Yes, slavery is bad. But what CAUSES it?

The business of trade in human lives is more robust than ever in history. The US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons TIP2014cover_200_1Report presents a comprehensive view of how the various nations on our planet are (or are not) responding to human trafficking.

For those who want to become acquainted with the global realities of the contemporary slave trade, the “TiP Report” is indispensable. It’s also a difficult read. Not because it’s written in technical or academic jargon. Quite the contrary – it’s hard to read because it’s so clear.

As the numbers and the narratives begin to pile up, one can’t help but ask the “Why?” question. Why is all this happening? Of course, answering ANY such question is never simple… But all the same, the question “What’s the cause of all this slavery in the world?” won’t let me alone.

We have identified a number of factors that significantly increase the vulnerability of a person of a community to being trafficked: poverty and political and/or economic dislocation or uncertainty, ethnic or racial minority status, family abuse or neglect, physical and intellectual disability, homelessness, marginality… But however these factors contribute to vulnerability (and are exploited and abused by traffickers) these factors don’t provide the sort of answer we seek.

So what IS the “cause” behind this modern-day slavery? Not the ‘push’ factors – the things that push people into making decisions to their own detriment by ‘taking advantage of the opportunity provided by’ a trafficker.

I believe the ultimate cause is a demand/desire for stuff/acts/experiences without regard for what it means in reality to actually fulfill the demand/desire.

Prison of Human Desire by Paulo Zerbato
Prison of Human Desire by Paulo Zerbato

As I see it, there are two tracks to engaging this problem at a societal level: We could start by addressing the first half of my sentence and work to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, reduce the demand for cheap, underpriced goods or services. This is, in fact, still an under-explored and under-utilized front in the struggle against slavery.

The root problem, though, is not demand for “sex with trafficked persons,” or demand for “stuff made by slaves”… it’s wanting the “stuff” of our lives at the lowest cost, cheapest price (or whatever criteria are at play) apart from any consideration of whether its fulfillment involves consequences. In global terms, addressing ANY aspect of the problem without simultaneously, in some sense, engaging the CAUSE will be reactive, not leading to an ultimate solution of the problem.

Thus, the second track involves addressing the disconnect between our demand(s) and reality. This means looking at the real-life human effects of my fulfillment of my desires. Directly this involves developing compassion and empathy for others… seeing the prostituted or enslaved person for who he or she is, recognizing and acknowledging the full humanity of every person and marking well the impact that the pursuit of my desire has on others.

There is a second level of this reflection: Our world has developed systems for supplying extensive demands of all kinds. Thus, rampant demand for underpriced goods provides an opportunity to develop a system of abuse, corruption and inhumanity, which exists to absorb the real costs of the fulfillment of mass demand.

We need to recognize not only the direct effects of our choices on others, but particularly how unreflective pursuit of our desires creates the space for systems which corrode or destroy individuals, families, communities, environments, ecosystems and morals. From an ethical standpoint, I’d call this “being complicit in a great evil.”

This sort of reflection upon the complex nature of the results of our own actions, and those corporate actions to which our social connections implicate us, must be the spring which drives our own participation in opposing slavery.complicity quote

It is neither easy, nor pretty, nor glamorous. However most long-term commitments aren’t. So here are my suggestions for those Jesus-followers who want to know where to get started: Let’s begin with a spirit of repentance for our own complicity, blindness, and hard-heartedness.  (That’s never a bad idea!) Ask the Eternal God to transform us, individually and collectively, so that our heart resonates with God’s heart for justice and compassion and truth. Let’s embrace the reality that the Body of Christ is a global, organic unity in which the very Spirit of the Eternal dwells in power. And let us move forward, advancing the cause of that global movement of redemption which arises when people are challenged by and respond to the gospel and experience the reality of the new life of the Kingdom in the fellowship of the Body. Truth and justice are the first casualties of this evil assault. They are also the keys to undoing the root causes of this scourge which afflicts millions every day and is an affront to the Creator who has placed the image of the Divine in each and every one of those millions of persons.

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