chris Gooding is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Theology Department at Marquette University and a member of the Mennonite Church USA. He is also a member of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) and WISDOM, community organizations working to end mass incarceration in Wisconsin.


Privacy Policy and Cookies

We have recently updated our Privacy Policy. This outlines how and why we collect, store and use your personal data when you use our website. Like most websites, we use cookies to improve our service and make your user experience better. See our updated Privacy Policy to find out more about cookies and how we use your data.

Okay, thanks