I recently attended an edited excerpt of the film Nefarious: Merchant of Souls by Exodus Cry, an event organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, with an introduction by Exodus Cry’s Director of Awareness and Prevention. While I personally objected to the quality of the ‘documentary’ with its CSI style re-enactments of women being ‘traded’ by sex traffickers and interviews with former British and American prostitutes replete with moral condemnation for those who choose to go into sex work, it was the accompanying promotional literature which stood out. It stated:
Prayer is our central value. We believe it is the most powerful and effective weapon to combat slavery. Our global prayer initiatives include City in Focus, Exodus Cry Prayer Watch – a coalition of prayer meetings – Adopt a Nation, and the Red Light Prayer initiative.
In the UK, arguably less religious than the United States from where the producers of Nefarious hail, such an approach to anti-trafficking is relatively unusual. Well, semi-unusual. In 2011, to great consternation, the Ministry of Justice declined to renew their funding of the Poppy Project, which was leading the UK’s support services for adult victims of trafficking. While the Poppy Project was not without its flaws, the fact that the contract was awarded instead to the Salvation Army caused concern. These concerns focused on the alleged reduction in spending per head; the relationship between a faith-based organisation and the needs of a traumatised and vulnerable group, particularly relating to abortion; and the requirement for job applicants to define their engagement with Christianity as part of the Salvation Army’s recruitment process. While the transition from the Poppy Project to the Salvation Army fell within a broader discussion on the reduction in government spending for ‘tricky issues’ and the development of Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea, implicit here was an unease by NGOs, experts in the field and members of the public about the role of religious organisations in the administration of sensitive public services.
The Salvation Army provides a number of resources on its webpage dedicated to trafficking. Within these resources, the organisation put together a coherent, theologically-rooted case for the importance of prayer in addressing trafficking. Their literature argues that opposition to trafficking and the protection of its victims finds Biblical resonance. For example: referencing Psalm 146:9, the citation ‘The LORD protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows’ falls within the prayer for trafficking victims (leaving aside the need for a prayer which engages with internally trafficked and/or male victims). A prayer for consumers cites Psalm 146:8 and ‘The LORD opens the eyes of the blind’.
What are the merits of this approach? Is it simply a panacea – on a par with the ‘hand cream’ activism explored in our previous post on campaigns? Is it a salve to the conscience of the more religious in our society? Does it prevent a more robust examination of the real reasons behind trafficking, for example, our thirst for cheap labour? Or is it a method of engaging a group of people who may not come across the issue in other aspects of their lives? Similarly, is it a method of simply reframing the debate in terms which will be understood by a specific kind of audience? Or, most controversially, does prayer actually work?
Sadly, the ability to measure the effectiveness of prayer is impossible. However, a survey of religious online resources, for example 24-7prayer.com, indicates a belief in the correlation between prayer and action. As an example, it was claimed:
The week after … US Communities prayed, it hit their national news that 52 children were rescued in a nationwide Sex Trafficking raid. We are praising Jesus for the lives set free and are desperate to see more happen in the United States of America and the nations of the earth.
The non-religious may argue that these two events are not connected, but it is the promise of this correlation which keeps the faithful praying. Equally, there may be links between prayer and personal action; for example, where the faithful have considered this issue to be worthy of both spiritual mediation and financial merit.
Attempts to scientifically measure the impact of prayer have been controversial, with questions raised about the methodologies used and high levels of peer scepticism when research was submitted to journals. Perhaps then prayer has a different function?
Firstly, as mentioned above, the use of prayer allows access to a group of people who may have no or limited knowledge of human trafficking and frames it in a language which has a particular kind of resonance amongst this group. For those who are religious, Claire M. Renzetti refers to the role of faith as a motivator for social activism as transcendent motivation; her research notes the idea that Christian anti-trafficking activism is ‘reinforced by prayer and scripture, which are seen as integral, essential “tools” in anti-trafficking work.’ Though the Salvation Army’s resources may use over-emotive language with an emphasis on ‘organised crime’, an undefined term, it appears, through its language and theological basis, to function as a coherent and strategic method of engaging the faithful. Encouraging people to ‘move it…speak it…pray it…stop it’, the webpage has fundraising ideas, educational resources for primary and secondary schools and presentations available to download. A question arises as to whether this approach alienates non-Christians to the detriment of anti-trafficking work as a whole. In a multi-faith (and non-faith) society such as the UK, this may be a real issue.
The focus on prayer can provide an in-road to continued engagement with Christians. For example, a number of online prayer resources emphasise the provision of financial assistance to organisations working with victims; some encourage greater awareness vigilance of potential human trafficking situations, providing an option for more concrete action. These resources, while heavily focusing on sex trafficking, occasionally also discuss labour exploitation, domestic servitude and other kinds of trafficking. Though slightly hysterical, the Salvation Army states:
Fuelled by a depraved market for exploiting sexual fantasy, our greedy desire to get everything we want at the cheapest prices and industrial practice that forces vulnerable people to work for little or no pay – trafficking is thriving in our own backyard.
This is surely a rallying cry to the Church community to consider its behaviour and the issue of supply chains.
As with all campaigns and awareness-raising activities, it is vital that the facts are straight. And this is where a number of prayer outreach resources show their limitations. In the quest to engage an audience, two themes emerge: un-cited ‘facts’ about human trafficking, which potentially further sensationalise the issue and the insistence on ‘victim imagery’ (you know the ones, the girl with the pillow, the hands in chains). These do nothing to move the debate along or encourage effective action. And it is here that prayer fails to be effective – when it becomes the only response to trafficking and when it sustains misinformation about trafficking – undermining efforts to effectively address the problem. In this respect, this approach is worse than ‘hand cream’ activism in that it potentially reinforces stereotypes, making interventions by the state and NGOs more difficult.
However, there may be benefit to the cross-over between an approach which incorporates the values inherent in Christianity and a human rights approach. This can be most clearly seen in the concept of human dignity, which is advocated by both doctrines. A contribution to the development of a victim-based approach can be made as it is predicated on the worth of each individual victim. If the Salvation Army continue in their role as the Government’s chosen organisation to provide services to victims of trafficking, then the centrality of this approach to these efforts, albeit one governed by both best practice and the organisation’s religious ethos, can surely only be positive. However, much greater attention should be drawn to the potential of an overtly religious approach to alienate those of a different or non-faith background from engaging with the Salvation Army’s work particularly, and anti-trafficking measures in the UK more broadly. This is particularly relevant from the viewpoint of potential victims, who may perceive that such an organisation will convert or chastise them. Similarly, while this may not be an issue for the Salvation Army itself, the fact that the organisation has such a prominent role in developing the national perspective on trafficking, does mean that has to be considered.