Slavery was abolished in the U.S. on December 6, 1865 by signing the 13th Amendment into law. While many would argue1 that slavery was just redefined and is still alive and well in America, the majority view slavery as a thing of the past. While people may disagree on how to define slavery in the United States, around the world in other countries there is no question. Despite being illegal in every nation, there are 30-46 million slaves in the world today. Modern slavery is a multibillion-dollar industry with estimates of up to $35 billion generated annually. It should be a haunting prospect that some of those slaves work for you.
Woe to the Rich
You may not feel like you are rich, but if you live in the United States, you probably are. 84% of the world’s population lives below the poverty line set by the U.S., 71% lives off of less than $10 a day. Almost half of the world’s population lives off less than $2.50 a day. Quickly think about how much per day you spend on your mortgage or rent, your food, entertainment, utilities, etc. If you consider how the majority of the world lives, if you live off significantly more money than $10 a day, you are rich.
Now that you know that you are rich, listen to what James, the brother of Jesus, has to say to you:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.
Many teachings of the New Testament warn of the dangers of being rich.2 Prosperity Gospel preachers avoid James 5 like the plague. Most American Christians would rather skip over James 5 or brush it off as not applying to them. Regardless, James plainly says, “weep and wail becomes of the misery that is coming on you.” Surely he cannot be talking about most American Christians?
Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.
Here James is poetically building off his warning in verse one. He is also likely referencing Luke’s Gospel (12:33) where he says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” James is warning those of us who do not sell our possessions and give to the poor.
Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.
The term “last days” refer to the time after Jesus. We currently live in the last days, as all Christians have since the time of Christ. James is bringing sharp rebuke against those who have wealth but do not use it to help those less fortunate. In referencing “the last days” he is calling attention to the fact that we have received the teachings of Jesus, therefore to ignore them will bring harsher judgement.
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
Agriculture was the main source of economic prosperity in the Palestine region during the first century. The lower class would often be in the fields working for those who were more wealthy and owned the land. Here in verse four, James is calling out the rich for not paying their workers, claiming that God hears their cries. This theme of reversal is all over the New Testament.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
We don’t have fields though. We don’t have workers that we aren’t paying. Or do we?
Ever get excited about that shirt from Forever 21 (or somewhere else) that was only $5? Or maybe you’ve felt like you hit the jackpot the day after Halloween because all the candy went from cheap to really cheap? If we were actually to uncover the disturbing secrets behind “cheap”, we’d come to see that cheap is very expensive. Slavery looks a lot like 50% off, Black Friday, Buy One— Get One Free, or anything that seems like a “steal”, because that’s exactly what it is: a steal. You’re stealing from the laborers. We may not hear their cries but the Lord does.
The reason you can pay $5 for that shirt and companies can still make a profit, is because the one who made it for you was paid pennies or nothing. If it doesn’t cost you, it costs someone else.
Cheap is expensive.
If you aren’t paying attention when you buy things like clothing, purses, beauty products, leather goods, electronics, coffee, chocolate, you name it: your slaves have probably made it.
- children in sweat shops or in the cotton or cocoa fields working 12 hour days in the the hot sun
- grown men in prison (often imprisoned unjustly for petty crimes and taken advantage of) assemble products for Victoria’s Secret (that was her secret)
- women trafficked from their homes to other cities or countries where they’re enslaved in garment factories for pennies all the while being physically and verbally abused
- illegal immigrant families, 2nd and 3rd generations working illegally but willfully employed by powerful companies because they know they can get them for dirt cheap labor and threaten them with deportation
…it’s safe to say, slavery has many different faces. Even with such amounts of injustice there are things we can do to combat it. We just have to wake up first.
You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.
Generally speaking, it is unlikely that we will get fat while also being generous when there are starving people in the world. A loving, other-orientated heart posture doesn’t usually allow for self-indulgence when others are starving and suffering. Luke 6:25 says, “Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.” Ezekiel (16:49) claims that Sodom was destroyed because its people were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
Many of us do live in “luxury and self-indulgence.” It is our luxury and self-indulgence that causes us to repeatedly shop without considering the true cost to laborers and slaves who suffer so we can buy more. James warns that many of us are merely fattening ourselves for the slaughter. It doesn’t have to be this way though.
Many will learn about the injustices of slave labor and how they contribute and still be unconcerned. It is precisely this apathy that perpetuates the problem. Followers of Jesus have to step up their game and educate themselves and others about the problem of slavery and then stop supporting those industries. There is a lot we can do and consider.
Unless you’re able to find the word ‘fairtrade’ printed somewhere on a product, there is no guarantee the product was made fairly or ethically. Even then, unfortunately slavery is like an onion with so many layers. For example, you may have clothing that was sewn ethically (which could be considered a fairtrade product), but perhaps the cotton was picked by a 3 year old, and washed and prepared by teenage girls who were trafficked from their city and forced to work for pennies or for free.
While making efforts to reduce how many slaves work for you may seem daunting, for Christ followers, it is worth the endeavor. Slavery Footprint is a great website that actually helps you get an estimate on how many slaves work for you by assessing all the things you currently posses and actively buy.
Problems and Solutions
Here are two major problems to consider:
1) We are so disconnected from our products and don’t have a clue where or how anything is made.
2) We buy into consumerism which just means more slaves are working for us on a regular basis.
So what can we do?
1) Awareness is key. We cannot solve the problem until we identify it. Learn more about modern day slavery and how much it affects all of us. Netflix documentaries like True Cost or 13th do an excellent job of revealing all the many facets of modern day slavery. There are many other resources on the internet to educate yourself.
2) Learn about the products you buy. Research how they were made. Look for information on websites about their supply chain.3 If a company neglects to say anything about their supply chain, it’s very probable that they don’t want you to know, or that ethical labor practices are not a priority to them. Try looking for labels like “Made in the USA” instead of in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, etc. Look for products that say fairtrade.
3) Buy less. Consumerism makes slaves out of all of us (feeling like we need to always have more, more, more), and the actual slaves making the product. Often we end up buying cheap things that break or wear out easily. Ethically made products usually are more expensive, but they usually will last longer.4 Thinking twice or three times before we buy things will help us reduce slavery and free us from the addiction of consumerism.
4) Buy from organizations that are trying to help people in developing countries grow their businesses. Serrv and 10, 000 Villages are just two examples of many out there making a positive difference.
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.
James warns us of the fate of those who are apathetic towards the sufferings of those who labor for us. He brings sharp rebuke. We shouldn’t ignore his words. God hears the cries of the slaves that work for us. It is monumentally important that we do as well.
- 13th: Modern Day Slavery
- Luke 1:52-53, 6:25, 16:13; Mark 10:23-25; Matthew 6:19-21, 16:26, 1 Timothy 6:9-11
- For example, for all you ladies, Bare Minerals makeup has a nice write up on their website about their code of conduct: “All goods are manufactured in compliance with the wage and hour, slavery and human trafficking laws of the country of manufacture and without the use of children or prison, indentured, exploited, bonded, forced or slave labor.”
- For example, American Giant has pretty steep prices, but the quality is wonderful and these products will last you possibly a lifetime.