Pope Francis helps launch new #EndSlavery movement
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
We need “to avoid the temptation of transforming our faith into power,” said Pope Francis according to the Vatican Radio report of his April 20 homily. After Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, crowds sought him, the Pope noted, “not out of a sense of religious awe and adoration, but rather for their own material interests.”
Drawing a parallel, Francis spoke about how “when we take advantage of faith and are tempted towards power, we run the risk of failing to understand the true mission of Our Lord.”
Pope Francis pointed to the Gospels’ many examples of people who “follow Jesus out of their own interests.” Jesus’ closest disciples were not immune to the temptation. Francis humorously paraphrased the request for power of the sons of Zebedee, the disciples James and John, as them wanting the jobs of “prime minster and finance minister.”
The Good News is Jesus has come to free anyone who is being held captive as a prisoner. He has come to heal their afflictions. But even as Jesus gives “sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed, we are tempted to transform this message of healing into a tool of power and to take advantage of our encounter with Jesus.”
This homily of Pope Francis made me think of 8 Minutes, a new reality television program on the channel A&E. The show features a former police officer, now a pastor, who works to rescue victims of human trafficking. Posing as a customer, he invites a prostitute into a hotel room. In that room, he and his team try, within eight minutes, to talk her into leaving the clutches of the pimp trafficker who is waiting outside for her.
While it is heartening to see downtrodden victims pray to God for help and to choose freedom from bondage, there is something disturbing about the whole process being secretly filmed and then later served up for suspenseful entertainment on television.
How does such a program escape pandering to the prurient interests of its viewers? How does it avoid turning the liberation of victims into yet another form of exploitation, an unsettling spectacle of human misery packaged as drama for viewer satisfaction?
The famous media commentator Marshall McLuhan, a convert to Catholicism, foresaw the advent of reality TV decades before it happened. McLuhan predicted it would merely be the logical development of the technology of the medium.
The widespread taste for TV programs about crime and horror seems to indicate the darker side of human appetites. Such works of fiction, by portraying fictional characters, have at least one thin safeguard against exploitation built into them, namely, the distance between the characters portrayed and real life people.
But fictional programs can nonetheless still become assaults on human dignity. For this reason, ratings systems alert viewers to morally objectionable content. Ratings help parents make decisions about what children should or should not view.
Even adults have to recognize that, more often than not, morally objectionable content is not handled in an artistically responsible way. Instead, dark appetites are simply being fed. Content creators and providers are implicated in exploiting for profit the audience’s debased appetites.
Because reality TV about prostitution collapses the safeguard of fictional distance, it is hard to see how it too is not implicated in exploitation. Even a documentary film on the subject runs the risk of being an affront to human dignity. By its nature, as McLuhan recognized, the visual medium seeks to take viewers to people and places otherwise inaccessible.
Simply by presenting, to the senses of the viewer, what victims of sex trafficking “look like,” and allowing the viewer to “snoop” on victims’ lives, a documentary risks being exploitative entertainment.
How can even the best documentaries, given the sense-engaging medium, avoid evaluations like “boring” or “interesting,” in accordance with how much sensory “snooping” they offer?
Taking a different approach, Pope Francis has just helped launch the #EndSlavery social media movement and the Web site EndSlavery.va, which has predominantly textual information. This seems to best ensure the human dignity of victims.
While any Twitter hashtag campaign risks drawing only superficial levels of engagement, the Pope has wisely linked its efforts to the larger purpose of the Gospel. By living lives that concretely work to liberate the oppressed and enslaved, we can avoid “that attitude which Jesus calls hypocrisy,” as the Pope noted in his homily.
The risk is that we too could become exploiters: “We become Christians in name but in our hearts we act out of our own interests, weakening our faith, our mission and the Church itself.”
That’s why Pope Francis recommended we pray for “the grace not to fall for the spirit of this world which leads us to live like pagans beneath a veneer of Christianity.”
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College.
Read the address by Gwendoline Allison at the 2015 Red Mass reception: "We must end human trafficking"