Your Body, Myself: Combating Human Trafficking with Theology of the Body

[1] We often take our bodies for granted.

[2] As essential to our lives as air itself, it might seem that one of the few universal truths in this world that humans tend not to notice our bodies. The particular way in which an elbow bends is unappreciated until it adopts a creak in its movement. The smooth elasticity of skin unnoticed, unless a cold rush of air tempts goosebumps into being. One’s good health is forgotten, when suddenly its existence is threatened. It is perhaps at this point — at the encounter of perceived immortality and ultimate frailty — where we might begin to intuit the degree to which our bodies define our experiences in the world.

[3] Encounters with illness, violence, death and dying — such as we have recently most dramatically seen in Haiti — are those moments in which humanity most frequently wrestles with our bodily existence. For much of the history of Christianity, the spirit and body have been epistemologically assumed to be separate from one another. Upon death, so the story goes, one’s soul is released into the ethers, liberated forever from the burden of flesh — that which feels pain, and which represented toil, hunger, ceaseless work.

[4] The origins of an embodied theology, however, lie in the living organism of the body.

[5] Pope John Paul II, in a series of sermons from 1979 to 1984,1 broke ground when he taught that the Bible and lived experience go together.2 Slowly unpacking his notions of body and the senses, of sexuality and ethical living, the Pope took a tentative step in Catholic theology toward a reality in which we live and breathe and think with a conscious eye toward the flesh. His sermons triggered a movement to experience the sensations of life as vital and essential to understanding the will of God. As James Nelson put it, “when we reflect theologically we inevitably do so as embodied selves.”3 To attempt to separate out one’s experience of God as separate from the rest of fleshly life, is simply to deny another way of understanding the Divine. It fundamentally avoids what it means to live in and of the world, while still yet being in and of God.

[6] All of this conversation paints a rather rosy picture of what it means to be engaged in the world with God and with our bodies; certainly a person might experience the delight of God within a lovely sunset, the thrill of a good run, or the scent of a dewy flower. But what do we do with the elemental and inescapable fact of our bodies as temporal tools for living, conduits for pain and disease? As mentioned above, situations such as the recent earthquake in Haiti remind us of the tragedy of the body, the crushing blow of what concrete and mortar can exact upon our muscles and bones. We also remember the toll that unstable living situations take upon otherwise peaceful people, eliciting competition for resources, heightened and erratic episodes of violence, and more desperate individuals searching for a way out.

[7] Yet instability is often present close to home, as well. Many of us from North America are quick to send material aid abroad, and the impulse is a good one. It must be matched, however, with clear view of the poverty, instability, and injustices that exist within our own cities, states, communities, and sometimes within our own homes. Our commitment to better the entire world should begin with eradicating injustices in our own communities. One such injustice, often hidden from the reach of the law and all but invisible, is that of human trafficking — all within the borders of the United States.4

[8] When we apply an embodied theology to the life of a victim of human trafficking, we need a kind of analysis that will blend rationality of the mind with the logic of the senses. Often people’s perceptions of crimes such as human trafficking lead them to blame the victim, getting caught up in universalistic notions of what must be right and wrong. Yet the work of black feminist ethicist Traci West encourages us to pull away from using universalistic logic alone in measuring such situations:

This ethical work requires a visceral recognition of the meaning of body invasion, body assault, and body-demeaning speech, for women and the whole of society. Knowledge that we acquire through our bodily perceptions must not be discounted in ethics, for it is a crucial source of moral knowledge.5

[9] Human trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a human being, and forcing her or him into sexual exploitation, labor, or other forms of servitude.6 Contrary to popular belief, the crossing of a border is not necessary for an individual to be trafficked; rather, what is necessary is the exploitation of one’s body against his or her will, under threat of violence, punishment, or deportation.

[10] In many cases, the trafficker recruits vulnerable young women who are already distanced from their family life or perhaps have already run away from home.7 By preying on those who are already isolated, the trafficker takes advantage of the lack of a safety net in the individuals’ life, such that the victim may feel s/he has no choice but to continue under the power of her trafficker. Among violent crimes, that of human trafficking is often invisible, with victims named instead as prostitutes and therefore as perpetrators of a crime, instead of seen as powerless within a system of oppression easily hidden beyond the reaches of law enforcement.

[11] Thus, in order to think ethically about a trafficking victim, one must discount the inclination to make immediate moralistic judgments about the actions s/he took under coercion or force. Rather, a theology of the body would encourage us to imagine the body of the victim as our own, and imagine how the world, and how God, might look from his or her perspective. To think theologically about the victim of a violent crime such as human trafficking, one cannot discount the elemental influence of the body, as Traci West refers to above, in interpreting right and wrong. This is not to say we must discount rationality in analyzing violent crimes, power structures, and issues of human trafficking, but rather that in thinking about such things, we must do so with our whole selves, not discounting what the body, mind, and spirit each may have to offer. The ELCA’s 2009 social statement on sexuality takes such an integrative view of embodied sexuality.

[12] Where does this leave the faithful person, hoping to standing in solidarity with our neighbors? What more is there to do beyond reflect?

[13] Educate yourself
Many states, like Minnesota, release regular studies on the rates, causes, and ways to prevent human trafficking. Does your state have a means of measuring human trafficking? Is there a law protecting trafficked persons? We cannot afford to focus on trafficking abroad without learning how to solve the problem in our own locales. Take it upon yourself to learn more about the presence of trafficking in your area.

[14] Take Action
Organize an adult forum at your church, educating yourself and your congregation on trafficking at home and abroad. Practice meditation, getting to know your body, and practice imagining what it might be like to live in the bodies of others. Call your local and national legislators, and tell them how you feel about human trafficking. Tell your representatives you want all trafficked individuals protected by law, and better ways of finding, recording, and preventing situations that make individuals vulnerable to human trafficking. Write a letter to the editor on the topics in your local newspaper. Tell your friends. Pray for wisdom. Pray for change.


Percy, Anthony. Theology of the Body Made Simple. Connor Court Publishing: Australia. 2005. Page 9.
Percy, Anthony. Page 14.
Nelson, James B. Body Theology. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY. 1992. Page 42.
Shattered Hearts: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of American Indian Women And Girls In Minnesota, prepared by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in August 2009, explains that in 2008, the FBI identified Minneapolis “as one of thirteen U.S. cities having a high concentration of criminal activity involving the commercial sexual exploitation of juveniles.” Furthermore, the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs (“Human Trafficking in Minnesota: A Report to the Minnesota Legislature”. Prepared by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs, and the Minnesota Statistical Analysis Center. September 2008.) estimated in 2007 that at least 345 American Indian women and girls alone had been sexually trafficked in Minnesota over a three-year period.
West, Traci C. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY. 2006. Page 42.
Gaertner, Susan. “Human Trafficking: Today’s Hidden Slavery – Our Role in Recognizing and Protecting Victims.” Presented to Criminal Justice Institute in Bloomington, MN, August 22, 2006. Page 2.
“Human Trafficking in Minnesota: A Report to the Minnesota Legislature”. Prepared by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs, and the Minnesota Statistical Analysis Center. September 2008. Page 1.

Alison Killeen

Alison Killeen is Statewide Organizer at the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She recently completed a Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary in 2009.