Human Trafficking is about People (COMMENTARY)

MomanyBy Chris Momany

January is a month devoted to awareness of human trafficking. According to seasoned estimates, as many as 27 million people are held in slavery around the world today. This is happening in almost every country. It happens in the United States. The United Nations says that human trafficking is a 32 billion dollar per year industry. People are bought and sold like merchandise for sexual exploitation, manufacturing, agricultural work, domestic service, hotel/motel cleaning, and other purposes.

Since the late 1990s, awareness of the crisis has grown, and that is good. The past fifteen years have seen world-wide action and the implementation of better national and state laws. This is also good. But those of us committed to eradicating the evil are just getting started. We know that ending human trafficking is about more than better laws and better enforcement of the laws. The effort requires a coordinated, multifaceted approach that eliminates risk for exploitation, holds offenders accountable, and works for the wholeness of victims, as they become “survivors.” The media has gotten on the anti-trafficking train, and for the most part, this is a positive thing. Yes, there is a tendency to go after the “good story” among a horrible situation – to focus on salacious details and perhaps to bend statistics and the narrative for journalistic effect. Yet principled exposure of this crime is absolutely necessary.

Religious organizations have a critical role to play in this war against trafficking, and it is just that – a war. Several church groups (from many, many traditions) are picking up the cause, and United Methodist advocates are extremely active. But I have one warning and one suggestion – specifically theological in nature – for our witness against human trafficking.

The college where I teach and serve as chaplain was founded by abolitionists before the Civil War. The antislavery movement is a part of our identity. I often say that we have been in the battle against human trafficking for 155 years. We possess valuable experience and perspective, but we also bear sadness that the buying and selling of people still happens. Our first college president once wrote that no one understands the fight against slavery who fails to appreciate the distinction between a person and a thing. This is an intriguing and perhaps rather eccentric comment. It is also very theoretical, theological, and philosophical. Human trafficking seems like such an immediate, obvious, and practical crisis. However, we will never really address the problem until we meditate on that crucial distinction between people and things.

Slavery (of all kinds) is rooted in a mindset that perceives some people to be little more than instruments for the benefit of those with power. Freedom, self-determination, and the exercise of action is often called “agency” in philosophy and theology. People are dynamic agents of thinking, decision, and doing. They are not objects to be manipulated. To deny agency is to treat one as a thing. I have never encountered anyone who argues for treating people as things, but it happens all the time. It happens in severe forms when someone is forced to work for no wages or sexually abused for profit. It also happens in more subtle ways. In fact, I see it happening in mild (but still troubling) forms among the anti-trafficking movement.

Recently, someone asked me how I “get” students to attend human trafficking awareness events, how I “get” them to do what I want them to do in response to this tragedy. There are professionals who, depending upon their power, “incentivize” participation in anti-trafficking work or manipulate participants. In contrast, I have always learned from the insightful leadership of young adults. To my inquiring colleague I replied that I have no interest in “getting” others (particularly students) to serve my agenda. After all, trafficking is about the denial of agency, and fighting it is not a matter of one more self-righteous know-it-all “getting” others to meet some expectation.

The church has a tremendous witness in the battle against trafficking. But we should remember that we are dealing with the theological and even philosophical issue of agency, a core part of personhood. Strategies from expert consultants or organizational savants are not going to solve the problem. We need to look in the mirror and examine our hearts. Do we see others (all others) as fundamentally sacred persons, or do we see them as potential servants of our agenda? How we answer this question will help determine the fate of human trafficking.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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George Nixon ShulerElouise Renich Fraser Recent comment authors
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George Nixon Shuler

Where female sex slaves and the trafficking in prostitution and such are concerned, the best thing people can do to combat that is to raise girls to be strong women who resist the pimp and create economic conditions that provide for survival of the most marginal. Girls need to be taught that they do not need a man for their survival and that they as much of sacred worth without one as with one. IOW, exactly the opposite of what patriarchy teaches. I would higly recommend the movie “The Immigrant” from 2013 which features Marion Cotillard as a poor immigrant… Read more »

Elouise Renich Fraser
Elouise Renich Fraser

Hi, Chris.
I appreciate your point about not viewing people as things–including those who are possible recruits to anti-human trafficking efforts. The habit of treating people as things is deep in all of us–not just in predators and traffickers.

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