”The trade in human persons constitutes a shocking offense against human dignity and grave violation of fundamental human rights.”
– Blessed John Paul II
One of the most grievous human rights abuses in the 21st century is human trafficking, or modern-day slavery. Human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the world. It is second in profits only to drug trafficking, and is predicted to surpass even that soon. Over 27 million people are enslaved, more than twice the amount at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
There are more slaves now than at any other point in human history. Trafficking is a $32 billion a year industry. Women, children, and men are lured, coerced, and violently forced into slavery for the commercial sex industry, agricultural and factory labor, and domestic servitude. They come from every nation and are often transported miles from their home countries into new countries of destination.
Forced to work with no pay and unable to walk away, they are turned into what one modern abolitionist terms disposable people. They are stripped of their human rights, their human dignity and freedom, their humanity — treated as objects and literally bought and sold. And in our globalized economy, the objects we purchase may have slavery in their supply chains. Slavery likely affects the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and many of the goods we use. To see an estimate of how many of the products and services you purchase are tainted with slavery, go to this Slavery Map.
But this is happening in our country, too. In the land of the free. Where slavery was abolished 200 years ago. Every state in our country is affected by this modern slavery, and it is becoming an epidemic. As many as 18,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the country and enslaved here each year. At least 100,000 American children are trapped in forced prostitution. The fact that systematic statutory rape, abduction, enslavement, and torture of thousands of American girls occurs every day and night in this country is a horrifying reality.
During the last two years I have met five domestic survivors and heard their stories; it is clear that they were sex slaves. They have been exploited in cities across the nation to meet the growing demand for sex with children in our commercial sex industry, influenced by the explosion of internet child pornography. Their average age of entry is 12 years old. The life expectancy for children forced into commercial sexual exploitation is seven years. Just a few months ago a gang near my home in Virginia was convicted of sex trafficking teenage girls. This happens every day and night, right under our noses; victims are hidden in plain sight.
This may sound depressing and at first glance it seems overwhelming and pretty hopeless. Often, learning about such wide-scale suffering like this leaves me feeling paralyzed and genuinely wondering how there can be hope in the face of so much oppression. But as Catholics we have hope, because we serve a compassionate God who hates injustice and whose heart breaks over the unjust suffering of those He created and loves. His heart breaks for these victims immeasurably more than mine ever could. He sees them and hears their cries. He passionately cares about the lost, the last, and the least of these.
Throughout the Bible we see that it is impossible to separate God, who is love, from His justice; righteousness and justice are the foundation of love’s throne (Psalm 89:14). He has even “established His throne for justice” (Psalm 9:7). He constantly calls His people to implement this justice by defending the vulnerable and the powerless and caring for the orphan and the widow (James 1:27). He is concerned for the marginalized and the downtrodden. He condemns those who abuse and exploit the weak. He consistently commands His people to “give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4). In Isaiah, the Lord’s test of His people’s faith involved how justice was put into practice, and the standard of justice was how they treated the most vulnerable members of society. The prophet Jeremiah even equates knowing God with intervening for the marginalized: “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 22:16).
The only encouraging aspect of injustice for me is that Jesus promises He will set right what is wrong; He will make all things new; He will transform what is dead and bring it to life. And He proclaimed that “captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free” (Luke 4:18). We know with joyful certainty that justice will come and oppression will end, because Truth Himself said so.
And the great news is that He has a plan for doing something about it.
As followers of Jesus Christ, our mission is to be disciple-makers of all nations. In his opening homily at the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI simply stated this truth: “The Church exists to evangelize.” We are disciples who go and make disciples. But while doing so, we are also called to pursue justice in Jesus’s name. He asks us to “seek justice and rescue the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17), to act on the behalf of the marginalized and deliver them from violent oppression. Jesus aims to use believers to bring the light of the world into places of unimaginable darkness. His plans to carry out justice and rescue are to be implemented through us, for we are His New Covenant people. We are His plan to end the suffering of so many people around the world. God desires for injustice to end and so says, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6)?
Jesus showed specific concern for the powerless, the oppressed, and the exploited while He walked on earth, and He still cares about them. But now we are His means to bring His mercy and justice to them. In the poem entitled “Christ Has No Body,” Saint Teresa of Avila wrote, “Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good, yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world.” As disciples of Christ, we have the amazing privilege and responsibility to make Him known and bring about His plan of salvation throughout the world.
The USCCB’s Pastoral Reflection on Lay Discipleship for Justice in a New Millennium stated, “The pursuit of justice is an essential part of the Catholic call to holiness, which is our true vocation: to live ‘in Christ,’ and let Christ live and work in us.” In the last few years I’ve realized that when following Jesus, we can’t separate preaching the Gospel of grace from helping the poor or seeking justice. They all are integrally related because He came to rescue and redeem everything; our souls and our bodies, individuals and the world. How can we authentically proclaim freedom from spiritual bondage to our broken world while ignoring the prevalence of physical bondage throughout it? Jesus working through us can set people free, both physically and spiritually.
So what exactly is this justice that God wants us to seek? His Word shows us how God defines justice. The Old Testament Hebrew word for justice and righteousness is the same: “tzedakah.” Our Lord has a heart for the fair exercise of authority, order, and power in the world. Justice occurs when the order of society, primarily the relationships between people’s duties and rights, conforms with God’s love and standard of righteousness. Justice is not mercy or social service. Justice involves accountability, transformation, and restoration, bringing penalties to perpetrators, correcting and changing structures of corruption that perpetuate oppression, and delivering victims to reestablish lives of freedom in which their rights are respected. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “Justice is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Christians were some of the leading abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I believe we can create a new abolition movement for modern-day slavery. Through the power of His Spirit within us, we can live out this verse to be His instruments of justice: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). It is already starting to happen. Believers around the country refuse to stand by and be silent in the face of this horrific exploitation. They are starting to help prevent human trafficking and care for the victims. They are making Him known by answering the biblical call to seek justice: creating counseling ministries, providing legal analysis for anti-trafficking legislation, funding community-awareness training, leading prayer groups, and building safe homes for rescued survivors.
As we walk in and grow up into Christ, the Holy Spirit is continually making us like Him. His Word tells us that “the righteous care about justice for the poor” (Proverbs 29:7). We will come to care about what Jesus cares about, to love what He loves, as we grow closer to Him. Imitating Christ means loving the lost, the poor, and the oppressed like He loves them. We too were once slaves, but Our Father has mercifully set us free from bondage to sin; we can use our freedom to bring freedom to victims of trafficking. I just learned that the Greek word “thraou,” which means “to shatter, to break into pieces,” is translated in the New Testament as the word “oppressed.” Only Jesus can make these broken people whole. Only through Him can survivors of trafficking become fully healed. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
It is just the beginning, but I am hopeful. “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy” (Psalm 140:12). I want to use my passion to raise awareness and encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to engage in this battle for freedom. There are so many ways to get involved at the community, state, national, and international levels. Let us follow His call to join in the work of justice and rescue our oppressed neighbors from the hands of their oppressors. Let us love the least of these, knowing that when we do, we do it unto Christ. Let us shine His light into the evil darkness of slavery and fight for its eradication.
May our hearts break for what breaks His and so be stirred to action. May our hearts imitate the passionate heart of our great God of justice who loves justice, all while remembering that He “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).
Four Simple Things You Can Do To Help Stop Modern-Day Slavery
— Pray. Pray for the victims, pray for the perpetrators, pray for the rescuers. Ask that God would move in mighty ways on behalf of the oppressed through His people to bring freedom to those enslaved, accountability for the oppressors and perpetrators, and power to those pursuing justice on the front lines. Pray that victims will experience His peace even in the middle of the darkness and that they wouldn’t lose hope of rescue. Intercede on the behalf of those who don’t know Him. Pray that the gospel would be preached to victims, survivors, buyers, and traffickers. Only knowledge of Jesus and His grace can transform the corruption of this systemic oppression. Ask the Lord to show you how He can use you and your talents, gifts, and resources to bring rescue. This is a great novena, organized by Catholic Answers apologist Matt Fradd, which you can offer for those involved in the commercial sex industry. Here are some helpful prayer guides created by Christian anti-trafficking groups.
— Educate yourself. Read books and articles on the topic. Watch documentaries. Explore websites of anti-trafficking organizations. Enter the National Human Trafficking Hotline number into your phone so you can call if you suspect an instance of trafficking: 1-888-3737-888. Learn to recognize the signs of trafficking. By learning more about the issue, you will be prepared to take action knowledgeably.
— Educate others. One of the biggest hurdles for the movement is lack of awareness. When trafficking remains a hidden crime, victims will continue to go unidentified. Some organizations spend more time fighting ignorance than trafficking because many people believe slavery was abolished 200 years ago. Tell your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and fellow church-members; awareness is one of the first steps to stopping this. Awareness enables prevention: preventing children and adults from becoming victims, preventing people from becoming consumers of slave-made goods or services, and preventing the perpetuation of the crime though identification of victims.
— Give. If you’re not in a position to be on the front lines yourself, then you can make a difference by supporting the work of those who can. You can make one-time or monthly donations to an anti-trafficking nonprofit, buy fair trade goods to make sure you aren’t contributing to slavery in supply chains, or purchase products made by survivors.
To learn more about human trafficking and how you can get involved in the Catholic Church’s U.S. anti-trafficking programs, see:
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Resources: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/human-trafficking/index.cfm
- Parish Toolkit On Combating Human Trafficking: http://www.catholicsocialjustice.org/sites/default/files/documents/Human-Trafficking-Parish-Tool-Kit.pdf
- USCCB Pamphlet On Trafficking: http://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/upload/OnHumanTrafficking.pdf
- Catholic Relief Services Resources: http://crs.org/slavery-human-trafficking/
- Catholic Charities Aftercare Program for Domestic Sex Trafficking Victims: https://www.facebook.com/DIGNITYPROGRAM