The dynamics of slavery and oppression; and a look at Exodus

Anglican Church of Canada
8 min readFeb 15, 2023


A reflection by Archbishop and Primate Linda Nicholls,
Anglican Church of Canada

To jump to the Bible study on Exodus 1–13, click here.

As part of a recent Anglican consultation on human trafficking and modern slavery sponsored by the United Society Partners in the Gospel, I visited Zanzibar, the hub of the East African slave trade for several centuries. The visible symbols of that horrific practice are preserved in several ways to help visitors engage their hearts and minds with the practices of our ancestors as well as consider how those practices have been transformed and continue today and call for our attention.

The heart is instantly caught by the powerful sculptures in the garden of Christ Church Cathedral.

Today’s Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in Zanzibar is situated on the site where the biggest slave market of Eastern Africa once operated.

Created by Swedish artist, Clara Somas, in response to learning the history of the slave trade, the bronze statues of slaves, chained at the neck, standing in a pit with facial expressions of hopelessness and despair, leave observers standing in silence. One of the Anglican baptismal promises is to ‘respect the dignity of every human being’ and in that place the denial of dignity by those in power, Christian and Muslim, is heartbreaking.

The circle in front of the cathedral altar marks where the auction whipping post once stood.

The altar inside the cathedral stands just behind a marble circle in the floor that marks the whipping post for slaves being prepared for auction. The front of the altar shows the crucifixion of Jesus in a juxtaposition of solidarity with those tortured there. As we shared in the eucharist in that space the crucifixion places God with all those whom the world would crush through violence, exploitation and abuse.

The large font at the rear of the church is built over a well where the babies were disposed, if born to slaves on route to Zanzibar or waiting for auction. Instead of being a place of death, the font invites us to recall how children are meant to be welcomed into the family of God through water and the sign of the cross and invited into life.

A nearby museum records a detailed history of the slave trade with the voices of slaves, soldiers and traders telling their own stories.

It is mentally chilling to descend a few steps into a half-tall basement where there are two of the cells used for holding the slaves before their auction.

Long cement platforms, low ceilings, stifling with heat and humidity, where we could only have 5–8 people at a time, would have held 50 women and children or 75 men chained together. Many did not survive their few days there, their bodies flung onto the beach to washed out to sea.

It would be easy to stop here and leave you with the mental images of the horror of the slave trade of the past that, thankfully, was stopped in the late 19th Century. It is easy to be horrified at the actions of our ancestors, sure we would not have done the same. But to stop here would be unfaithful to the truth that human trafficking and modern slavery continue today unabated and our own lives benefit from some of the activities.

Vulnerable people are still rounded up by skillful traffickers. The definition of human trafficking requires three elements: “acts, means and purpose” — the activity (forced labour, sexual exploitation of women, men and children); the means (deceptive recruitment, fraud, or coercion) and purpose (exploitation for profit of others).

The most egregious forms of trafficking and slavery capture our condemnation. However, many other forms continue daily in our communities and are embedded in our economy. Migrant workers in agriculture and construction travel to Canada annually for work. Some are treated with dignity and respect, while others work under conditions that fit the definition of modern slavery. Many do not know their rights under Canadian law and with poor English skills cannot access assistance. Other times, traffickers lure people desperate for paid work with job contracts and then change the contract without notice or take away their legal papers to force workers into other exploited employment.

Refugees are particularly vulnerable as they flee climate crisis conditions, war and terrorism. It is reported that when Ukrainian women and children fled the violence at home, the first people at the train stations in Europe to welcome them there were human traffickers. We have heard the stories of migrants or refugees who have frozen to death trying to cross our own border, brought there by unscrupulous traffickers.

For churches involved in the system of residential schools for Indigenous children, we must acknowledge the legacy of harm that is embedded in societal attitudes to Indigenous women and girls that makes it possible for them to simply disappear or be murdered, or lures them, through addictions rooted in intergenerational trauma, into being trafficked for sex or drugs.

These are only a few examples of the continuing blight of human trafficking and modern slavery in our midst. They touch every community and every Canadian in some way. God cries out from the midst of those harmed, calling us to act in the same way that God called Moses to demand that Pharaoh release the Hebrew people from their slavery. ‘Let my people go!’

Acronyms can at times be helpful to think through what we can do. A speaker at our conference spoke of the 4 P’s — Prevention; Protection; Prosecution and Partnership. We need to learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking and modern slavery in our communities, especially in our churches. Do we listen to the voices of those employed in our communities and ensure they are being fairly treated under Canadian law? Do we teach young people the signs of being ‘groomed’ or lured into relationships that will then manipulate them into sexual slavery? Do we assist those needing protection? Are our churches safe communities? Do we fight the social stigmas associated with being a survivor of trafficking, especially sex trafficking? Will we stand with those seeking justice for the long haul in prosecutions? Will we partner with all who seek to do the same — government; other organizations with the same commitment; social service agencies; other churches — especially those with roots in vulnerable areas of the world?

I am aware of parishes and dioceses where work is being done to be conscious of vulnerable people in the community; to walk with them to ensure their protection; and to partner with the whole community for just, healthy relationships. There is much more to do, beginning with our own awareness of the presence of human trafficking and modern slavery in our midst; repentance for our complicity — known and unknown; willingness to take action; and commitment to the gospel imperative to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’. I pray that the symbols standing in Zanzibar will remind us of the cost if we do not.

A reflection on the Exodus narrative (Exodus 1-13)

The Hebrew people arrived in Egypt fleeing drought and famine in their own land. They came following Joseph whose leadership had wisely preserved food in anticipation of hard times (Genesis 41:57). They settled in Egypt, initially in Goshen as shepherds and herders.

Exodus 1:7 — They grew to outnumber the Egyptians which raised fears for a new Pharaoh. “Come let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies…. Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour” (Ex 1:10-11). They continued to flourish so the oppressions increased:“The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites and make their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in ever kind of field labour” (vv. 13-14). Then the Egyptians tried to slow the birth rate by having all baby boys killed at birth, which led to the rescue and nurture of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter.

As an adult, Moses is called by God to release the Israelites from their oppression (Ex 5:1), ‘Let my people go’. He begins by asking for permission for them to worship (Ex 5:1ff). Instead they are expected to work harder, longer with less resources — no straw provided for making bricks and no relief in expected production.

As the people cry for relief, God invites Moses to lead the people out of slavery into a promise of freedom and land. “Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of tat land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Ex 5:7-9). Then begin the confrontations with Pharaoh to obtain the release of the people, culminating in the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites.

This great narrative is the foundational text of redemption for the Jewish people, recited at every Passover celebration. It also invites us to reflect on the dynamics of slavery, oppression, and power and God’s call to action.

Reflection questions

  1. Where and how is God at work through the different segments of this story (Exodus 1–13)?
  2. Discuss how the elements of the definition of human trafficking and modern slavery — act, means, purpose — are present in these events.
  3. How does Moses respond to his call (Exodus 3 and 4)?
  4. Think of a current or suspected example of human trafficking and modern slavery in your community.
    a) Where do you see/hear God present in that situation?
    b) How are you or could you respond through one of the 4 P’s (prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership)?
    The Freedom Sunday website provides a number of suggestions.

A prayer from The Clewer Initiative (UK)

Lord, you are a God who sets the captives free. Your Spirit searches restlessly for those in despair, that they may find the life you are calling them to. We pray for those who are being trafficked and callously put to work in our region. On the cross, you were powerless and subject to the cruelty of others. May we who are blinded by the shallow distractions of daily life, feel the fear of the cornered and be roused to action. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



Anglican Church of Canada

The Anglican Church of Canada, a partner in the worldwide Anglican Communion, has approximately 600,000 members in 2,800 parishes across Canada.