Human Trafficking, the Bible and the Church

An Interdisciplinary Study

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Marion L. S. Carson
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , November
     174 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Human Trafficking, the Bible, and the Church: An Interdisciplinary Study, Marion L. S. Carson examines scriptural evidence in the abolitionist debates of Britain and America and the problem of prostitution in relation to contemporary sex slavery. She argues that although Christians today are involved in lobbying, campaigning, and policy making, and engaged in rescue, rehabilitation, and prevention work, there is no biblical prescription against slavery. In fact, throughout the Old and New Testaments, slavery is normal and justified. Carson utilizes a historical-critical method and social-scientific approach in her survey of the law collections, books of the prophets, wisdom literature, gospels, and epistles. Her account of the Atlantic slave trade draws from key primary texts, philosophical influences, and rhetorical and narrative criticism. She shows how an intuitive ethic of compassion and empathy defeated a literalist exoneration of slavery, and inspires action today against organized crime festering in the global economy.

First, Carson gives an outline of the human trafficking problem citing the definition by the United Nations [UN] and referencing the US State Department Trafficking In Persons Report. The various forms of modern trafficking include war captives sold as property, debt slavery, forced labor, sexual exploitation, child labor, mail-order brides, and organ harvesting. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, human trafficking is an illegal activity valued at over thirty-two billion dollars, third behind arms and drug trafficking. Other estimates put the figure at over one hundred and fifty billion dollars. Human trafficking is rarely reported and seldom in the public sight, an invisible crime hidden in the transport of migrant workers and the targeting of homeless youth. There are currently over twenty-one million victims worldwide. Many are drugged and locked into rooms where they are raped and beaten, and others are coerced into servitude and confined in warehouses or factories.

Today, people and governments around the world agree slavery is wrong, but slavery was undisputed into the 1700s. Carson devotes two chapters to a chronology of the change of attitude among American Protestants and British Anglicans, including detailed interpretation of chapter-and-verse and moral arguments. Abolitionist thinking began in the 1670s, when Quakers objected to slavery on the basis of the Golden Rule and the incompatibility of slavery with principles of equality and nonviolence. It wasn’t until 1758 in America and 1783 in England that protest turned into formal commitments, and it wasn’t until 1808 that importation of slaves was banned in the US and 1833 that the British Parliament legislated against human trafficking. Carson mistakenly places the 1865 Union victory in the US Civil War before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration in 1863 (14).

Carson masterfully explicates scripture with reference to the cultural assumptions of the ancient world. She notes that the Bible was valued differently in the American debate, which was dominated by clerics and academics, than in the British debate led by politicians and writers. Slaveholders used the “letter of the law” to argue that there is no biblical prohibition against trafficking and that the Bible instead sanctions slavery in the social order. In contrast, abolitionists emphasized a symbolic reading that highlights themes of love and redemption and belief in human dignity, justice, and freedom. Carson writes, “Both sides made use of typology and prophecy; abolitionists and slaveholders alike drew illuminative analogies between biblical verses and their own situations” (35). She also quotes Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Beecher Stowe from the period literature and cites Voltaire, Montesquieu, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine as philosophical sources. In discussing how slaves adopted the religion of their oppressors as social critique, Carson erroneously names the same spiritual hymn as two different songs (25).

Turning to the complicated problem of slavery, sexual exploitation, and prostitution, Carson identifies taboos and prejudices that inhibit conversation and action to aid and rescue sex trafficking victims, who are not only traumatized by abuse but also stigmatized by society. She admits that sometimes prostitution is exploitative and sometimes it is not, but Christians today cannot support the harsh reality of rape and violence against women. She exposes how misogynistic attitudes focus on the so-called promiscuous behavior of women in the commercial sex trade instead of shaming the male users and pimps. Her survey of biblical passages reveal both a demonization of prostitutes and also a strong tradition that teaches male responsibility for their own sexual behavior and maintaining the dignity and integrity of women. She insists that coerced prostitution should be criminal and prosecuted, but includes the view that a well-regulated and voluntary sex trade could be a positive good and service to the community, for example, enabling people with illness or disability to find release and solace. She gives historical perspective, including mention of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas who regarded prostitution as a necessary evil. She writes, “In medieval Europe, the church was so concerned with discouraging sodomy that it ran its own brothels for its armies and priests” (63). During the Reformation, brothels were shut down as Luther and Calvin argued that sexuality and emotional needs should only find expression within marriage. Carson gives some attention to the difficulty of defining marriage, which varies in different cultures.

Carson writes, “I have tried to introduce the subject, in the hope that it will stimulate further discussion and study, and above all, action” (113). Pope Francis describes modern slavery as ugly and cruel, and he urges action especially to protect children. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Archbishop of Canterbury signed a joint declaration during a forum of religious leaders with the World Council of Churches. The United Religions Initiative distributed a resource packet to over nine hundred cooperation circles in more than one hundred countries, and the United Nations Children’s Fund [UNICEF] offers an Interfaith Toolkit to End Trafficking. Policy experts at the Stimson Center recommended an Agenda for Action for the President’s Interagency Task Force, and President Donald Trump vows to sign pending legislation by the US Congress. The US State Department donated $25 million to the Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims in support of the UN Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking In Persons. Tech innovators are also fighting child exploitation with support from the US Department of Homeland Security. People of good will and conscience are mobilized to protect the most vulnerable and save victims of this wicked crime.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a public scholar.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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.



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