An Ancient Cry

Thousands of years ago, the Israelites bent under the weight of oppression. Their Egyptian slave-masters worked them ruthlessly, made their lives bitter with bricks and mortar and murder of their newborn sons. The Israelites were slaves without recourse of any kind, save one: a mighty God. To that God they called out, and the book of Exodus is the story of God’s response.

This week in theaters, the call of another group of slaves goes out in a new documentary film called Call + Response. You need to see it, though I warn you, there are some disturbing images. From the brothels of Cambodia to the brick kilns of India, the film exposes the fact that there are more slaves in the world today-some 27 million-than at any previous time in history.

The film brings together a diverse group of musicians who cry out for the voiceless, from Switchfoot to Five for Fighting to Natasha Bedingfield. Along with them are luminaries and experts including Madeleine Albright, Daryl Hannah, Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, and Nicholas Kristof. Gary Haugen, the founder of International Justice Mission, and winner of BreakPoint’s own Wilberforce award, also weighs in with his insight.

All the profits from this film’s ticket, music, and dvd sales will go to projects designed to end trafficking or help former slaves get a new start. Viewers will be able to respond to the film’s call by directing their donations to specific field projects that relate to sex slavery, labor slavery, child soldiers and child slavery.

But the film is aptly named Call + Response for more reasons than just this. In fact, the term “call and response” comes from a practice once common among our own country’s slaves back in the 1860s. Among the myriad rights denied to early slaves in this country was literacy. Those who had learned to read and write would often become the music leaders, singing out the lines of hymns, in a call and response fashion.

As Princeton professor Cornel West points out, in a time when not even your body was your own, “All you had was just your voices being raised so that maybe somebody in the world…would hear your voice and recognize that you are human and you have a right to be treated a certain way.”

This pattern of Call and Response influenced not only spirituals, but Jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, and much of popular music.

Here’s another fascinating connection between slavery and “call and response.” Many American slaves used the call and response pattern so often when singing from the hymn book by Dr. Isaac Watts (the man who gave us When I Survey the Wondrous Cross) that Dr. Watts’s name became synonymous with “call and response.” Well, it was Dr. Watts who urged a man named Phillip Dodderidge to write and publish his book entitled, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. And it was this book that sparked the conversion of none other than William Wilberforce, the man who abolished the British slave trade.

If Wilberforce were alive today, he would undoubtedly issue a call for us to not only see this movie, but to respond in prayer and action on behalf of the millions of slaves who cry out for justice.

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