Photo by Andrew Nicodem / ITeams

When our definitions make people invisible

September 2, 2016
Katharine Knoodle
Katharine Knoodle

Many of us have a hard time accepting that everything isn’t black and white. While most of us admit things are complex, we still work hard to find or create a simple breakdown or explanation. We’re not really okay with mystery having the final say.

Our simplistic categories are challenged, however, when we look at the life and ministry of Jesus. We discover that the weak and poor are blessed, the first shall be last, and prostituted people and tax collectors make great dinner guests.

Even when our very passion is to invite such people over for dinner, our view of things can be overly simplistic as we fit people into our categories. We look for ways to make things black and white—until we look beneath the surface.

Lets look at the world of smuggling, trafficking and prostitution for some examples of this.

“People-smuggling” is one of the world’s fastest growing crimes. It is defined by the US government as a business transaction between two willing parties involving movement across borders, usually by illegal means. It occurs with the consent of a person(s), and the transaction usually ends upon arrival.

However, human trafficking is a violation of basic human rights which can occur across and within borders. “Human Trafficking” is defined as the illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.

And let's look at one more definition, “prostitution”—the practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.

So this is how the US Government defines these three separate topics. Human Smuggling and Trafficking are separate. In the latter case, one is forced and given no personal choice, whereas in the former, a person pays another to be taken to an agreed upon location. We see a similar distinction between those trafficked for the sex industry (they are forced) and those we see in prostitution who have agreed to the acts and price. The difference is choice. One group chose their plight and the other did not.

And that's how we like to see them. Separate. These different groups of people can provoke different responses from us ranging from compassion to indifference to judgment.

However, what if we look beneath the surface? Experience and statistics tell us something different. Our black and white distinctions can start to look very gray.

Consider those who have made clear choices that have led to their current plight. Something happened somewhere along the line for these individuals to see being smuggled or selling their body as a viable choice. The choice to pay someone to smuggle you or to sell your body for sex isn’t normally made in daily situations. Years of abuse, poverty, war, famine, or natural disasters can all lend a hand in making these choices seem like the best options available. Those who’ve put themselves in harm’s way have typically done so when fleeing their previous harmful state.

Interestingly, the same climates that make these “choices” seem viable are also breeding grounds for traffickers to move in and take advantage of their situations. Sometimes, those desperate for work answer an ad for work in another country. Those who paid to be smuggled in hopes of keeping their family safe from the terrors of war find that they were delivered into the hands of traffickers. Those who experience abuse and start stripping in clubs find themselves thrown into the back of a truck and abused if they don’t make enough money.

There are so many ways these three separate topics blur together. We have done such a good job defining these to distinguish between them that we now fail to see the links between them.

Many caught in the hardships of being smuggled or being prostituted say their plight chose them, not the other way around.

I have seen it happen many times. We discover a person in prostitution was trafficked—forced by someone else—and we wrap them in our arms. On the other hand, if we perceive a person’s prostitution as a choice, we shun them.

But if we shun them, we fail them. We fail to see their lack of perceived options. We fail to see the abuse they endure.

When we see the prostitute, we can fail to see that she was the child that was abused, ran away from home, and was introduced to prostitution at age 13. We fail to see the person so desperate for a better life that they are willing to pay all they have to dangerous smugglers just to have a shot at a better future. We see the illegal immigrant, the whore, the lawn service, house keepers, and felon.

When we see people through these labels and definitions, we miss the story beneath the surface—and we miss seeing the person.

If we keep trying to put people in our black and white categories we are likely to miss seeing them through Jesus’ eyes, and feeling what his heart feels for them. The Good Shepherd was not indifferent to or critical of the sheep that wandered off. He went on a rescue mission. And I believe if we see people like that, then we’ll also get to see some of the miracles he is working right before our eyes.