The Vineyard Church and Human Trafficking: Reflections on Charismatic-Evangelical Political Engagement

The Vineyard Church, a young Christian denomination at the forefront of the “third wave” of charismatic renewal which swept through American evangelical churches in the early 1970s, has become the tradition with which I am most at home. This reflection will explore the Vineyard Church’s political engagement with human trafficking. In addition, I will personally reflect on the nature of this engagement, and will offer a brief comparative look at the Anglican Church’s political engagement with human trafficking.

Three of the Vineyard Church’s five core values reveal their expectation for socio-political transformation as a result of their discipleship. These values – the theology and practice of the kingdom of God, reconciling community, and compassionate ministry – compel Vineyard churches to be engaged with socio-political processes (Vineyard USA, n.d.-c). The Vineyard’s primary expression of this engagement is the Vineyard Justice Network (VJN), which trains “the people in our churches to think and respond strategically to the interconnectivity of human trafficking, poverty, and the environment” (Vineyard Justice Network, n.d.-b). Since VJN began as the Vineyard Anti-Slavery Team, “freeing slaves” from human trafficking is one of its main concerns.

VJN encourages Vineyard churches to pray for victims and survivors of human trafficking, identify and support those at risk of being trafficked in their communities, and care for survivors. Specifically, VJN “lifts up prevention work as the key way Vineyard churches can fight modern-day slavery” (VJN, n.d.-a). To this end, they provide an impressive array of online resources to individuals, which empower them to engage in hands-on ministry with organizations working in their communities (Vineyard USA, n.d.-b).  These “action steps” include organizing “Stop Modern Slavery” among community and church members, as well as advocating for change by calling or writing elected officials (Vineyard USA, n.d.-b). In addition to these individual resources, prayer guides, Bible studies, educational toolkits for awareness building, and information articles are provided for Vineyard church groups (Vineyard USA, n.d.-a). While the VJN does not organize any direct socio-political action related to human trafficking, it hopes to inform a grassroots movement within Vineyard churches which can engage local communities, as well as local, state, and national governments, in order to prevent the spread of human trafficking and care for survivors.

This kind of de-politicized, grassroots approach to the engagement of human trafficking locates the Vineyard Church within the evangelical tradition of church and state relations. As Shah (2009) highlights, “evangelicals believe that… change comes not through top-down, state-centered legal and policy schemes but through the bottom-up transformation and mobilization of individuals” (p. 137). The state’s primary task for evangelicals is “to defend the innocent and vulnerable,” which aligns well with the Vineyard’s emphasis on supporting, empowering, and caring for survivors and those at risk of human trafficking (Shah, 2009, p. 137). In addition, the Vineyard’s charismatic roots also influence its socio-political engagement. As Swindle (2009) explains, the Pentecostal church once emphasized a holistic, communal understanding of holiness that was “dissatisfied with surrounding injustices and committed to an alternative vision of the world and society” (p. 154). This Pentecostal vision of holiness as “new creation” inspires and animates the Vineyard’s theology and practice of the Kingdom of God, which compels them to be engaged with their communities in very practical, hands-on ways.

I deeply appreciate how the Vineyard’s unique blend of charismatic evangelicalism leads to a person-centered approach to issues such as human trafficking. For Vineyard churches, the reality of human trafficking is not an abstract issue; it is people with faces and stories. This personal approach is oriented towards the development of mutual relationships of love, solidarity, and compassion, which are the necessary starting point of any truly Christian socio-political engagement. However, they cannot be the destination. The love shared between a Vineyard church and survivors of human trafficking must become the driving force behind a larger, broader campaign for justice in which human traffickers are stopped and the risk factors for human trafficking victims are mitigated. With their deep distrust of government, evangelical churches are typically hesitant to move beyond one-on-one relationships into the realm of public policy change. As the Vineyard grows in its response to human trafficking, I pray it will not make this mistake.

To do so, Vineyard churches would be wise to look to the example of their Anglican brothers and sisters. As Anderson (2009) notes, the Anglican tradition “acknowledges [the state] as a partner worthy of cooperation” (p. 110). The Anglican tradition expects the church to be politically active (Anderson, 2009, p. 104). This Anglican approach comes to light when comparing the Episcopal Church of the USA’s advocacy website on human trafficking with that of VJN. While the Episcopal Church offers many of the same kinds of resources to empower individuals, groups, and local churches to respond, it also reports how Episcopal advocates supported the passage of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which became US law in 2015 (The Episcopal Church, n.d.). Going even further, the Anglican Communion has joined forces with an international coalition of interfaith leaders in order to secure commitments to stopping human trafficking around the globe (The Archbishop of Canterbury, 2014). These national and international efforts reveal the scope that is required for the Vineyard’s socio-political engagement to seek faithfully the justice of God’s kingdom.

Bibliography

Anderson, Leah Seppanen (2009). The Anglican Tradition: Building the State, Critiquing the State. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.), Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (93-114). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Archbishop of Canterbury. (2014). Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis back Anglican-Catholic anti-slavery and human trafficking initiative. Retrieved from http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5262/archbishop-justin-and-pope-francis-back-anglican-catholic-anti-slavery-and-human-trafficking-initiat.

Episcopal Church, The. (n.d.). Human Trafficking Resources. Retrieved from http://advocacy.episcopalchurch.org/humantrafficking.

Shah, Timothy Samuel (2009). For the Sake of Conscience: Some Evangelical Views of the State. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.) , Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (115-144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swindle, Stephen M. (2009). Pentecostalism: Holy Spirit Empowerment and Politics. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.) , Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (145-164). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vineyard Justice Network. (n.d.-a). Freeing Slaves. Retrieved from http://vineyardjusticenetwork.org/freeing-slaves/.

Vineyard Justice Network. (n.d.-b). Who is VJN? Retrieved from http://vineyardjusticenetwork.org/who-is-vjn/.

Vineyard USA. (n.d.-a). Action Steps for Groups. Retrieved from http://www.vineyardusa.org/site/content/action-steps-groups.

Vineyard USA. (n.d.-b). Action Steps for Individuals. Retrieved from http://www.vineyardusa.org/site/content/action-steps-individuals.

Vineyard USA. (n.d.-c). Core Values and Beliefs. Retrieved from http://www.vineyardresources.com/CoreValuesAndBeliefs.pdf.

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The Tension of Advocacy

The work of advocacy is fraught with tensions; concerns are voiced, issues are debated, and tough decisions must be made. “Tension” is the word that best describes my own feelings towards advocacy. On the one hand, I know that the political transformation Christian advocates seek is necessary for the more just, shalom oriented world that God is bringing to life. On the other hand, the primary means by which I see advocacy practiced in popular American culture hardly seem to align with this end. The kind of advocacy with which I am most familiar is practiced online using clicks, “likes,” “shares,” and emails – all of which can be done from the comfort and security of one’s home with little to no personal cost or investment. Cheap advocacy abounds and justice is never cheap. Any Christian sense of justice is ordered by love; particularly the self-emptying love of Christ who comes close to the pain and suffering of injustice in order to bear it with us. While I know there must be those who practice a very costly form of advocacy, I have yet to hear their stories. I hope this class will present an opportunity for me to discover, explore and develop a more robust, risky, and compassionate practice of advocacy that is aligned with the justice-love of God’s coming reign.

This cheap-costly advocacy tension I feel relates to the tension between doing and being. Too often, it seems advocacy only calls us to do certain actions – petitions, protests, speeches, and more – without calling us to be anything in particular. I do not mean to say that all “doing” of advocacy is cheap because too many people who have protested, marched, and made their voices heard have paid for these actions with their lives. Still, most practice of advocacy is not life threatening and can be performed regardless of who you are – your being. However, any Christian sense of advocacy must call us to be a certain kind of advocate who has a personal stake in the matter being advocated. A book I read a few years ago by an environmental activist and advocate opened my eyes to this tension. One day while rallying against a coal power plant, she wondered how she and all the other protestors would survive if the rally were actually successful. Could she live her life without coal power? This question was the catalyst to a major life-change in which she and her family moved to a farm and began living the change she was formerly advocating. Instead of just doing advocacy, she became an advocate by re-orienting her way of life towards a future without coal power. Her doing of advocacy was inseparable from her being an advocate. This kind of advocacy, which is costly, full of integrity, and oriented towards a new future, is what I hope to learn more about.

I sense these tensions in the Bible as well. When I think of advocacy, I immediately think of Moses, the original prophet, speaking God’s truth to the world’s power. He boldly proclaimed the God-given freedom of the enslaved Israelite people to pharaoh, and God eventually set the people free from their slavery. But were they actually free? They were freed from slavery, but not even forty years of wandering in the wilderness and centuries of other fiery prophets could secure Israel’s freedom for God’s justice and righteousness. The doing of advocacy was successful, but the being which that advocacy was seeking was never truly embodied.

Jesus shows us this tension very clearly as he stands accused before Pilate. The gospel of John records a dramatic dialogue between Jesus and Pilate just before Jesus is crucified. When asked by Pilate if he was a king, Jesus says that he is, but then states that his kingdom is not of this world. “If it were,” Jesus said, “my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders” (John 18:36, New International Version). Jesus had certain political means available to him, but he refused to use them because doing those things did not align with the kind of person he is and the kind of people he was trying to shape. The work of advocacy is inherently political and several means are available for achieving political goals. For Christian advocates, the witness of Jesus asks us to align our advocacy efforts with the reign of God and, remembering Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8, to become a people whose being is a witness to the world God is bringing to life.

I did not feel that either the Monsma or the Beckmann texts adequately addressed these tensions. While Monsma did successfully highlight and discuss in-depth the tensions inherent to several very relevant political issues, the premise of the book seemed to be that a sufficient amount of thought, intellect, and reason is all that’s needed to be an advocate for God’s kingdom. All the topics Monsma discussed, especially on creation, justice, and solidarity, and all the questions he raised are necessary and good, but advocacy must be more than an intellectual exercise. The Beckmann text was very inspiring and hopeful. Being an Alabama native and resident, I was touched by the story of the women from Birmingham who advocated on behalf of the jubilee debt cancellation campaign in the late 1990s. However, Beckmann failed to offer the vision for a new way of being – a way of life within a community in which everyone has enough to eat. The strategies he offered for doing advocacy on behalf of the hungry were useful, but strategies are not enough.

Even with these tensions, I recognize that advocacy is essential to my work with Alabama Rural Ministry. Our vision is to end substandard housing in rural Alabama. However, we currently operate in only 3 of Alabama’s 66 counties. If we are serious about our vision, we must be ready to advocate on local, state, and national levels for the kinds of structural changes that could benefit all of Alabama’s rural residents, especially those beyond our reach. Unfortunately, our organization has struggled to devote the time and resources necessary for effective advocacy. However, we do belong to a statewide advocacy organization called Alabama Arise, which speaks up on behalf of low-income families across the state.