Last week, I got an e-mail reminding me that the United Methodist Women want us to raise awareness about sex trafficking.*
I don’t know why, but it got me wondering about the way the non-Christian world reacts to the church when we engage in such issues. Specifically, I asked myself this question:
Why do non-Christians approve of Christian work to end sex trafficking but oppose Christian teaching against fornication?
Here is one thought about that.
Our society lives and breathes a political philosophy that rose to dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries. The most common name for this political philosophy is liberalism, which is unhelpful in America because it creates confusion. In America, a liberal is most often thought of as a member of the Democratic Party. In political philosophy, though, nearly everyone in both major US parties are modern liberals — people committed to individualism, equality before the law, and social and political freedom.
Modern liberals operate out of a theory of the state that says it exists primarily to prevent one person from inflicting harm on another. “Your right to swing your fist stops at the end of your neighbor’s nose.” As such, liberals find themselves in a hard spot when trying to argue for public policies that appear to be strictly in the self-interest of individuals. Motorcycle helmet laws and seat-belt laws, for instance, are often defended because of the “harm” inflicted on the society when the costs of medical care or death from preventable injuries is taken into account. Similarly, the arguments for smoking bans are often argued in terms of harm caused to others by second hand smoke or the cost to the medical system of treating lung cancer and related diseases. When people propose such policies as good for the people being required to wear helmets or cease smoking, the reflex in our society is to say people should be free to hurt themselves if they want. Even as tobacco smoking bans take wider and wider hold in our country, the legalization of marijuana marches forward precisely because opponents, as yet, cannot come up with an argument against the drug that can be made on the basis of the harm it causes other people.
So, when an argument against sex trafficking is made, it can appeal to liberals if it is put in terms of protecting victims from harm. What you cannot argue with them is that we need to prevent sex trafficking because the sex traffickers and purchasers of sex are sinning against God and imperiling their immortal souls.
And here is the difference. Christians believe that people around us can harm themselves by their choices and that it is a violation of our Christian love to ignore the harm they do to their own bodies and souls. We also reject fundamentally the idea that this is “our” life or “our” body that we can do with as we please. All we have and all we are is a gift from God that should be used only in keeping with God’s will.
These claims and beliefs run directly contrary to the spirit of modern political liberalism.
For my part, I think we can hold convictions that fornication is a sin against God while still living at peace in a society that does not agree with us. We can live under a liberal regime and still be Christians, just as we can live under feudal monarchy and still be Christians or under atheist totalitarianism and still be Christians.
What is important, though, is that we do not fall into the trap of confusing the reasons we take the social actions we take with the reasons that non-Christians take similar actions.
When we engage in Christian works of mercy, we may find ourselves working side-by-side with people who do not share our convictions. It is important that we remain clear in our own understanding about why we do the good works we do, and do not surrender the moral courage to include in our public witness the convictions that arise out of our belief that men and women are accountable before God and their sins bear a price that is beyond the reckoning of any human system of justice.
Christians oppose the evil of sex trafficking, but even so we pray for the repentance of the people committing these crimes and paying to have sex with trafficked women and men. We are grieve both by the evil that they do and the damnation that they call down upon themselves.
*The UMW would probably remind me here that the broader category of human trafficking is a much more widespread problem.