More than a Hot Topic: Addressing the Roots of Modern-Day Slavery

July 31st, 2012
This article is featured in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

Why is human trafficking wrong?

This question runs the risk of offending people. Those familiar with human trafficking or contemporary slavery seldom approach the issue this way. Human trafficking is rightfully regarded as an evil of our age, and it is defined as the buying, selling, and (sometimes) transporting of people as if they were property. It is twenty-first century slavery. Throughout the world today, as many as twenty-seven million people are held in such servitude. The majority of victims are women, and many are children. So-called sex trafficking dominates this abuse, but the trafficking of persons for labor is also common. Several sources estimate that thousands of people are trafficked into the United States each year, and countless others born and raised in the U.S. are held against their will. They are forced into prostitution and the commercial sex industry, but they are also made to toil in fields, work for construction companies, or serve as domestic help. They are not isolated in any particular region, and they are exploited in both rich and poor neighborhoods. Someone reading this piece could probably find a trafficking situation within walking distance. So, how could anyone even ask why human trafficking is wrong?

The Importance of Stepping Back Before Diving In

I teach an upper-level college course on human trafficking. The class was designed for fifteen students, but so many wanted to join that I ended up with twenty-seven. This issue is “hot” right now, and that both motivates and concerns me.

The college where I teach was founded in 1859 as an abolitionist institution. Its leaders were active in the Underground Railroad. We’ve been in the anti-trafficking movement for 153 years. That is why the course unfolds in three parts. First, we place contemporary trafficking within the history and context of slavery in America. Then we take a hard look at the beast itself. Finally, we analyze contemporary efforts to fight human trafficking. Academic detachment? Maybe a little. Yet, stepping back before diving in is critical.

I have yet to meet someone who defends modern-day slavery. Even traffickers tend to build their legal defense around some euphemistic argument. They say they did not realize the dynamics of abuse, or that the victims were willing participants. No one comes out and says that it is acceptable to own another human being. However, I wonder if certain assumptions within our society make it harder to stop this tragedy.

The Economics of Personhood

Twenty-first century culture has a hard time with basic philosophical issues – such as defining, let alone affirming, personhood. Legal casuistry aside, can we really claim that corporations are people too? How do we respect the unique worth God grants human beings? Our love affair with certain economic models since the 1990s has warped our ability to recognize God-established values. People are of inestimable worth. They are not objects to be used for financial gain or instruments for the satisfaction of greed.

A healthy and principled exchange of goods and services (common sense market practices) can and must respect the unconditional dignity of people. Let’s remember that state-sponsored collectivism failed because it used human beings to advance some utopian vision. This same error can thrive in the opposite financial culture, free-market capitalism. We delude ourselves if we believe that everything unleashed following the fall of the Iron Curtain affirms people. The world has never been very good at keeping its economic presumptions in line with the gospel.

Wise as Serpents and Harmless as Doves

The church would do well to employ both its intellect and its heart in fighting modern-day slavery. Anti-trafficking groups are proliferating rapidly, and many of them are doing excellent work. Yet, we have arrived at a point in the movement that any student of pre-Civil War America will recognize. We have reached a time when those of good conscience are now competing with one another regarding the best way to fight modern-day slavery. Some groups even criticize the methods of others in an attempt to put their “brand” forward. Activists can be self-righteous, and not always reflective.

At the same time, thousands of well-meaning people are flooding the movement, wanting to do something now to stop this injustice. I understand such deeply experienced desire, but perhaps most crucial is clear thought. Hot issues enlist passionate souls, and if church language these days is about anything, it is all about “passion.” But justice is not about your passion. It is about the truth. It is about the truth of human dignity, the value of God’s signature creation, the Image of God itself. Sure, we need energetic folk to fight human trafficking, but more than anything, we need consistent souls who will pursue the truth and keep it in front of our culture.

More Than Technique

We will not end human trafficking by attending large rallies, signing up for web-based “training,” chasing new business models, or flocking to corporate celebrities. I have seen some anti-trafficking organizations act as if these things in themselves will settle the matter. Yes, helping vulnerable people establish economic self-determination is very important. Yes, the use of technology can assist in calling attention to the horrible practice of buying and selling people. But slavery can not be confronted by creativity alone. At some point, clarity around issues of value is critical.

So do not be discouraged if you are at a loss for how to end human trafficking. It is a worthy struggle, and, sadly, it will take time. Look into your faith community’s human trafficking ministry. If there is no such thing, perhaps you are called to start one. Check out reputable organizations, consult with law enforcement agencies, ask state and federal representatives what they are doing to fight the good fight, and contribute to those safe places that host survivors of trafficking. But first dare to ask the primary question: Why is human trafficking wrong? This uncomfortable query makes all the difference in the world.

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