By Tom Krattenmaker
Now that he knows the name of a young enslaved prostitute in Indonesia — it’s Eka, pronounced “Ecka” — Mike Mercer is all in. The human-trafficking resister from Oregon is committed not just to the reclamation of Eka’s freedom and her pre-slavery lot in life, but also to her enjoying life prospects far brighter than if she had never been trafficked and had never crossed his path.
“As a Christian, I can’t be satisfied knowing there are people living in such a condition,” says Mercer, 37, a onetime youth pastor at an evangelical church near Portland and the founder and director of a fledgling non-profit called Compassion First. “As a Christian, I’m a steward of the image of God. And every person on the face of the earth bears that image. I became responsible for Eka the day I met her.”
Mercer, as he befriends sex slaves such as Eka and works to establish a rehabilitation and education network for them, is showing what evangelical Christianity increasingly looks like in the new century, and in the new paradigm.
If you’re a Southeast Asian brothel keeper or an American retailer benefiting from slave labor — and, yes, slavery flourishes today in both forms — this face of Christianity is most inconvenient. These are the people who refuse to look away and keep their mouths shut.
A new script
Mercer and the younger generation of fervent Jesus followers pose a fascinating challenge to older-generation evangelical Christianity, too. This younger wave will not stick to the narrow old script — abortion, gays, the erosion of Christian prerogatives in the public square — that has governed publicly applied evangelicalism since the ’70s.
These modern-day abolitionists, along with growing ranks of faith-fueled activists in the fight against global poverty, disease and other forms of human degradation, might not see themselves as political. Even so, intentionally or not, they could end up changing the meaning of a political movement and idea — “pro life” — that has been at the center of one of the most rancorous political arguments of our time.
Not that religiously motivated people are the only ones waking up to present-day slavery in the world. But if you scan the landscape of anti-trafficking activists and advocates from this country, there’s a good chance you’ll spot Christians.
Mercer, who first got involved in uplifting the needy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is just getting started on his mission to serve the enslaved. Already in the fray are groups such as International Justice Mission, which has been fighting slavery and sexual exploitation in Asia, Africa and Latin America since the late ’90s.
Christian pop culture is doing its part to raise awareness, too. Justin Dillon, onetime front man for the popular Christian rock band Dime Store Prophets, has combined documentary film and edgy rock music in the passionate anti-trafficking movie he released last fall, Call + Response. Dillon’s film makes little mention of the Bible or Jesus — yet absolutely pulses with religious fervor.
Still in its relatively infancy, the anti-trafficking movement is up against a slavery behemoth that has become the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world (behind only drugs and arms dealings). Advocacy groups estimate that about 27 million people are enslaved today in brothels, sweat-shop factories and private homes. The U.S. Justice Department reports that of the 800,000 humans trafficked across international borders each year, some 17,500 are sold into slavery in the USA. They work, mostly, in prostitution and domestic labor.
The Asian sex industry abuses girls and women in especially repulsive ways. As witnessed by Mercer on his repeated trips to Southeast Asia, false promises of education and a ticket out of poverty lure desperately poor girls into traffickers’ hands. Forced into paid sex at ages as young as 5, the girls and young women are exposed to beatings, disease and psychological trauma that can ruin someone for life. Not that they’ll have much “life” to worry about. Given customers’ preference for young flesh, the prostitutes are used up and dumped on the street well before they’re 30. Disease and poverty often bring swift ends to these sad lives.
As he goes about his work to restore their humanity, Mercer draws his inspiration from the New Testament’s parable of the loaves and fishes, in which Jesus’ radical sharing miraculously turns a meager supply of two fish and five loaves of bread into provisions for the multitude of 5,000 who have assembled to hear him speak.
Such acts of caring by Mercer and other slavery-fighting Christians deserve notice for the obvious reason: What is not to admire about Jesus followers devoting themselves to some of the most abused, forgotten and least powerful people on the planet? Also intriguing, though, is what Mercer and his type portend for the pro-life movement, which has lacked credibility in some circles for its tendency to appear disturbingly uninterested in the myriad ways life is devastated and diminished outside the womb.
Asked whether he views his work in Indonesia as “pro-life,” Mercer ponders the question for a moment. “I haven’t thought of it in those terms,” he says, “but, yes, I would think so.” Not that he has abandoned the anti-abortion beliefs that are such a part of evangelical politics. “As I became more engaged in this work, I actually became even more sensitive to the issue of abortion,” says Mercer, who describes his politics as center-right. “I see it all as an issue of human rights.”
Also finding room on a more broadly defined “pro-life” movement are poverty, torture, immigration, health care, disease prevention and climate change. With that has come more talk of respecting the humanity of gay men and lesbians and new interest in cooperating with progressives and non-evangelicals (including the new president) on strategies to reduce the incidence of abortion.
As suggested by popular evangelical leader Rick Warren, progressives who support abortion rights would be mistaken if they interpreted all this as a sign that evangelicals are dropping the abortion issue. “They’re not leaving pro-life,” Warren told Beliefnet recently. “I’m just trying to expand the agenda.”
Apparently, the Christian right’s tireless championing of the pro-life ethic has gotten through just not in a way that might have been anticipated by the culture warriors of previous generations. But if this evolving meaning of “pro-life” is seen as a loss by older Christian right adherents, it certainly stands as a victory for the many faith-respecting Americans troubled by the shoehorning of Christianity into a narrow right-wing political agenda. As it does for the multitudes who are benefiting as more Christians fan out to feed the poor, care for the sick, steward the earth and open their hearts to outcast populations.
As it does for sex slaves such as Eka, who, thanks to a fired-up Christian, now has a better shot at life than she could have ever imagined.
Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His book on Christianity in professional sports will be published in the spring.