Introducing our keynote: Yvonne Zimmerman

16 December 2019

By Dr Yvonne Zimmerman, Methodist Theological School of Ohio

Dr Yvonne Zimmerman, Methodist Theological School of Ohio and author of ‘Other dreams of freedom: religion, sex, and human trafficking‘ gives us a preview of her keynote at our conference on 24 January 2020 in Sheffield, UK.

I was a graduate student when the issue of modern slavery, also called human trafficking, began emerging in public consciousness as a major human rights issue. As trafficking became the newest, hottest human right issue, I also found myself gripped by the stories I was hearing of unfathomable exploitation and victims’ tenacious resistance and survival.

In the United States, human trafficking was framed specifically as a women’s issue, and then-newly elected U.S. president George W. Bush quickly focused his administration’s gender policy on this issue. Taking up human trafficking in this way was a strategic decision that bought the politically conservative president credibility from feminists who were concerned that, as an evangelical Christian, he didn’t take women’s issues seriously; as it did from evangelical Christians who also cared a great deal about human trafficking as an opportunity for compassionate Christian witness.

I was listening closely to President Bush’s trafficking. For one, I was one of those feminists who had concerns about the president’s gender politics. I also knew a thing or two about sexual violence. Before returning to graduate school, I worked at a rape crisis centre in a large U.S. city where I managed a 24-hour crisis hotline. For over a year, I listened to every single phone call the agency received. I heard some pretty gristly things and the centre handled some complicated cases; however, never once did we hear of a case that matched the scenarios that I was now learning about as human trafficking. Additionally, although I didn’t identify as an evangelical Christian, I was (and am) a Christian; and moreover, I was enrolled in a religious studies PhD program focusing on the roles of religion in social change.

As I listened to the rhetoric the Bush administration used to speak about human trafficking, I was struck by two things. First, whenever Bush and other administration officials spoke about human trafficking, their speeches used theological language and imagery. Second, the religious language administration officials used was particular. Its themes and terms were always Judeo-Christian. These things made me curious about the work that religion was doing in relation to this human rights issue. Some of my questions included:

When religion is invoked on the topic of human trafficking, why do these invocations tend to use Christian concepts and vocabulary?

Why do religious folks seem to care so much about sex-trafficking but not about labor trafficking?

Why is a conservative sexual politics so entrenched within anti-trafficking activism and advocacy, including among feminists (religious and secular alike)?

Starting as my doctoral dissertation, I wrote Other Dreams of Freedom because I wanted to understand the religious roots of the conception of freedom that undergirds the U.S.’s opposition to human trafficking. To this end, the book is primarily an analysis and critique of the Protestant Christian underpinning of the U.S.’s federal anti-trafficking law. Its aim is to clarify why it is problematic for a country that prizes itself on the separation of church and state to use religious morality as a basis for law and policy on an important human rights issue like human trafficking.

More recently, I’ve shifted my research focus from legislative critique to trying to answer some of the questions that readers of Other Dreams of Freedom have asked of me. Specifically, readers often want to know what kinds of responses to human trafficking I think are genuinely helpful; what kind of antitrafficking strategies, tactics, and organisations I endorse and think deserve people’s support. They’ve also asked whether I think there is any legitimate role for religion in opposition to human trafficking and modern slavery.

These questions have pushed me in several ways. One has been to articulate the worthwhile contributions that I think religion - religious people; religious organisations - can make to movements to end modern slavery and human trafficking. In this vein, I’ve been paying attention to the conditions under which religious and secular organisations are able to partner together in this work in ways that preserve the integrity of each, while prioritising the needs of people who experience exploitation. Another has been to pay attention to organisations whose work offers alternatives to the anti-trafficking tactics of criminalisation and rescue that dominate religious and faith-based responses to human trafficking in the U.S.

I am excited to be a part of the Rights, Dignity, and Religion conference, because this event will gather people from diverse contexts who are also thinking about the same issues and questions as I am, both in similar and different ways. I am eager to share what I’ve been learning and to learn from practitioners, scholars, and activists from outside my immediate U.S. context about their ideas and experiences of the ways that religion and faith can resist forces of exploitation and foster rights and dignity for everyone.