Archive for September 2011

I’m sitting here in the University of Toledo Student Union, taking in presentations at the 8th annual Conference on Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work.  The theme for this year is “collaboration,” which is great, because that is why I am here.  A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about human trafficking in our community, and in researching that blog I came across this conference.  As I said there, “The Bible is a story of redemption, liberation, and restoration” on personal, communal, and cosmic levels.  Although many of the statistics, images, and stories of human trafficking and prostitution can be heart-wrenching, I have been encouraged by passionate people from a variety of fields (professors, police, politicians, pastors, and lawyers to name a few) who are joining God’s Story of redemption, liberation, and restoration in this area whether knowingly or not.  The question I’ve found myself asking is, “Where does the Church and Point Place UCC fit into this web of collaboration?”  I have appreciated the way this conference has addressed the variety of dimensions that exist in the human trafficking epidemic.  One presenter decried the common image of prostitution that we see: the lone woman standing under a street lamp.  This image neglects the buyers, pimps, recruiters, media,  pop culture icons, cultural assumptions, etc. that contribute to the systems of human trafficking and prostitution.

I did address some of these various dimensions haphazardly in my last blog, but since I really enjoy lists, I thought I would try to more clearly point out the many dimensions of the human trafficking and prostitution system.  As you look at them, consider what ways the Church could get involved in any of these particular areas to bring redemption, liberation, and restoration.

1) The communities that produce sex slaves and prostitutes.  Everyone’s story is different, but there is no statistical doubt that prostitutes and sex slaves are more likely to be recruited from poorer countries, communities, and families.  The option of prostitution becomes more viable and even perceived as necessary in places where hope is weak.  Indirectly, serving and identifying with these vulnerable communities impacts the ability of traffickers and recruiters to deceive and coerce.

2) The sex slaves and prostitutes themselves.  Traffickers, recruiters, and pimps target “vulnerable” individuals who feel like there is no other source of hope, acceptance, or survival besides selling their bodies.  There is more than “individual choice” involved.  Instead of putting so much energy into criminalizing prostitution as most cultures have done historically, at this conference, prostitutes (adult or children) are usually referred to as “victims.”  This is not to say there is no choice or responsibility, but that there are lots of other factors that leave certain people vulnerable to manipulation, coercion, and deception.  This group may be the most visible, catchable, and punishable in the trafficking/prostitution system, but does that make them the most culpable?  Most (around 85%) have a past involving sexual abuse and/or abandonment, and many foreign nationals are unequipped to function in a different culture.  It is unjust to put the full weight of this evil system on one part of the system that may be least able to make a free choice.  As Christians, we have a message that every human life is valuable because we are “created in the image of God” and continue to be loved, called, and purposed by God.  How does the church seek to help the vulnerable become less vulnerable to traffickers and recruiters?  How do we help them value their bodies, sexuality, relationships, and lives as God values them?

3) The customers/buyers.  Fact is, prostitution would not remain a viable business for traffickers or prostitutes if there were no demand.  That’s how businesses work.  What creates this demand and do we have something better to offer sex purchasers (predominantly men)?  Men tend to feel guilt and shame when they engage in these activities.  Rightly so, I would say.  But the Gospel suggests that God’s grace and love are our only and ultimate sources of healing.  A number of the presentations have focused on “decreasing demand” in a variety of ways.  Again, the Church has something to say about what it means to be men, to be sexual beings, and to be relational beings.  We need to be unafraid to address these issues and the real struggles that men and women face in regards to sexuality that may lead to becoming purchasers of sex.

4) Cultural norms and messages.  Two of the most insightful presentations I have attended dealt with pornography and cultural messages on sex.  Why in the world would we be surprised that prostitution is rampant in a culture as “sexualized” as our own?  Pornography has become almost a rite of passage for boys, an accepted practice.  We obviously do not appreciate spiritual or physiological forces if we expect people to abruptly draw the line at porn.  As one presenter said, “Porn is advertising for prostitution.”  Sex outside of God’s design follows the path of other addictions: more and newer experiences are required to overcome growing tolerances and desires.

Some other cultural messages that came up that subtly support the trafficking industry might surprise you.  American individualism and meritocracy likes to think that everyone has complete control over every decision that is made.  This causes us to stigmatize prostitutes (the most visible poor-decision-makers) and ignore the many other factors behind the scenes.  This makes it all the more difficult for prostituted women to get out of the lifestyle.  The other side of individualism is the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” approach to healing.  Over and over, studies show the importance of social support, community, and counseling in addition to personal motivation.  Community has healing power that (most) individuals simply do not.  We also tend to assume that parents are always loving and caring people.  When we thoughtlessly assume and tell a child that their parents love them without knowing what really goes on in that household, children learn to be unquestioning of their parents and accept blame when something does not feel right.  One presenter was prostituted out by her father from infancy until age ten.  If we assume that all parents love their children, we may be reinforcing some of the twisted messages being sent these children at home.  The same holds true with other forms of child abuse.  All parents do not love their kids or love them well.  We must face this reality if we are really going to recognize vulnerable youth.

I could go on more about these cultural myths, like those about what it means to be a man or a woman that influence our twisted views of sex, love, our bodies, and ourselves.  But I won’t…for now.

5) Traffickers, recruiters, pimps, etc.  At the risk of promoting sex trafficking, I will quote one of this morning’s presenters: “If you are willing to do anything to get rich, getting involved in the sex industry makes sense.”  It is profitable!  As Paul once wrote, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  It is important to address the moral issues here, but it is certainly worth some effort to make trafficking, pimping, etc. a less viable business track.

6) Legislation and politics.  As Dr. Celia Williamson points out, trafficking tends to flow towards the location with the weakest laws and enforcement.  Toledo is blessed to have an FBI task force now.  But we must be advocating for stricter, more comprehensive legislation that seeks healing, not just enforcement of laws.  There was a presentation by a group from Portland about how they have joined forces between the office of the District Attorney, the police department, and a therapy/service provider for prostitutes seeking to transition out of that lifestyle.  Great stuff.  But do you know how it came about?  When the communities that were directly affected by prostitution got together and demanded something be done.  No politician is pro-sex-slavery.  They need to know their constituents care about these issues.  We need to care about these issues for the sake of redemption, restoration, and liberation, and not just to get “those people” off our streets.

7) Consumer trends.  Consumerism is a huge factor in trafficking.  The whole building block of the industry is the commodification of sex and the body.  This is a far deeper systemic issue that we all participate in.  In what ways is our adoption of consumerist perspectives and identities contributing to the commodification of sex?  These are questions that must be asked, and are questions that the Christian Story is more than prepared to speak to, if not answer.   God has a lot to say about our identities and personhood being rooted in very different categories than consumer/commodity.  One question that was raised at the conference, though, is whether we can own our place in the consumer system, and use it to fight against the business of the sex industry.  Failure to do so is another way that we avoid the hard work of opposing unjust systems and joining God’s work in liberation.  Doing so is transformative stewardship of what God has entrusted to us.

It’s amazing that a conference could almost move you to tears of despair and fill you with hope.  The despair comes from the havoc sin, violence, lies, greed, and despair are wreaking on so many lives.  The hope is in hearing about how awareness, collaboration, and passion are growing to join God’s healing work.  And it is God’s healing work.  Though this conference has been largely from a secular standpoint, I’ve almost laughed a few times when presenters have curiously wondered at the positive effects of religion they have seen on women who have exited prostitution, or heard arguments that echoed key components of biblical justice and sexuality.

Normally, I don’t advertise the fact that I’m a pastor for a variety of reasons.  Yesterday, however, I was convicted that I need to make my vocation known in the interactions I have with people here.  Because people need to hear that the Church cares about this issue and is mobilized and mobilizing to fight this battle for healing.  The Church has the Story, the calling, and many of the resources to make a difference in this brand of our world’s darkness.  There are plenty of “options” of where we can get involved and how.  We don’t have to do it all, but we are responsible to do what God has given us the gifts, opportunities, and callings to do.  So let’s seek to discern these things in prayer, in study, in conversation, and in collaboration with what God is already doing.  And let’s engage in prayer that rebels against the status quo of evil in the form of prostitution, lust and trafficking, that lifts the burden off of the shoulders of so many who are doing hard work in these areas but do not pray themselves, and that asks God to nurture our hearts to life-transforming, world-blessing passion, wisdom, and love.

“What is the Gospel?”

Before you get too far into this blog, I would encourage you to pull out a piece of paper or pull up a word processing screen and try to answer this question yourself.  It is the question at the heart of The King Jesus Gospel (KJG), by Dr. Scot McKnight, professor at Northpark University and author of numerous books and the widely read blog, Jesus Creed.

Now, if you have written/typed out your own Gospel summary (as Dr. McKnight urges in ch. 1), ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of my gospel is about Jesus and how much is about me (how I respond, benefit, etc.)?
  • Is the Old Testament irrelevant and unnecessary to my gospel?
  • Do I have trouble figuring out how a life of discipleship fits with my gospel?
  • How easily does my gospel fit into the message of the Gospels, Acts, Paul, and the creeds of the early church (Nicene, Apostle’s, etc.)?
  • Does my gospel have trouble fitting in biblical concepts like Israel, Messiah, Lord, Resurrection, or final judgment?
Largely speaking as an evangelical to evangelicals (see this definition footnoted in the book), Dr.  McKnight laments,
 ”I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.’  The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles…Our system is broken and our so-called gospel broke it.  We can’t keep trying to improve the mechanics of the system because they’re not the problem.  The problem is that the system is doing what it should do because it is energized by a badly shaped gospel.” (26)
And so, KJG is Dr. McKnight’s call and attempt to un-reshape our gospel so that it reflects the gospel of Jesus and the early church.  Recovering this gospel is critical to if we hope to dissolve many of the American Church’s sources of division and confusion or at least have a better framework to address those that are left.   What do I think?…
1) The King Jesus Gospel does get at the heart of the Church: our message and mission.  As an alum of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Campus Crusade for Christ as well as a near-lifetime member and now a pastor in the United Church of Christ along with having experiences in a variety of other American Christian contexts, I can agree that our gospel(s) are often “pale reflection[s] of the gospel of Jesus and the apostles” (24).

As Dr. McKnight points out, whether it is the “4 Spiritual Laws” or some form of liberation theology, our niche gospels tend to cause us to twist or ignore other parts of the Bible’s story.  Dr. McKnight warns us against binding the gospel to our methods of persuasion or a system of theological facts, confusing the gospel with the personal benefits the gospel might bring (ie. justification by faith/forgiveness of sins), and making the gospel more about me and how I respond than it is about Jesus.  Rather, he wants us to see the gospel of the New Testament as a story, namely “the Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s Story” (see diagram). Only when we understand Jesus as a part of the Bible’s Story can we understand him as a part of our individual stories.  Beyond that, KJG is a call to let the biblical gospel form our gospels instead of taking one particular way of communicating the gospel, one particular way of responding to the gospel, or one particular way of experiencing the gospel as the whole of the gospel itself.  Looking at the divisions and strange renditions of the gospel within the American Church, it is hard to ignore the need to examine the gospel at the heart (hopefully) of our church communities.

2) For all of Dr. McKnight’s passion for clarifying  ”gospel,” however, I wish he had been as careful with “salvation.”  He readily notes that he is using the term “salvation” only in the manner in which he sees it typically used in evangelical circles (eg. “I got saved at a revival meeting when I admitted my sins and accepted Jesus as my Savior”).  But even with this acknowledgement, KJG neglects the wonderful dimensions of “salvation” in the Bible’s Story.  I understand the difference Dr. McKnight highlights between Christian communities that overly focus on who is saved/in or unsaved/out and gospel cultures that embrace real discipleship (see diagram); I would just rather he did not dub the former “salvation cultures.”

By using “salvation” as shorthand for “a personal decision in which I admit my sin and receive Jesus as Savior,” now “salvation” is getting hijacked right along with “gospel.”  I would rather we recover the richness of “Salvation” in the Bible’s Story.  In fact, one might accurately say that the Story of the Bible is a Salvation Story–a bigger category than “gospel.”   Jesus’ name means, literally, “Yahweh Saves.”  Biblical salvation, I believe, has individual, communal, societal, ecological, and cosmic layers that are being mined and lived out within our church communities as we speak.  Perhaps Dr. McKnight might find a term with less biblical richness to describe communities focused solely on the personal/individual dimensions of the term.
3) A couple years ago, I downloaded an mp3 called “Scot McKnight on the Whole Gospel,” and as I listened, I thought, “This is good news!”  I believe Dr. McKnight has a great gift for gospeling (his term for evangelism or telling the gospel story), and that was a big part of my desire to read KJG.  Some of the themes I heard in that mp3 are drawn out in KJG as well, and they are some of my favorite moments in the book.  In many ways, the theme of the book is that the gospel is a story (Jesus’) within a story (the Bible/Israel’s) that only makes sense within that story and should be told as a story.  As Dr. McKnight writes,
“When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical” (62).
Are logic, propositions, rationality, and even abstractness bad things?  I don’t think so, and I don’t believe Dr. McKnight thinks so either.  Certainly, propositions can help our minds to understand truth and I would hope that rationality should play some role in what we choose to believe.  But, what happens when we trade the gospel story for gospel facts is that we are really preparing for a test be taken, not a life to be lived.  Dr. McKnight wants to invite us into a gospel life.  Any reader will benefit from having him take us back to the beginning of the Story and God’s purpose for humanity (to be his representatives: Eikons/Priests), so that we can then see why and how the Story of Jesus restores us to this purpose.  In other words, God did not create humans so that we would simply not be sinful.  He created us for something far more wonderful.  And while sin gets in the way and thus must be dealt with, that is not the end of what Jesus came to do.  This is the problem with a gospel that is a “Good-Friday-only gospel” (55) or a gospel that is restricted to “justification by faith alone.”  I would encourage anyone to read or listen to a little gospeling from Dr. McKnight!
4) As a corollary to the last point, I am grateful to Dr. McKnight for generally not falling into the black hole of false dichotomies that plague theological, psychological, political and lots of other “ical” debates in our culture.  ”This, not That” is not the tone of KJG.  Rather, we are asked to consider “That in the context of This rather than This in the context of That.”  In essence, he wants to let Paul, Jesus, and the apostles of Acts define the gospel for themselves before we compare them to each other.  And in so doing, Dr. McKnight convincingly argues that the whole New Testament, quite cohesively, proclaims the Story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Bible’s Story.  That, then, is the gospel.  And from that foundation, we are invited to draw out the implications the gospel has on our personal standing before God, society, ecology, and more.  This is a very specific gospel with magnificent implications.  And I think that Christians along the American Church spectrum would do well to consider taking this approach to the gospel rather than choosing one of the implications and calling it “the gospel.”
5) One question that arose for me in my reading of KJG was whether “The Story of Jesus has resolved Israel’s Story!” really glows as good news to the average person in our culture.  We must consider that most of the sermons in Acts were reinterpreting and applying the Story of Israel for Jews who pretty well knew that story.  Dr. McKnight is a gifted teller of the gospel story as I have already indicated.  What I would ask, though, is whether the gospel story isn’t more of “The Story of Jesus resolving the World’s Story.”  In fact, I might say that the New Testament (from Jesus to Peter to Paul) critiques Jews who failed to understand Israel’s Story in the context of the World’s Story.  This is really the Story I hear Dr. McKnight telling as he “sketches the gospel” in chapter 10.  As we understand how Israel fits into the World’s Story, then we can see how Jesus enters into and resolves both.  This, I believe, is the ultimate in Good News.
In his foreword, NT Wright describes “the revolution that Scot is proposing” as “massive” (12).  Yet, as helpful as I found this book for some of the reasons mentioned here and more, I’m not sure I agree that it is a “massive revolution.”  Since I “joined” the evangelical world about 9 years ago, I have heard many voices discussing a more robust and biblical understanding of the Gospel, decrying a “gospel of sin-management,” demanding that we develop a vision of God’s work that takes into account the whole Story.  And Dr. McKnight not only cites, but introduces us to many of these voices.  I don’t think KJG is revolutionary…and I think that’s a good thing.  We don’t need more people distinguishing themselves and their ideas from everyone else’s.  We need more people who are contributing to the community of God’s people by calling us into the real Story and helping us to live out the implications of that Story in creative, dynamic, and transformative ways.  Scot McKnight has been doing that for years, and it is this spirit that comes through in KJG.
Personally, I think evangelicalism is doing a pretty fair job of critiquing itself in this cultural moment, and KJG is a positive building block in that process.  I would like to see how KJG would be applied to the blind spots in Christian communities beyond evangelicalism.  How does this speak a prophetic word to a progressive Christian community like the United Church of Christ, or an emergent Christian community, or rural, suburban, and urban Christian communities?  I would appreciate Dr. McKnight’s perspectives in these different contexts.  For now, I look forward to taking The King Jesus Gospel as excellent groundwork to examine the gospel at the heart of the community in which I live and serve  as we seek to develop a culture that proclaims, lives, and reflects the gospel story of Jesus.
See excerpts, summaries, and even more from Scot McKnight on The King Jesus Gospel:
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I woke up late that morning, just a couple weeks into my college experience.  As usual, I logged onto my computer.  I typed “hello” to a high school friend on instant messenger.  ”Have you seen what happened?” she wrote back.  She wouldn’t even give me a hint of what she meant.  ”You need to find a tv.”  That meant I had to go to the lounge of the dorm next door.  As I set eyes on the 50-some-inch tv, I watched an airplane fly into an already-smoking World Trade Center.  It was probably about the 65th replay of that second collision.  And then I watched the towers fall, along with about 20 other speechless students.

Other than a university-wide convocation to pray, grieve, and process what was happening, classes were cancelled that day.  Baseball practice was not.  Of all the planes that flew over our baseball field on a daily basis, that day it was the single plane that flew over that caught our attention.  Knowing that pretty much all flights were cancelled that day, we speculated whether it was Air Force One (or a decoy?) seeking safety at Wright-Patt Air Force Base just a few miles down the road.   It was an odd day–almost too unexpected to be sad yet.  At least, that’s how I remember it.

I remember listening to President Bush’s speech to the nation that night and the signs of resolve and unity among many of our leaders.  I remember one of my professors the next morning holding up a newspaper page with a picture of people jumping out of the doomed building and trying to help us work through what had just happened.  I remember sitting in that same dorm lounge that Sunday, watching as NFL football players sprinted out of their tunnels waving American flags and tearfully bellowed out the Star-Spangled Banner.  I have to say, I was choked up as I am even now (surprisingly) as I type these words.  I remember joining my fellow students at a candlelight vigil the following year in Wittenberg’s “Hollow.”  I could remember the feelings of the previous year, but this time had more appreciation for how meaningful that day was.

Much could be said on the 10th anniversary of these attacks.  We could speak of the uncashed “promissory note” of trans-partisanship and unity we were (too hastily?) offered by politicians; or the ways 9/11 became a litmus test for patriotism, a political power-play, and a rallying cry for unfettered nationalism; or how we could have heated debates about our rights to “homeland security” without mention of the needs of people around the world who wake up in war zones every day.  These are conversations that we need to have because 9/11 and the ensuing ten years have shed lots of light on what goes on in the political, cultural, and personal fabric of the United States of America.

But today I want to simply focus on a window that opened up–just for a moment–on 9/11/01 to give us a glimpse of the Gospel.  What I think we glimpsed as President Bush spoke, as football players sang, and as rescue workers risked their lives… was hope.  Now, sometimes we use the word “hope” as nothing more than a wish.  ”I hope I win the lottery someday.”  But biblical hope, Gospel hope, and the glimpse of hope we saw on 9/11 was a conviction, a transformative belief, an inspiration, and a source of strength.  Jurgen Moltmann, a Christian scholar who has a whole book called Theology of Hope, writes, “From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity…is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.”  In the case of 9/11, the hope we saw was the conviction or premonition that not only would we get through this, but that we might even be better for it.

Deep, Gospel-like hope is experienced and bred in the most hopeless of moments.  As Paul writes, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all.”  Real hope happens in the moments that appear on the outside to be most hopeless.  It is easy to put our hope in shallow things: money, acceptance, living in a “nice neighborhood” or the U.S.A., our own abilities.  It is in the moments when all of our external reasons for security and success are taken away that we are drawn into a deeper, beyond-ourselves-and-our-things reason for hope.  I believe that for a moment on 9/11 and the following days, we were drawn out of the self-reliant, individualistic way of life that Americans are known for, into a disorientation and grief and fear that required us to search for something deeper and more secure to hold onto.  What many found on this search was a hope in one another and in an American vision that were stronger than self-hope.  And it cannot and should not be minimized that 9/11 drove many Americans into a God-hope.

The events of 9/11/01 gave Americans a glimpse into a kind of hope that isn’t relegated to the future, but that reaches back into the present to transform, renew, and strengthen.  Such is Gospel-hope.  Contrary to popular belief, parts of the Bible that offer us a vision for the future (think Revelation) are not just spiritual candy for the bye-and-bye.  They are the main course for followers of Jesus.  We see a God who can renew, restore, and redeem, a God who promises that one day all will be made right.  And as God speaks those words to our hearts through his Spirit, that hope reaches back into our lives, captivates our imaginations, and emboldens us to participate in renewal, restoration, and redemption now.

Of course, 9/11/01 was only a glimpse.  So much of the promise of that week and hope faded back into the norm of political fighting, self-reliant individualism, and fear.  A hope in each other and in our country may be stronger than hope in ourselves, but it is not Gospel-hope in its fullness.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gushes about his own joy, and urges his brothers and sisters in Christ to “Rejoice!”  He writes this letter from prison.  In writing about Paul’s letter, Karl Barth calls this command to rejoice even amidst trials a “defiant ‘Nevertheless!’”

A defiant “Nevertheless!”  I think that describes the response we saw on 9/11/01.  And I believe this is the hope the Gospel offers to Jesus’ followers always.  Evil and sin wreak havoc on this world, on people we love, and even on our own lives.  Suffering and death move us to grief, lament, and confusion.  But then we see Jesus, our Hope.  We listen to the Story of our sins being nailed to the cross and removed from us as far as the east is from the west.  We listen to the Story of Resurrection: the defeat of death, suffering, and evil.  We shout a defiant, “Nevertheless!”  And we walk forward into the world, fueled by hope that will never disappoint, to tell the Story of God’s unfailing love.

PS. Those who sacrificed themselves to ground United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania were mistakenly omitted from this post, but are one of 9/11/01′s most profound examples of the hope I am trying to describe.

Other reflections:

http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/expect-calamity-believe-in-hope/ (coincidentally, in almost the exact life moment that I was as a college freshman)

http://www.patheos.com/community/bibleandculture/2011/09/11/9-11-01-ten-years-after/

http://www.ucc.org/news/pastoral-letter-from-gmp.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+UnitedChurchOfChrist+%28United+Church+of+Christ%29

http://www.ucc.org/news/ucc-national-staff-sends.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A%20UnitedChurchOfChrist%20%28United%20Church%20of%20Christ%29http://associatedluke.blogspot.com/2011/09/10-years-later.html

http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Discovering-the-Language-of-Lament-Makoto-Fujimura-09-07-2011?offset=0&max=1

http://www.outofur.com/archives/2011/09/skye_jethani_be.html

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/09/09/praying-on-911/ (I used most of this litany during our 9/11/11 worship service)

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/09/08/new-yorks-post-911-church-boom/

http://corinthpastorbob.com/2011/09/love-and-truth/

(Much of the statistical information in this blog is being taken from this report by Ohio’s Trafficking in Persons Study Commission [OTPSC])

Do you ever know that you’ve read something, but can’t seem to find exactly where it was?  I’m having that moment today.  I think it was Wendell Berry, though I’m sure others have said it.  But I’ll just go ahead and put it into my own words:

“A crime is not just an individual act.  It is a symptom of a society.”

Sex trafficking has been gaining notoriety in many Christian circles in recent years.  Still, I was mildly surprised when I moved to Toledo and found out that we are one of the leading cities in the nation in both sex trafficking activity and enforcement of sex trafficking laws.  The OTPSC Report delves into a number of factors that contribute to the “success” of the sex trafficking industry, which may have more or less weight depending on the region.  For instance:

  • Insufficient legislation and law enforcement, which make the “rewards” of trafficking worth the risks for those involved.
  • Intricate and shrewd organization among certain trafficking bands.
  • Prevalence of “unattached” workers (ie. truckers, seasonal workers, military, etc.)
  • Factors such as poverty, history of physical/sexual abuse, mental illness, substance abuse, societal attitudes towards youth and sex, and connections to unhealthy influences that combine to put youth at high risk of becoming involved in sex trafficking or prostitution.
Hopefully, you can see how many of these factors can coalesce to produce an environment where sex trafficking becomes a lucrative business for traffickers, an enticing option for “customers,” and a viable livelihood for victims.  I would like to build on some of these insights to ask some questions about the Church in a society (local and global) where sex trafficking is a reality.
Why should we care about sex trafficking?
For many, it is obvious that we should care about this problem.  But why?  The Bible is a Story of redemption, liberation, and restoration.  Redemption: victims and perpetrators in the sex trafficking industry are human beings created in God’s image, whom God loves, and who can be transformed by the grace and power of God.  As Christians, I hope we yearn for the Story of Redemption to be told in people’s lives: broken, abused, and sinful people who become beautiful masterpieces of God’s grace, loved and loving members of God’s family.  This is the hope to which we have been called.  Liberation: from God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt to Jesus delivering his sisters and brothers from sin and death to the whole creation being liberated from bondage and decay, God’s Story is a story of liberation of various kinds.  Restoration: far from our typical usage of the word “peace,” the biblical concept of “shalom” is a word for wholeness where people and societies are restored to the people and communities that God created them to be.  This story towards shalom begins by restoring the heart, moves outward into reconciling relationships, and even further to transforming communities and social structures.  So Christians are called to shed small gospels (ie. saving souls or seeking justice) to a full ministry of reconciliation that seeks God’s will to be ever-increasingly done on earth as it is in heaven.  This vision is both more personal than forming a good society and more cosmic than bringing offenders to justice.  It is truly a God-shaped vision.
What is underneath the surface of the sex trafficking industry?
The OTPSC has done a great job shining a light on the complexity of sex trafficking.  And if we are concerned with redemption, liberation, and restoration, we need to seek a multi-fronted approach that engages this evil on multiple levels.  Some thoughts:
  • Sex trafficking is inseparable from poverty and wealth issues.  The most prominent “supplier” regions tend to be more impoverished regions.  Anecdotally, I’ve heard of parents in the poorest-of-the-poor parts of the developing world, whose utter inability to even feed their kids has led them to entrust these kids to recruiters promising jobs and prosperity in another city.  These parents may be skeptical of these recruiters, but even such a slim hope for their kids is better than the hopelessness of abject poverty.  Prostitution has long (always?) been a result of poverty and hopelessness.  And while it may be easy to look down on women and men who turn to prostitution, such contempt is merely avoidance of the deeper issues that would move someone to “choose” such a career.  Among the top consumers of sex trafficking?  Germany, the U.S.,  France, Belgium, and Italy.
  • It’s easy to focus on the supply side of this business.  We need to create and enforce laws that adequately punish those who profit from trafficking.  But it is more difficult to address the demand side.  The sex trafficking industry benefits from a culture that increasingly rips sexuality from intimacy, relationship, and even community.  There is not room for this discussion here, but sex trafficking is an evil intimately connected to pornography, adultery, sexual addiction, and a culture of isolation.  The list could go on, but the point is that this is just one of the ways we futilely seek fulfillment apart from God.  We may determine that forced prostitution crosses the line of social and legal acceptability, but as spiritual beings, we don’t have the luxury of deciding where the momentum of sin should stop.  In other words, I believe it is spiritually and practically foolish to imagine that we are called to seek transformation on the social level while neglecting transformation on the heart level.
How do we go about pursuing this God-shaped vision for redemption, liberation, and restoration?
A few suggestions:
  • We need to reclaim the whole Gospel.  The American Church in particular has too long debated social gospel vs. personal gospel, social holiness vs. personal holiness, seeking justice vs. saving souls.  God is interested in the whole person, the whole society, the whole world.  God is interested in redemption, liberation, and restoration on every level.
  • We need to be the Body of Christ.  Looking at the complexities of this issue can feel debilitating.  We feel, “I can’t do all that!” and end up doing nothing.  Or, we decide that one of the battle fronts is primary and get frustrated with people who are fighting on one of the other battle fronts.  We need to rejoice when people are using their gifts and following their passions to seek shalom on any of the fronts of this war, including people who don’t address the spiritual aspects of this issue.  For instance, one congregation may be active in seeking firmer laws and better enforcement while another congregation focuses on helping victims of trafficking start living full lives in God’s grace.   These are both necessary ministries that we can encourage and celebrate together, even encourage members of our community to serve with the other if that is where their gifts and passions lead them.
  • This collaboration, I think, means that churches don’t just talk about “our ministry,” but get involved with other congregations and organizations to find out how they can fit into the big picture of God redeeming, liberating, and restoring in our neighborhood and in other parts of the world.
  • We need to talk openly about the issues of sex trafficking itself and the issues that are tied into it.  Too often, we avoid conversations about economic justice because we’re afraid to step on each others’ political toes.  But for churches of any political leaning, it really gets uncomfortable when we talk about sexual addiction, pornography, and the seeds of lust that blossom into adultery, paying for sex, and pedophilia.  All of these conversations need to be filled with God’s grace, void of condemnation, and nuanced with insight into biological, social, and personal factors that go into unhealthy expressions of our sexuality.
  • Our talk must be on the downhill slope to action.  ”For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but power.”  In our information age, we are conditioned to receive loads of information that we could not possibly act upon.  Awareness is one step, participation in God’s redemptive work is another.  This may not be the ministry everyone is called to, but it is one many of us certainly have the opportunity and calling to engage.  And we must talk with this in mind.
So, what would you like to add to the conversation?  What ministries or organizations have you joined with or heard about that are working against the different causes of sex trafficking?  What are some steps you could see a small church take to have an impact locally or globally?
There is a conference on human trafficking at the Univ. of Toledo on Sept. 29-30.  Let me know if you’re interested in going…or don’t let me know, but at least consider it: http://www.prostitutionconference.com/