Earlier this month, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople convened an international forum on modern slavery and human trafficking in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The theme might seem of remote interest since we do not often assume that ‘slaves’ live among us. Yet, what scholars, policy makers and those working at the grassroots insisted is that from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the pornography and sex ‘services many consume, we are all complicit in a global scourge that exploits 40 million children, women and men each year.
Modern-day slaves, trafficked to be used-and-abused for their labour, bodies or even organs, are the invisible victims of “a crime against humanity,” as Pope Francis insisted in his video message to the gathering. “We are all called to leave behind any form of hypocrisy, facing the reality that we are part of the problem.”
Yet to face one’s hypocrisy and acknowledge one’s participation in evil takes more than scholarly fact-finding or cool-headed policy-making. It takes, first and foremost, a clear articulation of what is morally at stake by explicating what it is that makes humans worthy of dignity.
Anything that contradicts human well-being and diminishes freedom to grow is unjust and immoral
Thus, among those invited to address the forum were theologians, both Orthodox and Catholic, whose role there was to summarise from their respective traditions the long philosophical and theological reflection on what it means to be human. The foundation for forum’s condemnation of human trafficking was that it is a serious offence against human dignity, and, as Christians put it, gravely sinful.
The former is a judgement based on reason: one does not need to be a believer to conclude that anything that contradicts human well-being and diminishes their freedom to grow is profoundly unjust and therefore immoral. Irrespective of any individual characteristic – age, gender, race, sexual orientation or belief – treating another human being not as the person they are, or have the potential to be, but as an object, is objectively evil.
Yet, the Christian understanding of the human person goes beyond this. It also considers human dignity in light of what God reveals about us, and not just what reason can ascertain. As the Scriptures claim, we are created in God’s own image and likeness, to bear the dignity of being children of God, even to grow, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, in “friendship with God”. To objectify those loved by God is ‘sinful’ because it is an offence against God.
Thus, it should not be surprising that Christians, not just as reasonable human beings, but also because of their faith, should feel the heavy responsibility to unmask corrupt economic and political structures that harm the most vulnerable – from modern-day slaves, to the poor, the elderly or even the unborn. It should not be surprising that Churches – as guardians of the ‘good news’ of Christ’s gift of the freedom for ultimate flourishing – must speak with authority against anything that diminishes human dignity. It should also not be surprising that the Churches increasingly speak with one voice, in an ecumenism that calls all Christians to political action, in particular on the plagues that weaken human society, that threaten future generations, and that harm the environment.
The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Pope Francis, and Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, who each addressed the forum, spoke with one voice, echoing the Gospel they witness to and the shared humanity they seek to defend: Christians must take responsibility for their neighbour. But above all, they must teach the world to recognise the fraternity that binds us as one people.
Nadia Delicata is senior lecturer in moral theology at the University of Malta.
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