A Missiological Account of Human Trafficking Vista 20: Jan 2015

Opportunity or exploitation? Construction workers in the UAE

Opportunity or exploitation? Construction workers in the UAE

Written in 1994, the following statement from Kevin Giles appeared in Evangelical Quarterly, ‘No Christian theologian living today would support slavery. The slave has three defining characteristics: his/her person is the property of another human being, his/her will is completely subject to his/her owner’s authority, and his/her labour is obtained by coercion.’

Many evangelicals involved in anti-trafficking activities believe that this is true of the contemporary phenomenon of human trafficking. They shine a bright light on the twin evils of exploitation and coercion that exist at the heart of this miserable trade in human beings and campaign vigorously tor the freedom of the vulnerable victims caught up in it. The Earl of Shaftesbury’s ceaseless campaigning against the eighteenth century trans-Atlantic slave trade is just one important source of inspiration for the cause.

However, as Giles reveals, traditional theological assessments of slavery prior to the eighteenth century were reasonably unanimous in arguing for its existence as a part of the social fabric. Among theologians who have argued that the Bible endorsed slavery are Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and John Murray. Hodge wrote, ‘if the present course of the abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and the apostles was wrong’, adding that to call slavery sinful, was, ‘a direct impeachment of the Word of God’ (Giles, p12). John Murray was writing as late as 1957 in support of the traditional view.

Only during the nineteenth century did JB Lightfoot help to establish the view that the Bible did not endorse slavery. He did this in the face of overwhelming biblical and theological scholarship but his assessment has come to characterise the stance of evangelicals like Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and John Stott.

In contrast with these evangelical scholars, however, the Baker Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology article on slavery notes that, ‘While early Christian teaching contained humanitarian emphases (Matt 24:45-51; Luke 15:22; 17:7) and has often resulted in social change, there is no social mandate to abolish slavery.’ The article highlights the humanitarian regulation and constraints upon the institution of slavery in the biblical world and concludes by noting that ‘The revolutionary nature of the early church is contained in the concept of being “in Christ.” The result of being “in Christ” is, on the one hand, spiritual egalitarianism (Gal 3:23-25), and on the other, responsible behavior within existing structures.’ [Emphasis mine]

It’s important to understand that theological ambiguity and social complexity have characterised the historical debates concerning slavery and that any proposal offered in this brief article on human trafficking will inevitably fall short at a number of points.

The typical evangelical concern for those caught up in human trafficking has focused on human beings trafficked for sexual purposes. Evangelicals have generally been less active (though not totally absent) in mobilising to oppose labour exploitation. This is surprising, particularly if the International Labour Organization’s 2012 report is correct that a total of 21 million people have been trafficked for reasons of forced labour compared with 4.5 million people who have been trafficked into the sex trade http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm.

Of course these are informed estimates but they do suggest that evangelical concern has not been wholly equitable in addressing these two areas of social concern. Giles (p.14) observes that many pro-slavery evangelicals in the southern USA were critical of gross cruelty to slaves and particularly the sexual exploitation of women, even if not of the institution itself. Of course, female slaves were primarily trafficked from Africa to the American Colonies for their value as labourers but their slave status left them highly vulnerable to sexual abuse and rape by their owners.

An adequate theological assessment of human trafficking will need to address labour exploitation more satisfactorily whilst simultaneously navigating the complexity of trafficking as it relates to the sex industry. In the case of the latter, legislation will typically criminalise or regulate the sex industry and Christians have recognised in it an evil and hellish mix of coercion, enslavement, and prostitution.

The ethical or moral imperative to oppose modern forms of slave labour has so far failed to gain wide traction within the evangelical community. Most of us are content to continue shopping for clothing bargains without asking inconvenient questions about their origins and whether their manufacture involves labour exploitation. We tend to assume that if such goods are manufactured by factories in other countries, their legitimacy rests in the fact that their governments must surely be regulating their own industries. Such a view is naïve and fails to understand that nation-states struggled or failed to regulate the slave industries upon which their wealth was established and that some of them still fail to adequately regulate the human trafficking that continues to boost their tax revenues, whether directly or indirectly.

At its most basic, human trafficking establishes and perpetuates power structures in which powerful individuals and organisations determine every detail of a vulnerable individual’s life. Contributing to a discussion about trafficking in 2013, Professor Catherine Mackinnon of Harvard University stated simply that forced ‘prostitution is based on inequality—economic, sex, race, age.’

Yvonne Zimmerman, a Methodist theologian in Ohio, volunteers at a shelter for those escaping the sex industry and disagrees with Mackinnon. She argues that it is not always accurate to portray sex industry workers as coerced or exploited. She also asks whether the freedom offered by evangelical agencies to those who have been trafficked is dictated solely by a vision of evangelical morality and rectitude or whether it is informed by the individual’s own wishes and intentions.

This will be a difficult issue for evangelicals to address. Zimmerman points to instances where a trafficked woman has escaped from sexual slavery, expresses her freedom to write off men as sexually abusive, and turns to a lesbian relationship for human intimacy and relationship. This is not the ‘freedom’ that evangelicals might believe is best discovered in either a heterosexual marriage or the status of single celibacy but they may still be asked to offer support to a woman who has made such a choice. This fact need not deter evangelicals active in this area, however, from campaigning to free individuals nor to continue to offer a vision of the Kingdom of God that is liberating, life-affirming, and in which such qualities of life are a consequence of a life lived ethically and responsibly.

Opposition to slavery and human trafficking is arguably best advanced by developing a more robust and applied theological vision of the Kingdom of God. Such a vision will have the potential to move beyond the mere acceptance of the social reality of the day, even if that reality includes slavery, trafficking, exploitation, or alternative notions of ‘freedom’ as part of the social fabric. Giles again, ‘There are within Scripture great principles laid down clearly, for those with eyes to see, which point beyond the advice given to particular people at particular times on these matters. All human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and are therefore worthy of equal respect; all human beings share in the divine mandate to exercise authority in God’s world (Gen 1:28); all human beings are loved by God (Jn 3:16); all Christians are to love their neighbour as themselves (Matt 22:39) – a thought which does not give much room for slavery’ nor, we may add, the injustices, corruption, exploitation, and coercion involved in human trafficking.

Rev Dr Darrell Jackson is Senior Lecturer in Missiology at Morling College and welcomes comments on this article at darrellj@morling.edu.au
Giles, K. ‘The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics’ Evangelical Quarterly, 66, 1, 1994, p3.

Read the rest of Vista 20 here

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