The Coming Acceptance of Modern-Day Slavery

I believe that within one or two generations, we could see an acceptance of the modern day slave trade. While I believe it may take longer to conceptually legitimize and commercialize formally, the process for acceptance is already underway. When I began speaking against the evolving human trafficking industry 10 years ago, audiences were horrified as I shared the degrading experiences and overwhelming statistics of victims of bonded labor, sexual exploitation, and human defilement. Over the years, however, I have seen such horror fade though the conviction that these realities are wrong has not yet dissipated. In the early years, I had people stand up during presentations, write me angry e-mails, or call me denying what I was sharing. After speaking in Los Angeles concerning sexual slavery, a woman in the porn industry and an active prostitute called me and yelled, “You are a liar. If what you are saying were true EVERYONE would know about it. This just can’t be true!” Such anger and disbelief has yielded these days to a general acceptance of the pervasiveness of modern day slavery. While this may seem like a good trend, the reality is that we have never been on the right track with regards to dealing with slavery because we have not gone beyond the inherent assumption that it is wrong. The fact that the commoditization of people is an inherent evil is a “felt fact,” not a demonstrated one. With regards to the normal slippery slope of socialized ethics, true, inherent evils are often conditionally accepted, legitimized and then institutionalized over time because we have not done the philosophic or theological work to establish them beyond their “felt fact” status.

A felt fact is one that people could not initially conceive of being any other way. Over time, felt facts are often challenged and regardless of whether they are objectively true or false, come to be softened or even rejected: Blacks are less evolved and therefore less capable and/or intelligent than other races; unborn embryos have the same rights as human beings; the earth is flat; the sun revolves around the earth; homosexuals are degenerates and thus disqualified from equal rights…all of these illustrations and many others at one time were felt facts for a variety of people. A felt fact may be objectively true or objectively false but often they begin and remain for a time as mere assumptions. With regards to the inherent evil and ethical wrong of the commoditization of people through the trafficking industry, who really is to say that this is anything more than a felt fact, one that for a time we react viscerally to but cannot fully articulate why because we have no philosophic or theological foundation to do so. While it may be difficult for most to conceive of a day when slavery would be accepted conditionally, conceptually legitimized, and then institutionalized commercially and politically, such a process has already occurred.

While the great global trans-Atlantic slave trade is the shining horrific illustration of such a process, this same evolution of legitimization is playing itself out all around the world today. The fact that modern day slavery is the fastest growing illegal enterprise, third only to the trafficking in arms and narcotics, demonstrates there is a hunger and demand for the product. The consumption of human beings as household slaves, as sexual play things or as workers for various industries is a growing assumption amongst many people groups. Before the disaster in the small country of Haiti, there were over 300,000 bonded or forced slaves, many of which were children who did not go to school but rather served as the family cook, household maid, and by night sexual play thing. In various parts of Thailand, forced prostitutes and the brothels in which they serve exist in plain site with the full knowledge of the government and police force. Throughout popular tourist destinations off the boarding docks of cruise ships and all inclusive resorts is a seedy underbelly not advertised on Orbitz or Priceline but nevertheless a strong selling point for Westerners seeking the ultimate in sexual gratification, all made possible by rape-for-pay message parlors, dance bars, and mobile brothels. If it is true that there are more slaves today than were trafficked during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, if it is true that this is a $32 billion dollar industry, if it is true that the average age of women forced into sexual slavery is 15 in many countries than it must also be true that there are an awful lot of people who, with our without guilt and shame, are engaged in and endorse through their spending the concept of the commoditization of peoples.

Because of the lack of the perceived value of human life in many places, this process doesn’t always take long. Nevertheless, as Americans emerge from an assumed era of Judeo-Christian ethics and education, we can expect this process to play itself out over and over again with many moral issues. Felt facts will give way to an initial phase of conditional acceptance, then eventually conceptual legitimization, and finally commercial and political institutionalization. What is needed know is for the philosopher and theologian to rise up and begin to lay again the rationale, not necessarily against slavery, but for the a priori value and right for human life. A simple definition of “a priori” knowledge is “knowledge that exists in the mind independent of experience.” A less technical way of saying what we need is a strong, compelling rationale as to why people matter, why they shouldn’t be aborted, bought, sold, raped, butchered, allowed to suffer the evils of dehumanization and all the other ways in which we see and experience the commoditization of people. To be sure, continuing to hear and see the stories of people who suffer at the hands of their powerful oppressors will be needed but this can only go so far. An inherent value must be established, a bulwark conceived in the mind of the philosopher and theologian, birthed in the expression of the arts which can mature in popular culture. This is what we need.

For the philosopher and theologian, it is imperative that their work not be done in a vacuum, some dark room or amidst the dust of irrelevant books whose time has come and gone. The work of theology and philosophy must always be done with the painter, the dancer, with the musician, with the poet-these must be the friends of the philosopher and the theologian. So seamless should this friendship be that to the outside audience there is little to distinguish where the work of theology and philosophy end and the work of the artist begin. Philosopher and prophet, Dr. Francis Schaeffer, understood this relationship-it drove him to envision the transformative community of L’Abri and much of his works on culture. Dr. Scheaffer made the case for the line of influence on culture beginning with the philosopher and theologian to the artist and musician before being enfolded into our cultural understandings and expressions. This process of influence, even in our postmodern milieu, is so undeniable, so tried and true that when it comes to the horrific evils of modern day slavery, any serious treatment of the issue must always extend through all of these levels, beginning with the establishment of a prior truths from the philosopher and theologian in partnership with the artists and exported to society.

I believe that the heroes of our time represent a strange hybrid, a striving for political and academic engagement and way-making for the arts, on the ground involvement with victims and engagement with policy makers and police forces around the world. A lawyer like Gary Haugen, a scholar like David Batstone, and a visionary leader like Richard Sterns are the kind of philosopher/theologians we need in our time. Such men have taken up the philosophic and theological work of establishing the inherent value of life in the fight against the commoditization of people but have done so through working alongside the activist, the artist, the politician, business leader, medical and social work community-every sector of society has been engaged through these and other heroes in the fight against modern day slavery. This is what is needed. The greatest accomplishment of organizations like the International Justice Mission, the Not for Sale Campaign, and World Vision I believe is not merely the actual successes they have in law, academia, and philanthropic execution but in the philosophic and theological work their leaders have provided for the rest of us. This, in the end, can endure and produce the long-term needed energy to raise up a new generation of heroes who seek to the stem the tide of the wickedness of human commoditization so that humans can flourish to the glory of their Creator.