Dignity of Responsibility

(The following is a transcript of Gary Haugen’s message “Dignity of Responsibility,” part three of Celebration of Hope 2017. The video is also available to you.)

I wonder if you can remember... perhaps some early moment in your life when you were given the dignity of responsibility.

I can remember this very clearly; I was about eight years old, and I was visiting my uncle Chuck and aunt Phillis in Tacoma, Washington on family vacation. Now, uncle Chuck was an old-school construction worker. And he had the height and the girth and the mobility of a vending machine. But uncle Chuck was my favorite uncle because he was funny... and because he would let me watch TV.

And one night, I was up way past my bedtime watching Gunsmoke with uncle Chuck. When he asked me if I would be willing to come with him to work the next day. Now, needless to say, this was pretty much like Neil Armstrong inviting you to work with him on the Apollo mission to the moon—this was serious. This was the big time—and I was needed.

We’d probably have to wake up before dawn... and drink coffee. And, in fact, my little eight-year-old body, early in the morning, did both. It was an epic, sweaty day. I handed uncle Chuck heavy tools. I swept mountains of sawdust and trash. I drank from a thermos. And I loaded up the truck at the end of the day—practically by myself. And then I climbed up to ride shotgun on the truck on the way home. Couldn’t really see over the dashboard, but I was able to hang my arm out the window... like any working man does on his way home from a full day’s work.

That summer, I had arrived at uncle Chuck’s house about three foot seven. But arrived back home about seven feet tall. Because uncle Chuck had given me the dignity of responsibility. He had given me grown-up work to do—a sense of significance to my little being and the joy of making a difference. And this, of course, is the great joy that God, our Heavenly Father, invites all of us into, as He bestows upon His children the dignity of responsibility—as He gives us work to do in His world.

In fact, think about everything that God wants done in the world. He wants His gospel to be known. He wants those who are sick to be healed. He wants the hungry fed. He wants families to be whole. He wants justice to be done. And about all these things, we know two things.

Number one, He could do all of them entirely by Himself.

But, secondly, for some reason, He has chosen, instead, to use people to get His work done in the world.

Now, we might argue with God this is, perhaps, the most inefficient plan ever. And there would be evidence to make that argument. And you could point out that uncle Chuck probably did not choose the sharpest tool in the shed when he picked me for that day of work.

But uncle Chuck clearly had additional purposes in mind. And, likewise, we cannot deny the way that God—in His deep, sovereign purposes—has chosen to get His work done in the world... by granting us the dignity of responsibility.

God, of course, maintains ultimate responsibility for the work, as uncle Chuck maintained responsibility for the worksite. But, nevertheless, God has decided to place in our hands responsibility for accomplishing the things that He is passionate about. To share the Good News. To love the lonely. To raise children. To protect the vulnerable. To paint the masterpiece. To tell the truth. To plant the seed. To order the chaos. This is what we get to do.

And, occasionally, there’s a singular generation that is given stewardship over a unique moment in God’s history. A first-century church that turned the world upside down with its gospel of love. Or a sixteenth-century church, of Calvin and Luther and common saints, who remade the Christian world through a reformation that rescued the church from corruption and an empty religion. Or an eighteenth-century fellowship of founding fathers who pioneered wholly new forms of democracy and rule of law.

But what some have called the greatest generation—who fought and defeated the Nazi genocidal terror of the twentieth century. Or the Civil Rights generation that marched out of churches with songs of hope to defeat legalized systems of racism. Or a generous generation that confronted the scourge of HIV/AIDS and was able to actually reverse the path of that global pandemic.

Think about what a great dignity for the people of God to be given a role to play in these epic struggles that matter so much to God. And this evening, I would like us to pause for just a moment. And to consider the very unique moment in history in which God has placed us—you and me tonight.

Whether or not you know it, God has ordained for us to be alive in a unique moment in history. In His ancient struggle against the most iconic evil in history. And that is the struggle against slavery. Very few people are aware of this, but there are actually more people in slavery today than in any other time in human history. About 46 million people today are held illegally as slaves. That’s four times the number of human beings that were extracted from Africa in slavery during four hundred years of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Right now, slavery, in the world, is a 150-billion-dollar business every year. It generates more annual profits than Coca-Cola, Disney, General Electric, Wells Fargo, and ExxonMobil combined.

Slavery is not a relic of history—it is a greater reality than ever in history. If our mental image of slavery is a black-and-white photo from the nineteenth century, we’ll need to update it with color for the millions of twenty-first century slaves that are laboring, for instance, on agricultural facilities around the world. Or if this is the picture of slavery in our minds, it has to be updated to reflect the millions of slaves who are trapped by the millions in factories making bricks as slaves.

The horrors and degradations of slavery that we learned of as children continue on an even more vast scale today. And, of course, children, who in other eras found themselves born into slavery, today, likewise, find themselves inheriting the yoke of slavery by the millions. As the old violence and humiliation of slavery takes on twenty-first century forms.

Now, if these images of modern-day slavery seem shocking and surreal and almost unbelievable, I know exactly how you feel. I can remember the first time I met a slave; it was almost twenty years ago. It was a tiny, little, ten-year-old girl named Shama, who was just a little bit older than my twin girls at home. And she was held as a slave in a cigarette-manufacturing business. She was forced to sit on one place on the ground, seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day, rolling cigarettes. Only to wake up every day to do it all again, month after month, year after year.

Or, one time, I was conducting an undercover investigation on child sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, and I was taken into the back room of a brothel, and I was presented with about a dozen children between the ages five and twelve years of age who were being sold to foreign pedophiles and sex tourists.

I wanna be clear that when I talk about modern slavery, we’re not talking about metaphorical slavery. We’re talking about human beings that are owned by other human beings—who are forced to work and to labor by the sheer force of terror. These boys are beaten if they do not comply. These men had their hands cut off when they tried to run away from their owner. There’s a steel padlock outside the cell door of this girl who was sold into forced prostitution. And these slaves are held in a brick factory by sheer terror.

The brutality of slavery in our world today is real. And the faces of those who brutalize them are just as real. And I must be honest with you, in our era, slavery is taking on some particularly brutal high-tech forms. I remember meeting a young girl named Cassie in the Philippines. Life in her remote village was very hard. There was no running water, no electricity, no school for Cassie. But, for some reason, over the years, everything about Cassie was still gentle and sweet. She was clearly the favorite there in the community. And, one day, one of the dreams of her family and Cassie came true because an important family friend said she could actually go with him to get an education in the capital city of Manila. It was eight hundred miles away, but this was like winning the lottery for Cassie and her family.

Or so she thought. Until, eight hundred miles too late... she realized that she had been sold into a cybersex trafficking ring, where she was held in a dingy house in Manila, where she was sexually abused in front of a webcam so that paying customers around the world—in America, in France, in Canada, and Russia—could watch. This is the new threat of cyber slavery that threatens millions of the world’s poorest children.

But here’s the other half of the story of modern slavery that I most want you to understand.

That, yes, slavery is today more vast than ever. But it is also absolutely more stoppable than ever. For the first time ever in human history, forces are actually aligning right now to make it possible for this generation to see the end of slavery as a force in human affairs. And why is that? Couple of reasons.

First of all, for the first time in human history, slavery is illegal in every country around the world. Secondly, slavery has concentrated itself in just a few countries where those laws are not enforced. In fact, 70 percent of slaves are in just 10 countries. In other words, while there are now laws against slavery everywhere, there are just a few countries where these laws are not enforced at all.

This leads to the final reason why slavery is more stoppable than ever.

For the first time in history, the world has discovered and tested the vaccine that stops slavery. And here’s what we’ve learned. When you combine effective law enforcement with excellent long-term services for the survivors of slavery, the rates of slavery drop dramatically. And in IJM, we’ve actually had a chance to test this many times.

The first project we did was sponsored by the Gates Foundation. And we took on the task of trying to reduce, measurably reduce, child sex trafficking in one of the mega cities of the Philippines. And the Gates Foundation wanted us to try to measurably reduce sex trafficking by 20 percent in just 4 years’ time. We were able to help build a team of local Filipino advocates who worked with local authorities to rescue hundreds of children from sex slavery. But also send about a hundred sex traffickers to jail. And when the researchers came back to study what was the impact on the rate of child sex trafficking in that city, what did they find? They found a 79 percent reduction in child sex trafficking. And we’ve now repeated this in two other larger cities in the Philippines. And we saw sex trafficking of children fall by 77 percent and 86 percent.

It turns out, if you think about this, the slave owners are not brave. And when they think that they’re gonna go to jail, they leave the children alone. In fact, they leave girls like Cassie alone. Earnest Christian friends like you, when they heard about what was happening to Cassie and other children, they actually raised their voices and their resources to rescue Cassie out of her nightmare. And now, Cassie is not only free, but she’s also leading other children into freedom in her country. And when she talked to me about her time when she was held in this horrific abuse, she said she just wanted to stop breathing. But now, she says that she wants to use every breath that God has given her to mobilize the people of God around the world to end this abuse.

So consider what the God of history has placed before you and me together.

He has placed us in an utterly unique moment in history. A moment in which there are more people in slavery than ever. But also a moment in which the world has, within its hands, the vaccine to end slavery. The problem is this: the places in the world where there are the most slaves, they don’t have access to this vaccine. They don’t have access to the vaccine of good law enforcement and good survivor services.

So the question is this: Will you and I lead a justice generation that will finally, in our lifetime, make freedom accessible for everybody? Could we actually do that? Could God actually be giving you and me this dignity of responsibility?

You know, he’s done it before.

Two hundred years ago, one of the most extraordinary miracles of history took place. If you were to go back about two hundred years into the 1800s, you would find a world in which the largest, most prosperous economies in the world were built on slavery. But, within a single generation, the most surprising thing happened. The most prosperous slave economies in history were forced to stop doing it. For moral reasons.

Now, how did that happen? Well, a passionate generation of Christ followers were invited by the God of history into the dignity of responsibility. And they launched the world’s first mass movement of Christian abolition. A movement in which millions of everyday, churchgoing Christians took up the cause of ending slavery in their lifetime on a mass scale.

With Christian leaders—such as William Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe... Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Sojourner Truth—sounding the alarm, the sleeping giant of the church woke up by the millions. And they called their authorities to account for the sin of slavery.

God gave everyday, common, churchgoing Christians the dignity of responsibility. And, by the millions, they took up this prophetic call. They rallied to the antislavery cry in overflow crowds in tiny church halls and in mass revival meetings.

In the days, if you think about this, before Facebook and Instagram, how did everybody, sort of, let their neighbors know about the horrors of slavery? They did it by circulating millions of copies of this picture—a diagram of what it looks like when you actually stack slaves in a ship.

They demanded to know where the sugar in their tea had come from. And where the cotton in their dresses had come from. They addressed themselves to their elected governing authorities and demanded an end to slavery. And Christians, by the millions, gathered together all their dollars and shillings and they made sure that the fight against slavery had the resources it needed up against the muddied interest of slavery. And over a single generation, they succeeded beyond all expectations—outlawing slavery from the most prosperous slave economies of all time. And the end of slavery seemed to have come.

And the church, by the millions, went back to sleep.

But slavery did not, in fact, go away. As we now know, slavery evaded extinction by adaptation. It took on new forms that the old laws did not address, and it amassed itself in a few places in the world where the laws were not enforced. And as human population exploded in the twentieth century, there were now so many vulnerable people living in these places of lawless chaos that we now find ourselves where we are—where 45 million people are in slavery. More than at any other time in history.

And why? Just because the vaccine of law enforcement and services for survivors is not accessible to all. And in response to these circumstances in which we live right now, what does the God of history do? In the great arc of time, He makes a prophetic calling to His people. He invites them to the grown-up work of sounding the alarm. He places in their hands the practical work of raising the resources and raising the voices and influence necessary to decide whether, in this twenty-first century, will slavery continue to prevail? Or will you finally sweep slavery into the dustbin of history once and for all?

This is what seems to be at stake in this extraordinary drama that God seems to be placing before you and me in this generation. And now we find ourselves here. The last weekend of the Celebration of Hope. At Willow Creek Church—probably the most influential and impactful church in the world. And at a time of great despair and confusion, this church is saying to the world, “There’s a God of history who is alive and well. An Almighty God of history who, in every era, invites a people of hope to be a witness of His goodness and saving transformation in the world.”

In this moment, where we do have more slaves than ever but also more opportunity than ever to eliminate slavery, IJM, by God’s grace, is now the largest antislavery organization in the world. And we exist for the purpose of making it very practical. We exist to make it just very practical for everybody to engage the struggle.

When I think of little Shama enslaved in that cigarette factory or those little girls being abused in that brothel in Southeast Asia... or those boys enslaved on the lake in Africa right now... I just wonder, how are they supposed to somehow believe that God is good?

And then I remember: Oh, God has given us the dignity of that responsibility.

If you find all of this perhaps just tugging at your heart and giving you a glimpse of joy, make sure you don’t allow this season of hope to experience a defeat of despair out there in the parking lot.

You know, church parking lots can be just this big graveyard where the gentle whisper of God’s glory gets overwhelmed by the rushing off to the next busy, but perhaps lesser, thing.

As you consider all the invitations that have been presented before you during these weeks of hope, think about this:

When uncle Chuck invited me and my skinny little eight-year-old shoulders to the worksite, was he doing that because he was panicked about getting the job done? Did he do it because he didn’t have any other options for manpower? No, it was all about just love and joy for his little skinny nephew. It was all about the pure delight of my uncle of inviting me in to discover what it is that I was capable of working alongside with him. Likewise, over these weeks of celebrating hope, our Heavenly Father has given you an imagination to see what His grown-up work is about in Detroit or Africa or in Chicago or with refugees.

And He’s simply asking you to step out with Him to the worksite. To get a taste of some of the dust and the sweat and the struggle. Where Almighty God is doing the work of building His kingdom in the world, and He gives us the dignity of responsibility. And it’s for us just not to miss out on the invitation.

And just as my uncle Chuck was part of what they have called the greatest generation—of those who survived the Depression and defeated Fascism, built so much of the peace and prosperity that you and I enjoy—perhaps you and I are part of the justice generation... that God is inviting, finally, to end the scourge of slavery, which He has been fighting since He led the Israelites out of Egypt.

There are, around the world, so many that just await our witness. Girls like Cassie who just wait for us to come. Others who are yearning for freedom. And yearning to see us beside our Heavenly Father in the work of freedom.

160 years ago, Frederick Douglass preached a sermon on Fourth of July. This is what he said; listen to this:

“Let the people of God array their immense powers against slavery and salve-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds.”

That day did not fully come for Frederick Douglass during his time. But, by the grace of God, we may be the first in human history to see it come in ours.

As you conclude this season, celebrating hope, hear the words of Jesus Christ to you:

“You are the light of the world. Let your light so shine among men that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven. Amen.”