My ten-year-old daughter is playing on a game that involves dressing pop stars. I ask her: “Why are they are so thin? Why do they have such big boobs? Can’t you play a better game?”
Tears roll down my eight year old son’s face, his fists balled as he wails about what has upset him this time. I hold him tight and whisper that it will be okay, feeling deeply the brevity of this time, when his emotions are free and he can be everything of himself, before the world tells him to “man up”.
At Ikea, I watch as a man shouts at his wife. I ask the shop assistant if he has called the police. He stares at me dumbly, “but they’re husband and wife,” as if somehow abuse is nullified if a couple have said “I do”. I watch as the man slaps his wife across the face, and as the police I called arrest him and as his wife pleads that this is the first time.
I watch the teenagers layering on foundation in the shopping centre bathroom. They talk about the boys they’re trying to impress, their young beautiful faces hidden beneath a veneer of the world’s lies.
I arrive at the restaurant with my family. We are greeted at the bar by Britain’s most popular newspaper, I know if I turn the page I will be greeted by a nearly naked woman. I move the newspaper out of sight, quickly it is picked up and read by another woman, as she speaks to her small son.
Around the world, all day, every night, there are women, children and men being raped, degraded, forced into servitude. As I go about my work, take my kids to school, go to church, laugh with my friends; women, children, men are being raped, degraded, forced into domestic and industrial slavery.
These stories, some everyday occurrences in our lives, some less so, are like a children’s dot-to-dot puzzle. The numbers aren’t easy to spot, and once the dots are connected, the picture doesn’t look like a cuddly bear with an umbrella, or a cowboy riding a pony. For those who aren’t a fan of dot-to-dot pictures; these stories, and many others are part of a poisoned tree, each story, each violation, each experience of being squashed and expected to fit societal expectations is a branch, or a twig, or a leaf. As we stand back and look at this poisoned tree, gnarled, enormous and weeping poisonous liquid we join the dots in the hideous picture of evil.
Often we see only a tiny part of the puzzle. Some of us feel called to become a tree surgeon and take an axe to one of the branches, or one of the twigs, or to start pulling off the rotten, stinking leaves; to see one of these issues addressed and yet, the tree still stands. If we are to see this ended, we need to move beyond our individual calls and begin working together on uprooting the whole poisonous tree.
The horror of trafficking and slavery often seems too awful to engage with or like a ‘noble project’ to offer ourselves to. It can feel so distant from the everyday reality of our lives that it is either something we can ignore, or something that we can help with, confident no one we know, or live with is at risk of being hurt. Believing that the ones we are helping are ‘perfect victims’ who never had a choice, unlike the woman who ‘chooses’ to stay with an abuser, or the woman or man who ‘chooses’ to be a prostitute, or the woman who earns a lot of money by taking her clothes of.
However, the reality is that whether there is a brothel on our street, or if the clothes we buy are from shops who use sweatshop workers, we are all complicit in this tree of oppression, this dot-to-dot picture of horror, and we are all profoundly damaged because whether we realise it or not, we are living in the tree, sitting in the pages of the dots and hard to see numbers.
The pain of seeing this can lead us down a path of despair; I regularly end up weeping on gym equipment and feeling totally consumed by the fear things will never change. Yet, I choose to say that God is good, even when everything around us seems to be contrary to that, and as I cry on the cross trainer, I declare God’s will be done, even though nothing in the world seems to be changing, and women, children and men are still raped, degraded and forced into domestic and industrial servitude.
For each of us, we need to navigate what it means for God’s will to be done with us; what do we give our lives to? How do we spend our money? If we have children, how do we raise them? Do not doubt that each and every day we will meet women, children and men impacted to a greater or lesser extent by living within this tainted system. We have the same light and life within us that raised Jesus from the dead and so we have something to bring each of them, and something to enable us to make it through.