“Slavery doesn’t exist anymore, but marriage is forever.”

Fuming after a sermon on Paul’s Letter to the Romans insisting on proper gender roles, my grandmother and I got into an heated discussion with her pastor the summer before I began doctoral studies.  His  mantra of “we must take all of Paul without question” as he linked questioning of the household codes by biblical scholars and feminist theologians with a litany of social ills, the breakdown of marriage and parenting, etc had me squirming in the church. My grandmother, a remarkably strong woman who upon retirement got a MA in Theology for fun, drags me to the back of the church to “tell him what you think.”  (He was new to the parish, but my grandparents told everyone their granddaughter was about to begin a PhD in theology – so he knew who I was.) The heart of my challenge – – it is false to hold Paul’s household codes up as ontologically true as it applies to marriage and gender, especially while ignoring that the next line in that passage is  “slaves be subject to your master.” His response: “Slavery doesn’t exist anymore, but marriage is forever.”

Now I understand his genuine concern for marriage and family in contemporary society; however, this insistence that slavery no longer exists is incredibly problematic for three clear reasons: 1. it is FALSE, 2. this falsehood is then used to support a strange hermeneutic of  essentializing gender roles, and 3. as a result, we allow the violation of human dignity to continue. Now, I agree with that priest – we must “deal with Paul,” we have to deal with all of Scripture and I am not a biblical theologian; however,  using Paul to confirm an idealized nostalgia for the 1950s American marriage is dangerous. And, in my opinion, it is dangerous not only for our approach to gender and marriage, but also for our ability to combat the injustice of human trafficking. Once we accept “slavery doesn’t exist anymore,” the victims of human trafficking and slavery are pushed even further into the margins, their suffering and themselves invisible.

According to Not for Sale, there are more than 30million victims of human trafficking, modern day slaves in the world today.  According to US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2006

The United States of America is principally a transit and destination country for trafficking in persons. It is estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked to the U.S. annually.

It is here. It is in our backyard. As reports are uncovered, Not For Sale has compiled a SLAVERY MAP of the United States –

Human Trafficking is the epitome of a globalized market and among the most profitable.  It is also a clear example of social sin, individuals commit sin and participate in global human trafficking; however this is a structural network of exploitation, abuse, and evil. As Christians, it is not enough to condemn slavery or trafficking. (Here I am assuming that there is uniform agreement among Christians that slavery is immoral and a violation of human dignity.) As long as we remain comfortable in our delusion that “slavery doesn’t exist anymore” or “it only exists over there,” we participate in perpetuating hte social conditions  that allow the global human trafficking market to thrive. Victims of human trafficking are invisible. They are hidden by their captors, on the margins of the society around them, invisible – what Gustavo Gutierrez calls non-persons, human persons who the prevailing social order does not recognize as such.

This week is “Crime Victim’s Rights Week” in New York City and Mayor Bloomberg has released a new PSA focusing our attention on Human trafficking:

NYC PSA AGAINST HUMAN TRAFFICKING (I cannot get the video to embed but it is worth watching)

Since 2000, both the Federal Government and a number of States, such as  New Hampshire and Massachusetts have added legislation, created task forces, educated law enforcement, all with an eye to combating human trafficking.  The 2000 Federal Law identifies: sex trafficking and  labor trafficking as major forms of human trafficking to be addressed. In particular, I’d like to address the question of sex trafficking briefly. In New Hampshire, the passage of a state “anti-human trafficking” law was combined with an extensive program of educating state and local law enforcement to recognize the signs of human trafficking – in particular sex trafficking.

What does this mean? It means training enforcement NOT to simply see prostitutes as prostitutes.  If one is sensitive to the realities of human trafficking, prostitutes cannot be dismissed as criminals, ladies of the night to be used for information or booked for their crime. Training with regards to human trafficking involves training law enforcement to stop and observe, questioning whether this prostitute is a victim of human trafficking. If you approach these women first with an eye to their victimization not criminal status – then there is the possibility of SEEING the invisible.

What does this mean for Christians? We believe that all human persons are created in the image of God and possess equal human dignity. Despite this, we often distance ourselves from the poor, marginalized, and victims who culturally appear to be “responsible for their situation.” Addiction and prostitution are perhaps the 2 most common “situations” for which we blame the individuals; thus, there is a strong cultural barrier to SEEING victims of human trafficking.  As Christians, we need to train ourselves NOT to see prostitutes, immoral women and TO SEE human persons with dignity. Thus creating the opening to SEE the invisible women and girls who are victims of human trafficking in our own communities.

HumanTrafficking.org provides us with a series of markers to make ourselves more aware – to recognize the signs of human trafficking:

Visible Indicators May Include:

  • Heavy security at the commercial establishment including barred windows, locked doors, isolated location, electronic surveillance. Women are never seen leaving the premises unless escorted.
  • Victims live at the same premises as the brothel or work site or are driven between quarters and “work” by a guard. For labor trafficking, victims are often prohibited from leaving the work site, which may look like a guarded compound from the outside.
  • Victims are kept under surveillance when taken to a doctor, hospital or clinic for treatment; trafficker may act as a translator.
  • High foot traffic especially for brothels where there may be trafficked women indicated often by a stream of men arriving and leaving the premises.

Questions to ask if you suspect you are in the presence of a trafficking victim

Screening Questions

  1. Is the person free to leave the work site?
  2. Is the person physically, sexually or psychologically abused?
  3. Does the person have a passport or valid I.D. card and is he/she in possession of such documents?
  4. What is the pay and conditions of employment?
  5. Does the person live at home or at/near the work site?
  6. How did the individual arrive to this destination if the suspected victim is a foreign national?
  7. Has the person or a family member of this person been threatened?
  8. Does the person fear that something bad will happen to him or her, or to a family member, if he/she leaves the job?


If you suspect a case of human trafficking contact law enforcement and report it to watchdog organizations like NotForSale’s Slavery Map. As Christians, it is our duty to be attentive to the least among us and to make visible those invisible persons in our world. So with New York City’s efforts to honor “Crime Victim’s Rights Week,” I urge all of us to learn more about human trafficking and cultivate heightened awareness so that we are able to see the signs, so that we can combat this evil exploitation around the world and in our own backyard.