Spiritual motivations played a crucial role in eliminating slavery. Today, they give us hope that administrative oppression can be eliminate as well.

by PierLuigi Zoccatelli*

*A paper presented at the webinar “Administrative Slavery vs. Religious Freedom: The Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on December 2, 2021, International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 11th, 2021.

South Carolina Slaves, 18th century watercolor.
South Carolina Slaves, 18th century watercolor. Credits.

I would propose three general comments about the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery we celebrate today, December 2, and the Tai Ji Men case.

First, Rodney Stark, one of the most famous living sociologists of religion, has insisted in several books that the elimination of the slave trade, one of the most horrible plagues in history, was the work of activists whose motivations were religious. After other Popes had tried in vain to stop the trade in slaves, Pope Gregory XVI in his bull of 1839, “In supremo apostolatus,” categorically forbade what he called “the inhuman slave trade.” The Pope admitted that Christians had been unfortunately involved in the slave trade, and his predecessors had not been successful in stopping it.

Pope Gregory mentioned that “many Roman Pontiffs of glorious memory, Our Predecessors, did not fail, according to the duties of their charge, to blame severely this way of acting as dangerous for the spiritual welfare of those engaged in the traffic and a shame to the Christian name.” Since the trade continued, Pope Gregory solemnly prohibited “by virtue of Our Apostolic Authority, all the practices above mentioned as absolutely unworthy of the Christian name. By the same Authority, We prohibit and strictly forbid any ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this traffic in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse, or from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what We have set forth in this Apostolic Letter.”

Pope Gregory XVI (1765–1846), by Jean Delaroche (1797–1856).
Pope Gregory XVI (1765–1846), by Jean Delaroche (1797–1856). Credits.

Even the Pope met with resistance from some American Catholics, and at any rate the majority of the Americans were Protestant. However, it were Quakers first and other Protestants later that formed the backbone of the abolitionist movement, which eventually led to the abolition of the slavery in the United States in 1863.

While those defending slavery used economic arguments, abolitionists maintained that all human beings, no matter what their conditions or the color of their skin, had been created by God with equal dignity and basic human rights.

As Rodney Stark has written, at a time when it is fashionable to mention religion mostly for its shames, we should not forget that the abolition of slavery was promoted by Christians in the name of Christianity.

Second, that the fight against slavery was conducted in the name of the dignity and rights God has given to all humans, had important consequences. It made eliminating slavery inseparable from protecting the other fundamental human rights. A human being whose fundamental rights are denied may not be legally a slave, but is also in a situation similar to slavery. 

Third, unjust taxes are also a form of slavery. It was the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy who coined the formula “tax slavery,” although for him it referred to taxes on poor workers who were oppressed twice, first by giving them low salaries and then by taxing the salaries. In the United States, the idea of taxation as slavery was given a broader meaning by libertarian thinkers.

Leo Tolstoy.
Leo Tolstoy. Credits.

While Catholic social teaching disagrees with these libertarians and affirms the duty to pay taxes, it also condemns tax injustice that manifests itself both substantially, through taxes so high that they become indeed a form of slavery, and procedurally, through an unjust administration that does not allow the taxpayers to assert their rights.

In 2009, during a trip to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI stated that “excessively high taxes may sometimes be illegal.” What he meant was that they may be substantially illegal, even if formally they may have been promulgated by the governments according to the due procedure.

This leads me to my third comment. I have sometimes the impression that the discussion between Tai Ji Men and the Ministry of Finances in Taiwan is what in Italy we would call a dialogue between deaf people. Tai Ji Men often uses the word “illegal” to designate the tax bills imposed on them. The Ministry answers that they were formally correct and thus cannot be illegal.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.