On Sept. 25, President Obama presented new initiatives to address human trafficking in America. He did this as the President of the United States, but I know he also did it as a parent of two children. How do I know? He said so: "When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family, or girls my daughters' ages run away from home and are lured -- that's slavery."
I live in a state notorious for human trafficking. Last year, when my son threatened to run away, I found myself saying the usual parental line about getting kidnapped. But I also urgently warned that he was likely to become a victim of human trafficking (please send donations to my children's therapy funds -- the need will be great in due time).
· Within the first 48 hours of being on the street, 1 in 3 children are lured into commercial sexual exploitation.
Apparently, some bodies are hot commodities, especially those of women and children, and the demand appears to be limitless. Pimps can earn up to $632,000 per year by selling four women or children.
What would it look like for us to interact with our neighbor's body in a way that is ethical?
Just after this week's lectionary passage (Mark 10:17-31), Jesus declares in verses 43-45: "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all, for the Son of Man [referring to Jesus here] came not to be served but to serve and to give his life [as] a ransom for many."
Immediately, Jesus, his professed followers, and a bunch of other people come across someone's kid -- Timaeus' son, Bartimaeus. He is blind. He has no way to make a living beyond begging, given his physical captivity. He is "hidden" in plain sight, a normal, accepted, if tragic part of the city's landscape.
For once, though, he senses that real help might be near so he takes a chance and makes a scene by calling out to Jesus, another Son. First, he calls him Jesus (from the Hebrew name, Joshua, meaning Liberator). Then he calls Jesus "Son of David"; that's King David, the ruler of God's people charged with the task of creating a just political and economic system for his people.
There is no justice, of course, without mercy, so Bartimaeus calls out for mercy. None is to be found. He is not just overlooked but is vehemently dismissed and told to shut up. Did the scorners assume that Bartimaeus had made his own bed and should therefore lie in it? Did they wonder why Bartimaeus didn't just pull himself up by his bootstraps and get a real job?
Bartimaeus, with nothing left to lose, decides not to shut up this time but calls out a second time even louder. Jesus stops. He makes his disciples get involved by having them interact with the blind man. Notice that no one apart from the narrator ever calls Bartimaeus by his actual name; he remains "the blind man" throughout. He is identified solely by the state of his body that makes him ritually impure, unclean, dirty, unholy, with the power to make anyone he touches impure and unholy.
But Jesus stops, gets involved, and gets his followers involved. Bartimaeus can't believe that his cry has been heard and his hopeful enthusiasm is almost embarrassing to watch -- he throws off his cloak and springs up. Jesus directly asks Bartimaeus what he wishes for, what he dreams of, what he most needs to live a liberated, whole life. Jesus does not paternalistically try to guess what Bartimaeus needs or tell Bartimaeus what would be best for him.
Bartimaeus wants his body back. He wants to be a fully accepted, respected member of society who is treated with dignity, a man eligible to enter the holy places, who belongs there without apology. Thanks to Jesus, Bartimaeus is able to articulate his dream to someone who actually treats him as fully human. And when Bartimaeus does this, he participates in his own liberation. Jesus declares, "Your faith [not Jesus' faith or magic] has made you well." I can't help but wonder if it was the listening, the understanding, and the interaction that honored the human dignity of Bartimaeus that brought healing. Jesus doesn't even touch him. Bartimaeus' eyes are opened and he becomes a true follower of the Way.
Holding Bartimaeus' story in my mind as I delved into the vast problem of human-trafficking victims, I was struck by the many connections. Those who take time to listen to victims know that no one wishes to be a prostitute any more than they wish to be a blind beggar. No one really knows how many victims of trafficking there are. As one person said, "There's no census of prostitutes." I wonder if Bartimaeus would have "counted" in the censuses of his time.
Solving the problem of trafficking is practically hopeless, and I imagine the same was true of curing the problem of blind beggars. But the story shows the healing of one blind man. I suppose it would be a more satisfying story if Jesus had waved his magic Messiah wand and intoned some Harry Potter-worthy Latin spell to fix the system that allowed Bartimaeus not only to languish there, but actively encouraged him to stay in his place. But that's not how the story goes. Why is that? Does the text intimate that even if we can't fix it all it's still worth stopping to help one person? Is there room for both helping an individual and critiquing and reforming whole social systems that see no incentive in investing in the marginalized? Is the text calling me and my community to do something instead of wishing for Jesus' wizardry?
Once Bartimaeus is healed, he follows Jesus. Often someone who has been liberated from trafficking goes on to devote their time and energy to help other victims of trafficking. After all, who better could recognize the signs and offer true understanding of the plight? It would appear that Bartimaeus did the same thing -- he joined in on the healing ministry of Jesus and became another bearer of good news.
If we want to be agents of good news too, we will have to search our souls regularly to see if we are relating to other people's bodies in a just way. Do we participate in exploiting the body of our neighbor, even in small, seemingly insignificant ways? This story shows that ethical interaction Jesus-style:
- Seeks the good of the other person first, not selfish satisfaction
- Engages the other with the deepest respect for their human dignity, without exception
- Gets involved
- Gets others involved
- Liberates (learn more at Magdala House)
We can do this, friends. We don't need a wizard, just the will.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.