Human trafficking is about people

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.

Chris Momany

This is happening in almost every country. It happens in the United States.

The United Nations says that human trafficking is a $32 billion 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. That is good. The past 15 years have seen worldwide 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.

Critical role

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.

I have one warning and one suggestion … for our witness against human trafficking

But I have one warning and one suggestion, specifically theological in nature, for our witness against human trafficking.

Adrian 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.

People and things

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. We will never really address the problem, however, until we meditate on that crucial distinction between people and things.

We will never really address the problem, however, 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.

Tremendous witness

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 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.

Editor's note: The Rev. Chris Momany, a United Methodist, has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996. He has taught in the Dept. of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Momany has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

Momany will be a participant in the Social Principles Consultation later this month in Washington, D.C., to consider how to make the United Methodist Social Principles more succinct, theologically founded and globally relevant. Other consultations have already been held in Africa, the Philippines and Europe.

This article originally appeared as a commentary in the United Methodist Reporter, Jan. 12, 2015.

Human trafficking

The General Board of Church & Society has an issues page devoted to human trafficking on its website. The page includes free resources, biblical references and other information intended to help you engage in actions against modern-day slavery.

Letter to the Editor