taking the words of Jesus seriously

On December 18, 1865 slavery was officially abolished with the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to the United States. Hallelujah and Praise God! A decision – though fought at the time by many white southerners – we celebrate today as a core example of how  the better world Jesus’ dreamed (see Luke 4:18) is possible.

But there are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history. Here are some basic facts about modern day slavery and human trafficking:

  • Human trafficking is the third largest criminal industry in the world (with the first and second being drug trafficking and arms trafficking).
  • 27 million persons are victims worldwide.
  • 18, 000 people are brought to the U.S. per year in some form of human trafficking.
  • 30, 000 are trafficked through the U.S. on their way to other countries
  • 244, 000 US minors are trafficked within the US into some form of sexual exploitation.
  • 1.2 million children are sold into sexual slavery each year.
  • 80% of victims are female with a disproportionately high number women of color.
  • 50% of victims are children under the age of 18.

And Houston, as mentioned many times here, is ground zero in the US.

My natural response to stats like this concerning modern day slavery goes something like this:

“Hey, I don’t own any slaves! What are you talking about!”

Or like this:

“I’ve never hired an illegally trafficked women to perform sex!”


“Yes, this is a terrible problem of evil and injustice, thank God I’m innocent! Let’s get those terrible men who are at fault for this!”

So last week I took International Justice Mission’s survey called Slavery Footprint to determine how close this issue really is to me.  This was a completely humbling act on my part; the kind of humbling that will ruin your day. They surveyed my possessions and lifestyle (# of cars, type of coffee, clothes, diapers, etc…) to determine how many slaves “work” for me worldwide. Turns out I have more slaves that produce for me than I have members of the congregation I pastor!  Everyone (myself included) says they would have fought against slavery 150 years ago. But what about today, when 27 MILLION slaves work for you?

I think I need a little more 13th Amendment goodness in my own life. Maybe I need to run out and see the wildly successful film Lincoln for some clues on how to live more justly. But it’s Christmas, it’s time to think about Santa Claus, not abolition and complicity.

Santa Claus gets a well deserved bad rap from a lot of people. He represents all that is wrong with Christmas: sentimentalism, forced belief in lies, consumption and consumerism, and a total disconnect from the Biblical Christmas story. His jolly-wielding belly laugh can’t begin to redeem such a diversion. A diversion Houston could live without.

But check this out, the character Santa Claus is based on is remarkable precisely because Houston needs him now more than ever. As the human trafficking capital of the western world, Houston needs Saint Nick! As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro and Shane Claiborne have said about the original “old Saint Nick”

Nicholas was bishop of Myra in fourth century Turkey. Little is known about his life except that he entrusted himself to Jesus at an early age and, when his parents died, gave all of their possessions to the poor. While serving as bishop, Nicholas learned of three girls who were going to be sold into slavery by their father. Moved to use the church’s wealth to ransom the lives of these little ones, he tossed three bags of gold through the family’s window.

Saint Nick can’t come quick enough.

But thankfully, there are those among us who are emulating Nick and doing as the great Hebrew text suggests, “proclaiming liberty to the captives.”

They may not stand out in jolly red clothes and white beards, but they are here among us if you know where to look!

Erica Raggett is fighting human trafficking one coffee at a time over at A 2nd Cup in The Heights. One way they do this is so obvious it might be missed: they offer coffee produced without slave labor. “You can’t claim to be against modern day slavery and still drink coffee harvested by slaves, ” says Raggett. But using ethically sourced coffee is only part of their education efforts.

Julie Waters at Free the Captives is a modern day Harriet Tubman,  providing amazing holistic after-care for the women victims (55 in 2012!) who have been rescued out of slavery while at the same time leading the charge to “reduce the demand” for paid sexual services (see their full report here). Her ministry -an amazing expression of Jesus’ good news! – has found genuine root in the Houston church community as it “engages and mobilizes the Christian community and partners with non-profits, law enforcement, and government agencies in the fight against modern day slavery.” Free the Captives hosts an annual Houston Anti-Human Trafficking Conference that will be March 1-2, 2013 at Second Baptist Church in Houston.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia and newly elected District Attorney Mike Anderson have both traded Santa suits for Saint Nick’s agenda, as they help in Houston’s effort to “proclaim release to the captives” and “let the oppressed go free.”

You might consider encouraging your favorite brands to look into their supply chains by downloading this free Slavery Footprint app.

Houston doesn’t need more Santas. But I thank God for all the Saint Nick’s we have. Get in the spirit by joining the abolitionist work of Free the Captives,  A 2nd Cup,  Pastor Omar Garcia,  Houston Rescue and Restore, or The Coalition to Abolish Human Trafficking. If you’re in an area church, check out anti-slavery resources in your own denomination, such as the Union Baptist Association,  The Catholic Church or Mennonite Church, USA.

Perhaps God is also inviting you to put down your Santa and to celebrate Christmas justly! By joining Jesus in carrying out his mission: to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18). May it be so for us all. Merry Christmas!

Marty Troyer is living into Advent as pastor of Houston Mennonite Church. Follow Marty on Twitter.

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