Fighting the new slavery

I first noticed the new slavery on the outskirts of Rome. There, along the back roads of the periferia, you could see today’s slaves: African women, mostly, with a scattering of eastern Europeans, standing along the roadside or hanging out near construction sites. Nearby, usually sitting in a car, was the overseer — or, to get down to cases, the pimp. But whether you call them “prostitutes” or use the Orwellian euphemism, “sex workers,” these women are victims of the 21st century’s version of the slave-trade: trafficking in persons.

It’s a tawdry, multi-billion dollar industry, this human trafficking, and it involves a Dickensian catalogue of horrors from kidnapping and bribery to AIDS and torture and murder. The man appointed to combat it on behalf of the U.S. government is an old friend, Ambassador John Miller. John has done a lot in his life: he’s been a successful lawyer and investor; he served on the Seattle City Council and was elected four times to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was even a baseball writer for the Seattle Weekly in the summer of 1982, when he shared a byline with…me. But over forty years of an active public life, John Miller has never found anything that so roused his passion as his present job: director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

The office was something of a bureaucratic backwater when Miller took over three years ago. No more. Now the office’s annual report, mandated by the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, names names, and in ways that illustrate the magnitude of the problem. Take, for example, the June 2005 entry on Nigeria:

“Nigeria is a source, transit, and destination country for trafficked women and children. Nigerians are trafficked to Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of Africa for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labor, and involuntary domestic servitude. Nigerian girls and women are trafficked for sexual exploitation to Europe — particularly Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands — and other African countries. Children from Nigeria’s southern and eastern states are trafficked to Nigerian cities and other West Africa countries for exploitation as domestic servants, street hawkers, and forced laborers. Children from Togo and Benin are trafficked to Nigeria for forced labor.

“The Government of Nigeria does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so…Although the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons began investigating a number of law enforcement officials suspected of trafficking complicity over the last year, no prosecutions were initiated…”

To his astonishment (and anger) Miller has found that many government officials around the world — and not only in the Third World — can’t be bothered with combating trafficking: either because their laws permit prostitution, or because the victims are essentially voiceless, or because they’ve been cut into the profits. Miller has also had serious difficulties with the U.N., whose “peacekeepers” have been guilty of sex abuse crimes against refugees, including minors, in the Congo. Yet John Miller refuses to accept the cynical view that this shameful exploitation of human beings is so woven into the fabric of various societies that it can never be eradicated: “I once looked into the face of a girl who was rescued. Do I tell her that her other life wasn’t bad?”

Miller has seen things he once wouldn’t have believed possible; as he explained to the Seattle Times, “girls and boys are in demand in India because brothel owners want disease-free workers (sic) for their clients.” And he’s had fights with people who ought to know better, including American foundation executives who can’t understand that making money available to “sex-worker associations” for AIDS-prevention programs strengthens the hands of pimps and madams who prey on children. Ideologues have even accused Miller (who’s Jewish) of being a front for a Bush administration attempt to “impose” a “Christian agenda” on the world.

John Miller, however, thinks he’s working on the great human rights issue of our time. He’s right. The nation, and a lot of suffering people, are in his debt.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.