She stood on the train platform away from the crowd, frozen in her tracks, disheveled, with a vacant stare that grew fearful as he approached. She clinched her hands by her side. She held no belongings to offer a semblance of security. “Where are you going?” he asked her. “What is your name?” Through broken sentences, she tried to answer. Her guard began to come down after he called a woman who spoke her language who offered help. She had escaped her abuser only hours before in a local hotel and found her way to the train station. She had been trafficked from another country, hadn’t eaten in days, was without documents, and did not speak the language of the country where she found herself. Isabella, 14, was not aware until the next day that she was truly safe and free from six months of horrific abuse. She now has hope for a bright future because the man who approached her is part of an experienced team in Eastern Europe that knows the hot spots where victims of trafficking can be found and how to help them.
Traffickers often control their victims through violence and death threats. Criminal networks easily cross international borders and bribe local police, forming a nearly inescapable and hidden operation. Unless you know where to look. Trafficking in persons is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world today, making it one of the greatest human rights issues of our time. While it is difficult to accurately pinpoint the number of people enslaved today, experts believe the number is greater than any other time in history.
Does the mission of the church include taking responsibility for the social issues of our day, such as human trafficking? How can Christians get involved? What does the Bible say? In the Old Testament, we find many exhortations to stand up for the oppressed, such as Psalm 82:3-4: “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” This clearly includes the blight of human trafficking. Jesus ushered in his public ministry with this announcement one Sabbath day at a synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) We are called to follow the example of Jesus Christ through proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel.
The early church did not shy away from meeting real needs in the urban centers where they preached the Gospel. Christianity exploded right in the heart of Greco-Roman culture. The Christian concept of self-sacrificial love, emanating from God’s love, was revolutionary to the pagan mind. Paganism provided no ethical foundation for caring for the destitute. Believers set a new standard for caring for the sick, downtrodden, and abused, even at risk of their own lives. Through their transformed Christlike views, they later founded hospitals, orphanages and systems of law based on truth and justice. “Pagan society, through its excesses, teetered on the brink of extinction. Christianity, however, represented . . . a new way.” – Bruce L. Shelley. Caritas, the root word of charity, means “giving to relieve economic or physical distress without expecting anything in return”.
God also calls individuals to specific social causes. In modern history, William Wilberforce, human rights activist, cultural reformer, and member of Parliament, fought a passionate twenty-five year battle fueled by his commitment to Christ to abolish the British slave trade. During the late 1700‘s English traders raided the African coast on the Gulf of Guinea, captured between 35,000 and 50,000 Africans a year, and sold them into slavery. It was a profitable business sanctioned by many powerful people. By the late 1700’s, the economics of slavery were so entrenched that few thought anything could be done about it. Wilberforce won his hard-fought battle in 1807, as well as abolishing slavery in the British colonies, a victory achieved three days before his death.
According to Os Guiness, “Wilberforce was gracious; he was humble and loving. Twice, opponents physically attacked him in the street. He remained gracious even when he was the most disparaged man in the world. He never vilified his opponents. Wilberforce was never a fanatic. He was a follower of Jesus, humble, gracious and loving. That’s how we should be known, not as culture warriors.”
Wilberforce’s hard-won victory changed the world. After Wilberforce, most societies now view slavery as a great moral wrong. Yet while cunning perpetrators attempt to cloak it in secrecy, this violent trade persists. If modern slaves arrived shackled on ships to the shores of Europe and the US today and were publicly sold in the open square, an outrage would follow. We need the tenacity and passion echoed in these words of Wilberforce today, “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”
As we preach the Gospel and make disciples in our diverse cities and communities, we can bear responsibility for the social problems we encounter through prayer, ministering to the oppressed, working alongside professional organizations, raising awareness, taking a stand against injustice, and upholding the cause of the weak, the fatherless, and the oppressed in many ways.
It’s encouraging to see glimmers of hope today that the church is taking its place once again on the front lines, addressing the social issues of our day, while not compromising the powerful, transformative truth of the Gospel.