Whilst the philosophical battle against slavery might have been won, human trafficking is very much a problem for our time and continues to spark rigorous debate amongst Christians wrestling with what God’s justice might look like today. Can the Bible, whose teaching on slavery is so at odds with our contemporary worldview, inform efforts to end human trafficking, and if so, how? Marion L.S. Carson is the author of Human Trafficking, the Bible, and the Church, published by SCM Press in May. We asked her to reflect on some of the themes of the book.
How did you come to be writing on human trafficking and the Bible?
I’ve been involved in Christian anti-trafficking work for many years, mostly with the European Baptist Federation. I also teach Biblical Studies and so I’m always interested in how people are using the Bible in their life and ministry. As I’ve travelled around I have listened to colleagues involved in anti-trafficking work and have noticed that people are not always consistent in their use of the Bible For example, Christians are the first to say that that human trafficking (slavery and exploitation) is wrong, and that they should be involved in combating it. Yet the Bible does not say this at all. In fact it contains passages which support slavery. For example, Jesus never says that slavery should be abolished, and in Colossians 3:22 slaves are explicitly told that they should obey their masters. It seemed to me that if Christians believe that Scripture is formative for their faith, we should at least try to make some sense of all this.
I also noticed that most Christians seem to equate human trafficking with prostitution, but this is only one aspect of slavery, and I was curious as to why this should be so. I came to realize that many people think the Bible says prostitutes are a special case (they tend to quote examples like Mary Magdalene), and that God has a special love for women in prostitution. It is because of this that many Christians throughout history have tried to reach out to women in prostitution (for good in many instances but also, to our shame, for ill). At the same time, however, I kept hearing stories of churches which were shunning women who had been involved in prostitution (whether as a result of coercion or not) on the grounds that the Bible says the church should be pure and of good repute in their communities. So I was coming across a lot of confused thinking and double standards. It seemed to me that while Christians could back up any argument with a reference to Scripture, there is little “joined up thinking” with regard to prostitution, which is so much a part of modern slavery. So I wanted to try to figure out what the Bible does have to say on this issue, and how it can inform our practice today.
Is the Bible really a useful tool in thinking about slavery, given that it has been used both to oppose and support the practice?
The answer to this question is yes – the Bible is a useful tool in thinking about slavery, but in this case we need to get beyond looking for the “plain reading of the text” which is so often our “default hermeneutic”. If we don’t do this we will get into all sorts of difficulties, especially with passages like Leviticus 25:44-46 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2 which so obviously assume that slavery is acceptable. But we also have to ask what we should do with texts like these? Of course, it helps to recognize that these texts reflect the views of people who lived in times very different from our own. But we can learn so much from the nineteenth century Abolitionists, and indeed the slaves themselves, who saw clearly that these texts have to be weighed up against wider Biblical ideas, especially Jesus’ teaching on the law of love. When we do this, we see that it is impossible to square the view that other people may be treated as objects or commodities with the teaching on the image of God, the story of the Exodus, and the “Golden Rule” that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. When we do this we see that freedom and redemption are at the very heart of Scripture, a message which followers of Jesus simply cannot ignore.
Some people would say that the Bible isn’t vocal enough in its criticism of slavery. How would you respond?
It could seem that way from our perspective today. It seems so obvious to us that slavery is wrong, and it can be frustrating that the Bible doesn’t shout this message from the rooftops. However, there are some things which can help us to understand why it doesn’t do this. First, I think we have to remember that very many voices from many different times are represented in the Bible, many of which represent those who were struggling to learn to live as the people of God in their cultural settings and with limited understanding. They, like us, saw through a glass darkly.
Second, slavery was such an accepted norm in these societies that any demand for abolition would simply have been dismissed as ridiculous. If Jesus had spoken out directly against slavery, he would have been ignored or thought mad, and this would have taken away from the central message of the Gospel. The more we listen to his voice in Scripture, however, the more we see that slavery and exploitation must be incompatible with the message of love and redemption, and we wonder why it took Christians nearly two thousand years to make the connection.
How do you think churches are doing at opposing modern-day slavery?
Lots of great work is being done throughout the world. Many Christians are involved in rescuing an helping victims, and in political lobbying. This work goes on quietly and behind the scenes, and often churches don’t know about it. Not everyone can become actively involved in this way, of course, but there is a lot more that can be done to raise awareness and prevent people being trafficked in the first place. The trouble is that for many living in comfort in the West, human trafficking is so hidden that we think it doesn’t concern us (although there is a good deal of it around us), and so it becomes something of a “minority interest”. However, in other countries, like Eastern Europe and Africa for example, human trafficking is an everyday reality which affects people’s lives, threatening communities and families. In these settings, however, slavery and prostitution are seen as shameful, and are seldom talked about. In both cases, therefore, churches could be doing a lot more to help prevent slavery by raising awareness, getting people to talk about it, and helping vulnerable people to recognize the risks. Unfortunately, however, Christians have a tendency to make their own community identity and preservation their first concern, rather than getting alongside the “least of these”, and this attitude can hamper our ability engage with injustices like human trafficking.
What impact are you hoping the book will have?
I’m hoping it will make people think about human trafficking and how they can get involved in anti-slavery work. I’m also hoping that people who are involved in anti-slavery work will look at Scripture more deeply, and understand what and why they are doing a bit more. Amongst activists, I’ve noticed that the Bible often gets missed out, and more training is given on psychology, law and social work practice. I’ve nothing against this, of course, but I do think that if we say that we give the Bible a high place as Christians then we need to be reading it. Christian activists need to recognize that in the Bible they have centuries of wisdom enshrined in these texts which can inform and enrich their ministries.
I’m also hoping that it will help Christians to think about how they read the Bible. It is so easy to use Scripture to support your own agenda, as we see clearly in the case of the slave-holders of the nineteenth century. It’s also easy to give up reading because it can seem so confusing and difficult. If we learn to see the great variety that is in the Bible and think about the whole story rather than “proof-texting” we might be able to get a lot more from it.
What sort of action can individual Christians take?
There are lots of things we can do. We can take the time to learn about what is going on in the world, and become involved in charities which are involved in tackling modern day slavery, for example Anti-Slavery International or the International Justice Mission. We can pray for projects and support them materially. We can make our church communities a welcoming and safe place for victims of slavery and exploitation. We can support for fair and just trade practices, and boycott businesses which are known to exploit their workers. During the Abolitionist campaign, many people refused to buy sugar, and this had huge impact as it directly hurt those who profited from slave labour. We can also examine also ourselves with regard to our attitude to money and power. Are these more important to us than being “slaves of Christ”, who did not consider his status something to be grasped, but humbled himself for the sake of humanity (Phil 2)? If all Christians examined their attitudes in these areas, and were willing to seek justice before their own self-interest, I believe we could be a real force for change in the world.
Marion L.S. Carson is a freelance theologian and writer who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. She is secretary of the European Baptist Federation’s Anti-Trafficking Network.
Human Trafficking, The Bible and the Church is available to preorder now from SCM Press