A young girl is trafficked across cities and even countries, tricked and coerced into servicing a dozen customers a day in a dingy and dirty brothel in one of the several red light districts in a bustling metropolitan city in India. If she refuses a customer, she is then subjected to gang rape and violent physical abuse that leave indelible scars – physical, psychological, and perhaps spiritual. She is now in a strange land, subjected to indescribable abuse by strangers who pay to rape and beat her, and is eventually resigned to the new reality of her life.
A young man wants to visit his sister who lives in another city, but does not have the means to make that trip. He borrows ten dollars from a local moneylender and agrees to work for him to repay the small loan. He is soon trafficked across states along with his wife and six children to work 18-hour days baking bricks under the sweltering sun. A decade and half later he has still not stopped working. The debt, inexplicably, has not yet been paid.
A global crime
These stories unfortunately are far too common throughout much of the world today. Human trafficking is a global crime affecting nearly all countries in every region of the world, and the statistics1 are simply staggering:
- Between 2007 and 2010, victims of 136 different nationalities were detected in 118 countries across the world.
- Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation accounts for 58% of all cases detected globally, while trafficking for forced labor accounts for 36% (double the 2008 percentage).
- The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labor globally.
- Women account for about 60% of trafficking victims, and children 27% (two thirds of them girls).
- Removal of organs, begging, forced marriages, illegal adoptions, participation in armed combat, and the commission of petty crimes are some of the other reasons for human trafficking.
Abuse of power
Human trafficking can be understood as a process by which people are recruited in their community and exploited by traffickers using deception and/or some form of coercion to lure and control them. It is the conflict between powers and vulnerabilities of people. Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission defines this, and injustice in general, as the abuse of power and exploitation of the weak by the strong.2 As Christians, this has to be something that registers loudly on our hearts and minds.
What does the Bible say?
The Scriptures contain many explicit commands to “do justice” (Mic 6:8) and to “seek justice, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless, [and] plead the case of the widow” (Is 1:17). These are not incidental references, but constitute the central sweep of the Bible. Concern for the oppressed and the abused is a constant theme. It is deeply embedded in Israel’s history.
Torah: Yahweh delivered them from oppression in Egypt and now expects them to be liberators as well. The Mosaic Law is replete with examples. Every three years, for example, the Israelites are required to bring a tenth of their produce for those that did not have an inheritance, the foreigners, the fatherless, and the widows (Deut 14:28, 29).
Prophets: The prophets echo and reiterate such requirements. Isaiah, for example, condemns those with power who “plunder the poor” and “grind the faces of the poor” (Is 3:14, 15).
Gospels: The gospels continue the theme. Jesus did not come to start a religion, but instead to announce a new “kingdom,” a new way of life. The good news of Jesus was not just to address the question of sin and the spiritual fall of man, or how to get to heaven and avoid hell. It was about the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
This kingdom that Jesus spoke of was not a future state of being, or some distant place, but something that was happening on this earth here and now. God was not to be understood merely as the creator and ruler over all creation, but instead his reign was now to be viewed as exploding into the lives of his people in a way that affected every aspect of their lives. This was to be a dynamic new reality that had absolute dominion in the lives and choices of his people.
Admonishing the Pharisees for their lack of justice and mercy, Jesus says: “You have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23). Elsewhere Jesus elaborates on his message when he reads the old prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19).
What is our responsibility?
Obviously, then, if a Christian were to find himself or herself in a position of power that could influence the issue of human trafficking, he or she would be responsible for following the clear commands of Scripture in executing justice. However, much of the church has little or no direct proximity to the issue. Do they still have a responsibility?
Perhaps the best answer is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37):
- Jesus recognizes in the lawyer’s question the human tendency to attempt to absolve ourselves of responsibility, claiming certain people are not our responsibility.
- With his final command, “go and do likewise,” Jesus erases the boundaries the lawyer attempted to draw and drives home the point that those who truly participate in the Kingdom life fully live out the Law by “being neighbors” – bringing shalom to bear on all who experience brokenness around them.
- To do nothing, Jesus seems to imply, would effectively be collusion with the brokenness of creation by allowing the man to continue suffering and dying.
The church is God’s vehicle to usher in shalom into the brokenness and oppression in the world. For the church to credibly announce that God is God and that his new world has begun, N.T. Wright reminds us, it has to be “actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation and its rescue from corruption.”3 Without this active interaction with the brokenness around us, our proclamation remains merely a shadow of the glorious gospel we have been tasked with sharing.
So what must the church do?
1. Be the prophetic voice of transformation
The church’s purpose was made clear in the words of Jesus – to be the prophetic voice of transformation in the world – and yet it has historically swayed to the prevailing philosophical winds of time. The church must recognize that it was first and foremost established to bring the transformative news of God’s rescuing justice to this broken world.
2. Keep hope alive
The scale of human trafficking and the abuse and oppression that inevitably follows can be intimidating for most people. When this is coupled with a perceived lack of capacity to make a difference, it can lead most people into a state of hopelessness.
Yet these very situations of injustice can be the perfect breeding ground for hope. The church must continue to engage issues such as human trafficking, in ways both big and small, such that it presents the body of Christ as the ultimate harbinger of hope – both for the uncorrupted resurrection reality of the future, and perhaps more importantly, for that which will come alive in the present in the lives of the millions around the world who simply do not have it any longer.
3. Get engaged in the work
The church has historically been at the forefront on issues of education, hospitals, orphanages, feeding the hungry, and the abolition of slavery in some parts of the world. Unfortunately, it has been conspicuously missing, for the most part, on human trafficking, which affects almost every country. There is much the global body of Christ can do to make a difference:
- Encourage young people toward careers that will help protect and care for the abused. Careers in law enforcement and law are obviously a natural fit, but there are numerous other vocations that can help bring justice. Artists, musicians, writers, producers, missionaries, relief and development workers, social workers, and counselors can all use their voice and skills to advocate and care for trafficking victims.
- Speak up for victims of trafficking in communities around the world. The global church, as a significant portion of the world population, has a strong voice that can lobby local and federal governments for allocation of resources to combat trafficking, raise awareness and create demands for justice, and lobby international and local businesses to monitor and clean up their supply chains.
- Within the church, there is a need to teach the biblical foundations for justice and God’s view of women and children, discuss pornography and the objectification of women, encourage men’s groups to talk about exploitation and violence and how it affects women and children, and encourage them to become protectors of and advocates for vulnerable women and children.
- Bible colleges and seminaries need to incorporate a robust analysis of the theology of justice into curricula and programs of study so that future pastors and leaders of the global church will have the passion, vision, and capacity to stand up for those that need protection.
- Congregations need encouragement to engage with these issues, and not block such crimes and their victims from sight; to engage with these victims as if they were part of their own family; to watch for signs of such crimes in their own communities; and to report them to the authorities.
- Christians can also reach out to organizations like International Justice Mission, which might have operations in their area to intervene on behalf of these victims. They can volunteer time, skills, and resources in shelters and other facilities in their area that care for rescued victims of such abuse. On behalf of these victims, they need to be willing to take risks to reputations, bank accounts, and personal safety.
- Above and with all of the above, Christians globally can intercede unfailingly on behalf of the men, women, and children that are being trafficked around the world daily for commercial abuse and oppression.
The church needs to believe that it can truly be an agent of transformation in this broken and hurting world. If it does, it will become an unmistakable part of the process of God birthing his shalom in this world.
The church can indeed rise up against the scourge of human trafficking and other such evils, as evidenced by a very recent gathering of Christians in the Philippines called Freedom Forum, jointly organized by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines. Together they launched the Philippine Inter-faith Movement Against Human Trafficking that will facilitate a joint push for advocacy, care for victims, and cooperation with the government to end human trafficking in the country.
1 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012 (New York: United Nations, 2012).
2 Gary A. Haugen, Just Courage. God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008), 46.
3 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 227.