Exploitation of the poor has been a part of our world since the Fall of man into sin. Using one’s power over another vulnerable person reveals the nature of sin at its worst.
International Justice Mission (IJM) reported one example of this large problem last May. That month, IJM helped rescue 117 slaves from a brick factory in South India. They recounted the story told by the rescued slaves:
They shared how the tragedy began eight months ago, when they took much-needed loans and promises of good jobs that would help them repay the loan. Once they arrived in Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state, they realized they would be forced to work 18 hours a day and receive pennies for their back-breaking labor. But they did not speak the local language and had nowhere to turn for help.
Abuse of power and the lack of rule of law in developing countries are the largest perpetrators of poverty. Economic development is nearly impossible to accomplish without the rule of law in a society: property rights, justice in the courts, freedom to start a business, etc.
Without these protections, the poor will continue to be exploited.
Exploitation of the vulnerable runs counter to the message Christ brought in Luke 4:18, a message to,
Proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.
If we desire to take part in the restorative process begun by Jesus, we must seek to provide the poor with protection as well as the opportunities and freedom to flourish.
Exploitation and Liberation in Acts
In Acts 16:16-24, the Apostle Paul liberated a female slave who was possessed by a demon and used by her owners to profit off of her fortune-telling. Paul called the spirit out of her in the name of Jesus.
This liberation did not sit well with the slave owners. We read in Acts 16 that,
When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.
Paul and Silas were thrown in jail. While we do not know if Paul knew what he’d been thrown in jail for, we can see he was fed up with the spirit possessing this girl. He could no longer stand the voice of the evil spirit, and he likely knew the slave owners were exploiting her.
The Theology of Work Project has written a commentary on this passage, and in it they state,
Paul and Silas were not on a mission to reform the corrupt economic and political practices of the Roman world, but the power of Jesus to liberate people from sin and death cannot help but break the bonds of exploitation. There can be no spiritual liberation without economic consequences.
Paul took a risk for this girl’s sake by calling the spirit out of her. This resulted in jail for Paul and Silas and economic loss for the slave owners, but freedom for the slave.
Exploitation of God’s creation runs counter to the gospel, and we are called to fight against this evil and proclaim freedom to those who have been oppressed.
Modern slavery is a tragically huge problem, but exploitation does not always appear in the form of literal slavery.
The global economy features many examples of exploitation. The rights of the poor are often overlooked and unprotected by authoritarian governments in political systems operating as pseudo-democracies.
Gary Haugen, president and CEO of IJM, stated in one Foreign Affairs article that,
For a poor person in the developing world, the struggle for human rights…is the struggle to avoid extortion or abuse by local police, the struggle against being forced into slavery or having land stolen, the struggle to avoid being thrown arbitrarily into an overcrowded disease-ridden jail with little or no prospect of a fair trial. For women and children, it is the struggle not to be assaulted, raped, molested, or forced into the commercial sex trade.
If we are to bring good news to the poor and proclaim liberty to the captives as Jesus did, we will have to work in ways that are more intentional and sacrificial.
The poor living in developing countries often do not have basic economic freedoms needed to grow and flourish. Our attempts to redeem the poor and give them economic opportunity must be attempts to protect their rights. Our efforts need to focus on the tough work of improving criminal justice systems and advocating for human rights.
This is challenging and taxing work; it will require a lot of our time, emotions, and energy. Jesus recognized the cost of bringing restoration to the world. He not only addressed the spiritual needs of people; he also addressed their physical needs. The disciples did the same as they spread the news of the gospel.
Paul recognized the cost of going against the slave owner to liberate the slave girl. He still acted. How will we take action to protect the vulnerable and the powerless?