Kevin Austin is an important voice in the international effort to end modern-day slavery. As director of the abolitionist faith community within Not For Sale and an ordained missionary with the Free Methodist Church, Austin travels the world to create tools that engage business, government, and grassroots organizations in the service of enslaved and vulnerable communities. In this interview, Austin discusses the increasing prevalence of slavery around the world and in our local communities, the ways in which societal problems like modern-day slavery spiral outward from a dehumanization instinct, and the unique role that faith communities can play to influence cultural values and declare that each human being is created in the image of God. Austin’s raw insights on the reality of slavery are matched by his fierce hope for new creation and new futures for slaves.
The Other Journal (TOJ): I understand that your involvement as an abolitionist in what you call “modern-day slavery” started when you and your family were living as missionaries in Thailand. Can you tell me a little about what you witnessed and experienced in Thailand that brought the reality of slavery to light for you?
Kevin Austin (KA): I was a missionary in Thailand for about seven and a half years and my family and I lived very close to what is considered one of the largest sex tourism spots in the world: Pattaya, Thailand. I was teaching English as a second language in a high school, working with fourteen-to-seventeen-year-old Thai young men and young women. When I would go to Pattaya, I would see men or women who were the same age as my students with men that looked very much like me. Knowing what was going on in Pattaya—and knowing the statistics about prostitution in Thailand1—started me on a journey of asking about my responsibilities as a man, as a Westerner, as a Christian, as a missionary, and as somebody who lives in Thailand. What can I do to address the problem of prostitution? What I found out later was that Pattaya’s prostitution business was being fueled by human trafficking, because it wasn’t just Thai young men and young women that I was seeing, but young men and women were being trafficked in from Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, and all sorts of other places. So that started me on a journey. It opened up my eyes and I started recognizing some of the forced labor that was going on around me, as well as all of the sex tourism and the prostitution that was going on.
One experience that really left an impression on me was when I was in the northern part of the country visiting Buddies along the Roadside, an organization that partners with the organization I work with, Not For Sale. I learned there that you can buy a child for three US dollars. I saw the place where children were being bought and sold, and I thought, “Three dollars is the price of a Starbucks latte—what can I do to give people back dignity, to work within my context to end modern-day slavery and create new futures?”
At the time I was working with the national Free Methodist Church, doing theological education and helping to plant churches in two different parts of Thailand. And I think part of my journey was acknowledging that we couldn’t plant churches and then ignore the plight of the poor. They go hand in hand. For many people in the church there’s a separation between personal righteousness and social righteousness, but as a Wesleyan Christian, I don’t see a separation. Personal and social needs operate together.
Of course, in a place like Thailand, it is very, very complicated. The cultural and religious values make it difficult; the fact that the church is less than one percent of the population of Thailand and that they are bombarded all the time—that makes it difficult. And according to Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves, prostitution is the number one money-making business of the Kingdom of Thailand, yet the church is very poor financially. What can those people do to defeat that enormous evil? Well, I think there’s a lot they can do. There’s a lot all of us can do, but recognizing it is the first step.
TOJ: Many people know that slavery exists in other countries but may not know that slavery exists and is prevalent here in the United States. In what ways is slavery present in the United States and, specifically, in the Seattle area where you’re located?
KA: Slavery permeates every aspect of our society. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the items that we buy—a lot of those things are tainted by modern-day slavery. According to the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which is published by the US State Department every June, at least 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year. According to the Polaris Project, over 100,000 young people are at risk of being trafficked within the United States. A year ago, the Seattle police department dressed up some very young women police officers and sent them into the malls and streets of my community. Those officers were approached within forty-five minutes by people who wanted to prostitute and traffic them.2
In the United States, we eat tomatoes, strawberries, and blueberries that may have been harvested by slaves. We wear clothing and use technology that comes from places where slavery is producing consumer goods. Seventy percent of the world’s chocolate comes from a region where there’s slave labor. And this brings me back to the matter of personal righteousness versus social righteousness: we can’t say that we love Jesus and that we’re going to follow God while not caring about the economics surrounding our lives or about how we live our lives. The good news is that when we make a stand, a handful of people become an army of people one day at a time, one issue at a time. If everybody stops eating slave-harvested chocolate, the people who sell that chocolate are going to change their ways because they want to make money. And so while we all contribute to modern-day slavery, we all have an incredible opportunity to change it.
We need to look on that positive side and realize that we can make a difference. By taking one issue at a time, one day at a time, and one person at a time, every single one of us can do things to end modern-day slavery. Frederick Douglas said that “God and one make a majority.” I like that, because on the one hand I’m big on community—as Christians we all need to do things together and to be in harmony together—but each one of us has the Holy Spirit and the power to live out Jesus’s declaration in Nazareth. The Spirit of the Lord is on us to proclaim good news for the poor and to set the captives free. So we need to grab onto that and say, “I’m not just a dirty rotten sinner; I’m a sinner, but I have incredible power because the Holy Spirit lives in me. And I have incredible power to make a difference.”
TOJ: That sounds like not just acknowledging Christ’s sacrifice and crucifixion, but really living into our resurrection, our new life, our new self.
KA: That’s right. Jesus died to take away our sins and to cover over our sins, but then he rose again to bring us life. And there’s resurrection power. My Jewish friends use a phrase all the time; they say that they are to repair the world. And when I look at the work of Christ and I see that he died on the cross to take away our sins and to bring healing and hope for our shame, to repair the world.
I think it’s a key theological point that when Adam and Eve sinned, sin and shame came into the world. Sin says you do wrong things, whereas shame says you are a wrong thing. So when we talk about evil, we have to look at it in those two contexts. We do our part to live righteously, but God is the one who takes care of our sin and forgives it. But shame can’t be forgiven, because shame is an existence. It’s something that you are. It can only be healed. I think that our part in bringing hope and healing into the world, and our part in working against evil, is to be a force of hope and healing, to heal people’s shame.
And an important evil in our world today is human trafficking. The evil of human trafficking is that if you can buy a child for three dollars, that child is a disposable person. It means that child has no worth or value. And that’s shame. We need to come along and attack that evil. We need to identify that as nonsense, to show that everybody is created in the image of God. Everybody has worth and value and dignity, and that’s our job as Christians, to bring healing and hope so that people remember or realize that they’re created in the image of God and that they’re not a thing.
TOJ: On the Not For Sale website there is a video of the president and co-founder, David Batstone, talking about how different communities—business leaders and universities and athletes—are coming together to do the work of Not For Sale. You represent the faith communities, and so I’m interested in hearing about the role of faith communities in this abolitionist movement.
KA: Evil has many forms and those forms morph. And so with human trafficking you can’t just look at one aspect of it and say, “Well, that’s it. It’s just children picking tomatoes in Florida.” No, that’s not it. It’s multifaceted. And so holiness needs to be multifaceted too; we need to address the issue in multiple ways.
First, we must step back, look at the big picture, and realize that there are influential spheres in society. Law and government, academia, faith, business, the media—you can name others, but those are the big ones. Every one of those segments of society needs to be engaged. We need government and business solutions, and we need media coverage of those solutions. When a wave hits a wall, the water crashes in through the lowest point. Likewise, if we have great laws and horrible business solutions, the water—the evil—is going to flow over that business solution. Now, I believe that the faith community has representatives in each of those important spheres of influence. On Sunday morning at church, you will meet lawyers, doctors, police officers, people that write well, people that communicate well in the arts, business leaders, et cetera. The faith community has a unique role because there are people in our faith communities that are representing all those spheres of society.
Second, while we might find people of faith who are in position to create laws and business solutions that challenge evil, unless we change the underlying cultural values of people so that evil is recognized, the work done in those influential spheres will only be somewhat effective. Changing cultural values is the role of the faith community. And speaking broadly, it’s the role of the whole faith community. Jews, Muslims, and Christians, for instance, all have values that are very similar in being able to craft culture. If Muslims, Jews, and Christians all preach and proclaim the image of God, if we all work together where we can, we will be effective and culture will be changed.
Now, I believe that Jesus is the one who really makes this all happen. And I believe it’s the Holy Spirit infusing this drive to stop trafficking. But I don’t think Christians should be afraid to work with Jews and Muslims and atheists and Buddhists and Hindus. We can all find common ways to agree on things, to disagree and have some great conversations, and to work together to get things done. And we need to—we need to all work together.
TOJ: In one of your articles, you state that the involvement of faith communities will require “the role of the ‘prophet’” instead of the role of the pastor. What do you mean by this and why do you think a prophet is needed over a pastor in the abolishment of slavery?3
KA: Pastors are nice people. Pastors take care of other people. We need pastors. We all need to be kind to one another. The role of the prophet in scripture is not just to tell a future event—that’s a secondary definition of prophesy—it is to speak the truth in a new way that wakes people up. I think that instead of being nice and kind and caretaking of everybody, we need somebody to wake us all up. Particularly in America, we are fairly numb and insulated within our materialism. We are very relativistic and we need someone to startle us, to make us see what’s going on and to see things in a new way. And then we need to move forward in a hope-infused, prayer-filled way with power. And that’s what I see when I read the prophets. Some of us need to remain as pastors and be nice and care for people, but there are others who need to wake people up. There are more than thirty million slaves in the world today. We shouldn’t be passive about that. We shouldn’t be sleepy about it. There is great evil around us, and we should wake up and do something about it.
TOJ: It seems to me that we not only need a prophet to call attention to that vast number but also to the ways in which this problem has infiltrated our daily lives and that this is a problem that we’re all participating in. Sometimes I think that the American Christian church has aligned so strongly with consumerism, that it seems unclear how one could present this message, how one could effectively say we don’t need all these things. It seems that we need to communicate that there’s a person here who has value and that they’re more valuable than our morning Starbucks latte.
KA: That’s exactly it. Is a seven-year-old of more value than your chocolate bar? That’s an uncomfortable conversation, but we need to have it. When we acknowledge that of course a seven-year-old is more valuable than a Hershey’s chocolate bar, then it can’t just be an academic conversation; it has to become an action where we say, “I’m not going to buy that chocolate bar anymore. And I’m going to do something to help a seven-year-old boy.” Or it could be the fourteen-year-old girl that lives on our block who is vulnerable to human trafficking. Or that family in our church that is balancing on an edge where something could happen and then somebody becomes a trafficker or somebody becomes trafficked.
TOJ: In this particular issue of The Other Journal we are focusing on evil, and I think that faith communities are charged and strive to provide a definition of what evil is so that we can recognize it. As you’ve said in this conversation, slavery and human trafficking are evil. How would you define the evil of slavery?
KA: I mentioned earlier that human trafficking is multifaceted. Some of the important contributing factors to modern-day slavery include poverty, racism, the breakdown of family systems, and internal government and political instability. Of course, greed is also a factor—I once heard an FBI agent say that if you just cut off the flow of money, it would all go away—and there’s a struggle here between those who have power and those who don’t have power. I think there’s evil associated with all of those factors, but at the core, I think the vast majority of our social problems, including human trafficking, are based on our willingness to treat another person as a thing. That’s the problem behind domestic violence, where a husband depersonalizes his wife. For me to call my wife a “bitch” turns her into a thing—she no longer has a name, and then, because she’s a thing and not a person, it becomes easier to abuse her. And it’s the same with racism. You call someone a derogatory name, and all of the sudden it transforms them from a person to something that is much easier to hate, much easier to abuse. When I think about these problems and modern-day slavery, I see it as a simple issue of people—often those with power—denying that other people are human beings created in the image of God.
When we look at Burma, where you’ve got two million internally displaced people running from the government and another ethnic group that is trying to exterminate them because of racial differences, I think what we’re seeing is that one group thinks the other is less than human. That’s the same thing driving human trafficking in places like Thailand, where a Thai brothel owner can excuse the horror of what he’s inflicting upon a girl because she’s Burmese or Cambodian. She’s not really human.
But what’s the positive response? The positive response is that we should treat other people as human beings, children of God, created in God’s image. We do that through our attitudes, the way we look at people, the way that we talk to people, the way we treat people in our families, in our society, in our neighborhoods, in our churches. That has tremendous power. And that’s how the faith community is going to contribute to changing cultural values; the faith community treats people respectfully. The faith community believes what the Scripture says, that all of us are created in the image of God. So we live that out in all of our actions, in all of our words, in all of our attitudes, and that has a tremendous impact on the world.
TOJ: I find it interesting that as we’re talking about faith communities and the Christian faith community, the Old Testament mandates for Christians to care for the widow and the orphan, and predominantly women and children are enslaved, yet few Christians seem to be aware of the prevalence of modern slavery and human trafficking. What are your insights on the cultural valuing of women and children and the relationship between these values and slavery?
KA: There’s been a lot of great writing done recently about this issue. For instance, Half the Sky talks about gender issues and makes it very clear that women are preyed upon and harmed in a variety of ways, and if we empower women, we make the world better.4 That definitely is one of the approaches we need to enact to address modem-day slavery and other evils.
About 80 percent of the world’s slaves are female and about 50 percent are children, so they definitely are among the most vulnerable. The Old Testament—and I think the New Testament is also very clear about this—suggests that the men predominantly have power and that we need men to level that playing field. And we need to take care of the widows and the orphans. We need to encourage and help our young women to succeed.
I’m ordained in the Free Methodist Church, which began in the nineteenth century over some of these very issues, and this is what’s driving me theologically: the early Free Methodists believed that slavery is evil and they believed that women needed to have an equal right to serve. So there’s this very strong stream of empowering women and working to end slavery within the Free Methodist Church. That Free Methodists belief in freedom from slavery and freedom for women has also morphed into another freedom: the freedom from poverty. Free Methodists have a special preference for the poor. People are going after the rich; well, we go after the poor because nobody seems to care about the poor. That’s getting at the problem I mentioned earlier, which is that imbalance between those who have power and those who don’t. Free Methodists are trying to help the poor, trying to empower more and more women to lead and succeed, and trying to free slaves. I’m delighted that the Free Methodist Church is once again aggressively going after this issue of ending modern-day slavery.
TOJ: I’d also like to touch on the language that Not For Sale uses to discuss these issues. For instance, you speak about re-abolishing slavery—could you say more about that language?
KA: The term human trafficking implies that somebody’s moved from one place to another, and although that’s true in some cases, it’s not always the case. I’ve also heard some people in the movement speak with disdain about those words because they’re too soft. This is modern-day slavery. These people are held by force, they’re unable to walk away, they’re doing things they don’t want to do, and they’re being treated violently. It’s real slavery. And there’s compelling evidence that there are more slaves in the world today than there were at the time of the Civil War.
How did that happen? That’s that slipperiness of evil where you defeat it in one place and then it moves and it morphs and it changes into something else. And I think that’s an important conversation to have too—I’m not only concerned about ending slavery; I’m also passionate about creating new futures. We need laws, police officers to catch the bad guys, and good business solutions, but we also need to create new futures. We need to change the cultural values and create sustainable solutions for people to get out of poverty, to alleviate racism, to alleviate illiteracy, to empower women.
So we’ve got a negative calling, which is ending modern-day slavery, and a positive calling, which is creating new futures. And the church can do both. The church proclaims. The church worships. The church prays. The church educates. And those acts all help end modern-day slavery. But then the church goes out on the streets and helps people find a new future. The church helps people find hope and healing and to find those things in a smart way. One of the things I like about Not For Sale is that we target both those areas and that we do so with an attitude of hope. It’s not a movement where we cry ourselves to sleep every night. Not For Sale gives people multiple ways to use their gifts and skills, whoever they are, to make a difference. We don’t have to change who we are, we just need to do what we’re doing well and what we love and then to integrate it with a holistic message of freedom.
TOJ: That aligns so well with the Christian message of salvation—that we have new life in Christ—in that it’s not just about the abolishment of sin and slavery, but it’s also about creating new lives. And given that slavery is infiltrating so many things within our day-to-day lives, it seems critical that we use our skills and gifts to fight back.
KA: Exactly. And the traffickers are well financed—it’s a $32 billion-a-year business. They’re well financed and well positioned, and the church and society are just throwing a little bit of money at it and hoping that it will go away. We need to be smarter than that. If we’re going to defeat slavery, we need good intentions, passion, and smart solutions. And we need to fund that fight. It’s very important that we look at it from a holistic point of view because there are all sorts of different factors involved and there are all sorts of different solutions.
The good news is that the church has ways to connect with every single one of those points. The church can respond to every single problem and can contribute to every single solution. The church has money it can invest in this problem, but I think the primary advantage of the church is that in our faith communities we create culture that can and should address these issues. If the church isn’t addressing the heart of this issue—that people are created in the image of God, and that it’s evil for somebody to treat another person as a thing—then I think that foundationally we’re way off mark in terms of what the Bible teaches. Jesus didn’t come and die on a cross to save things; he came to save people. And our faith journeys, from the very beginning to the very end, are ones of relationship, both with God and his people. This is a great opportunity for the church.
TOJ: Could you please talk about some of the ways that someone reading this could get involved?
KA: Not For Sale’s journey has been one of trying to change the culture and give everybody something they can do. To this end, we created a smartphone app called Free To Work that evaluates businesses in terms of whether or not they use forced labor; this gives people a tool to make an ethical choice when buying products. It’s a very powerful tool because all of us spend money. If we spend our money wisely and righteously, that will make an impact.
We’ve also created worship platforms for people of faith— Freedom Sunday for Christians, Freedom Shabbat for the Jewish community, and Freedom Salat for the Muslim faith community. We created Free To Play, which reaches out to athletes and musicians, the Freedom Store, which has products that are created by survivors of slavery, the Academy, which trains people, and many others. The latest thing we’ve created is a plug-and-play called Empower, which asks you several survey questions and then suggests ways you can make a difference. Not For Sale is very innovative, so next month there’ll be something new.
2. Data about current trafficking is available in the TIP Report, but it was also highly publicized by CNN through their “Freedom Project,” http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/category/the-facts/the-number/; data about people who are at risk for trafficking is available in the “Human Trafficking Cheat Sheet,” The Polaris Project, http://www.polarisproject.org/resources/resources-by-topic/human-trafficking; and the Seattle trafficking incidents are reported by Nicole Brodeur, “A Shameful Side of the City,” Seattle Times, January 13, 2011, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nicolebrodeur/2013931859_nicole14m.html.
3. Austin, “A Case Study: FMC Resolution” also titled “Case Study: From Awareness to Action in the Free Methodist Church,” Freedom Sunday Resources: Fact Sheets and Articles, http://www.freedomsunday.org/downloads/A%20Case%20study.doc.
4. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2010).