“There’s two things I’ve got a right to, and these are death or liberty; one or the other I mean to have.”There’s talk of putting Moses’ face on the twenty dollar bill, replacing Andrew Jackson. Not the Old Testament Moses, but the Moses of the Civil War—Harriet Tubman. It’s been over one hundred years since Harriet Tubman passed away. She had no money but died surrounded by those she’d led out of slavery during her nineteen escape missions and her years of working as a nurse and scout commander with the Union Army. She said, “There’s two things I’ve got a right to, and these are death or liberty; one or the other I mean to have.”
The crazy thing is, Harriet didn’t have to be a slave in the first place. She didn’t have to be hitched to a plow, so her master could show off her strength. Her sisters didn’t have to be sold to another family when they were still children. Harriet’s mother had been left as property in a will to a lady named Mary Pattison. The will stated that Harriet’s mom would serve Mary and her children until her mom was 45 years old. The system as it was, the will was not clear enough for the courts to consider it a formal emancipation. The whole family remained enslaved.
When Harriet was 24, she married a freeman named John Tubman. Already working long, grueling days as a slave, she raised vegetables at home to sell and labored at side jobs, trying to save enough money to buy her freedom. Her value as a slave increased, always higher than the amount she saved. When she learned that she was to be sold to a distant plantation, she made her escape. Her husband stayed behind, even after she returned several times to lead her children, sisters and other slaves to freedom. He eventually remarried.
There’s a theory that people don’t change until it becomes too painful to remain the same. John Tubman was as comfortable as he believed possible. A freeman living in the 1840s had none of the opportunities we have today, but he had a plot on which to plant vegetables and the power to rest without being whipped. It didn’t bother him that his wife was a slave. Why risk what little he had to move a mountain that wasn’t really in his way? Harriet had only the hope of freedom. The only certainty was that if she were caught, she’d be tortured and maybe killed. If she stayed, she’d live tormented until she died. With little to lose, she ran, but then she risked her newfound freedom to rescue others. Her passion ignited by experience, she could not live free while others remained bound.
I don’t believe you have to be a slave to save one. I can clearly see that radical change comes when it’s no longer comfortable to stay the same, but Harriet had help. I get a thrill every time I recognize the characters in the wings—the Quaker woman who helped Harriet get to safety, and the invisible property owners who risked jail time to shelter and feed Harriet’s refugees. President Lincoln, who paid freemen to put the dome on the Capitol Building instead of using the necessary 9,000 lbs of cast iron for bullets, said to Congress on December 1, 1862, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free…” One hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The work of tough, tenderhearted Harriet and those who helped her is not yet finished.
The 2015 TIP (Trafficking in Persons) Report includes a 2014 estimate from the International Labour Organization (ILO), stating, “forced labor in the private economy reaps some $150 billion in illicit profits each year.” The report tells of debt bondage, where laborers are given up-front payments but then held forcibly with little to no pay, while their interest and charges for room and board guarantee that they can never leave. Often, the debt is passed on to the laborer’s spouse and children, ensuring generations of slave labor. The TIP Report tells of immigration scams where workers are recruited and then their documents are locked away while they are forced to work, sometimes in completely different countries than promised and always in much worse conditions than promised. It tells of children being handed over to recruiters who force them to become sex workers or soldiers. Children as young as 7 have been forced to be suicide bombers, and the sex trade stories would turn your stomach. 44,462 victims were identified in the report, but the variety of sources on the internet estimate the number of people currently in forced labor at anywhere from 12 million to 35 million.
As horrified as I am by the stories and the daunting numbers, my confidence in humanity is fortified by the growing number of people who refuse to be content with freedom and wealth while people are, as Lincoln put it, “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Proverbs 24:10-12 ESV says,
10 If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small. 11 Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. 12 If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not He who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will He not repay man according to his work?
You’re traumatized at the thought that 10 year old girls are sold by their own families. You’re determined that your family’s clothes and coffee will be produced by people who get paid enough to feed their own children in peace. You’re inspired by Harriet Tubman, but how can you rescue slaves, when you live here, and your neighborhood seems so peaceful? Maybe you’d go to a rally, but you know in your gut that talk is cheap, right?
Actually, talk is very important. Talk in the 80s made people aware of sweatshops, and continued talking has made people demand fair trade items and corporate responsibility. Talk in schools and at home is important, because children and teenagers are highly vulnerable, even in our peaceful neighborhoods. So yes, talk.
Talk, and then put your money where your mouth is. Pitch in a Harriet today. If we all give just $20, the mountain moves. Yesterday, I met someone who works with Unlock Freedom, bringing curriculum into schools and businesses to increase recognition of human trafficking and help prevent it. If you haven’t heard of Christine Caine, you should definitely check out her organization A21, which works to educate and empower the public, rescue victims and prosecute traffickers. Last March, I posted an interview with Cassie McKenzie who worked with International Justice Mission, and IJM is still sweeping the world clean in a variety of ways. They take cases that aren’t getting anywhere in corrupt court systems and work with governments to generate change. They work with law enforcement to discover and bust traffickers. They rescue victims and walk them through the process of healing. They teach them job and life management skills so they can be truly free.
I could go on, but instead, watch this short video and smile for the rest of your day. When we join forces to move the mountain, even when it’s not in our way, we make a difference.