Slavery. What images are evoked by this word? In the U.S., I’m sure that most people think of the Antebellum South in the late 18th century through 1860. Although African people had been stolen from their homeland and shipped to this country from the early 17th century, this later period saw the greatest increase in slave trafficking. Advances in technology, most notably the cotton gin, produced a huge demand for labor in the fields. Those in the dominant culture sought whatever means that were available to produce more in order to make more profit. This included buying more slaves.
With the end of the Civil War in the U.S., many people thought that slavery had mercifully come to an end. After all, didn’t President Lincoln issue a proclamation that freed every slave? Apparently, slavery has survived. It seems that not even the federal government can effectively stop people from exploiting others for their own financial gain.
I’m one of those people who have been blissfully ignorant of human trafficking here and around the world. It was not until I was in seminary a few years ago that someone brought this to my attention. A student from Argentina began to talk about it in class. She had a passion to make modern slavery known and to fight to end it. I found out at that time that Ohio ranks near the top of a list of states in human trafficking activity. As I found more reports and stories, I realized that this is a huge problem today. I was outraged and overwhelmed. Yet, I did nothing. Yeah, I applauded the few victories that I heard about. But, I have not joined in the fight. Maybe I’m afraid. More likely, I’m just lazy.
In the last few years there have been more stories about modern slavery. One report from China told how many men had been freed from slave labor at a brick kiln. Another, just yesterday, reported on the sex slave industry operating at truck stops in Ohio. Jamie Wright, a person who blogs about the exploitation of people, wrote two posts this week about a recent trip she and her husband went on to Southeast Asia. They went with an organization called “The Exodus Road” that investigates the sex slave industry and partners with local governments and law enforcement to free the slaves and bring the slavers to justice. Jamie’s posts are linked here and here.
I have been reflecting on all of this. To be sure, I feel paralyzed at the magnitude of the problem. What can I do? What can any of us do?
Awareness. This is the first step. We can become aware that in this country, this state, and maybe in this community there are people who are being exploited in order to keep someone’s wallet fat. We can educate ourselves to know what to look for that would indicate that a person is a victim. We can join with others who are already fighting against this heinous crime.
There is another thing, however. In order for traffickers and those who support them to exploit their victims they necessarily must dehumanize them. They must see these poor, marginalized people as commodities to be traded and sold. The pimps and the johns who buy from them see only dollars, not real human people. The farmers, fishermen and other industrialists who use these people as human resources to gain profit see only necessary machinery that is needed to achieve their financial ends. Even in legitimate businesses employees are considered human resources. Just another piece of the business plan along with electrical and mechanical resources. Employees are not real people. They can be moved around and dismissed at the whim of the business owners in order to accommodate their economic ends. Even in the church we consider others as sinners…commodities that need to be acquired and assimilated. Ours is a mindset that looks at people as less than God’s image bearers and sees them as disgusting and dirty and ‘less than’ us. Of course, we would never word it like that. But, that is the attitude that flows from many pulpits.
In truth, I don’t see this problem ever being finally extinguished. At least not in this age. But, we can learn to see people as real human beings, not property or ‘resources.’ There is a passage from the Christian bible about a rich man who came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus proceeded to tell him what he must do to live in the realm of God. You see, I think the rich person asked the wrong question. He asked about eternal life. He should have asked, “What must I do to live in the realm of God here and now.” We, too, should ask ourselves that question. Perhaps that answer will allow us to see the goodness and worth of each and every man, woman and child. Perhaps then we can begin to live with and love one another in God’s Good Creation as God desires us to.