Why they approve of our stand against sex trafficking

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.

Light in our darkness

The local paper printed a commentary about the Hoosier native who was beheaded in Syria last week. It was a tribute to the man and his family. It ended with this thought:

But Abdul-Rahmin Peter Kassig and his parents, in a time of tragedy, reminded us of the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days – the humanity that links us all and the love that can sustain us in our darkest moments.

Reading that left me struggling for the proper response.

I got taken to task a bit on Twitter not long ago for getting into quibbles over words. The Rethink Church Twitter account had published a quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I asked a genuine question: Was Mead a Christian? (She was.) My question was born of concern that her quote is singularly mistaken about “the only thing” that has ever changed the world. Jesus Christ changed the world. God changed the world. The Holy Spirit changes the world. That word “only” struck me as theologically myopic.

The Rethink Church Twitter account suggested I was making too much out of one word.

So, here I am again. I read this nice tribute to a man who was butchered, and I can’t get past that word “only.” The story says, “the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days” are our common humanity and the love that sustains us.

Maybe the author of these lines would permit me to read “love” theologically. That would take some of the edge off my unease.

But I am not sure he means the word to refer to God.

And so I’m stuck wanting to argue with this pronouncement in a way that will come across as church-y and all the other things we are supposed to avoid in this post-modern moment. That the young man in question converted to Islam, rejecting the Christianity nurtured by his family in a United Methodist Church, makes what I want to say even less palatable in this day and age.

I want to say to the author of that piece that there is a source of light much brighter than the feeble glow of our shared humanity. We are not condemned to huddle around our TV screens baffled by the barbarism and darkness of the world. There is a light that is brighter than death. In the approaching season of Advent, we celebrate that light as the world engages in an orgy of man-made commercialism and excess.

But I don’t know how to say those words in a way that will be heard in a world that imagines we have nothing more than our humanity to warm the cold winter night.

Fitting Hays with a black hat?

I hope I am wrong about this, but I wanted to share some thoughts about the controversy at Duke Divinity School. The facts at the heart of the controversy are contested right now, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the events, so rather than attempt to summarize the matter here are a couple of news stories about it: 1, 2.

Some of my colleagues in the Methoblog and Twitterverse have reacted as if this is no big deal and will blow over. Richard Hays is a respected scholar. All he did was quote the doctrine of the United Methodist Church as dean of a United Methodist seminary. This is Duke, after all.

I hope so.

What I have seen among those who call themselves moderates and conservatives in the UMC in recent years, however, is a shocking lack of understanding how political and protest movements operate. One of the first goals of a successful protest is to have a clearly defined enemy. This is often a person, someone on whom the protest can focus attention and use as a symbol. Dean Hays has been nominated for that role. Whether he seems like a villain to many Duke alumni or the many pastors who read and admire his books is beside the point. He is being nominated to wear the black hat in a drama that will play out mostly before people who have no idea who Richard Hays is and have never read a word he has written.

Perhaps he will succeed in declining the invitation.

Another rule that I fear is not understood at the moment is that in politics the norms of academic debate and discussion have no authority. Dean Hays appears to be attempting to respond to the crisis as if it were merely an internal seminary concern. If he succeeds in keeping the controversy on that ground, then he will likely resolve the crisis with little long-term damage to himself or Duke. But already the engines of political action are in gear. People are spreading versions of events designed to provoke outrage. People are throwing around words like “abuse of power” and other people are repeating them. People are reading the letter Hays wrote and accusing him of attacking the woman who asked the question that led to the controversy: A white man with power using his power and privilege to attack and silence a dissenting female voice. The narrative builds this way.

One of the news stories linked above says Hays has invited key student leaders to sit down and talk about the issue. If the students — or others — demand a public spectacle in the place of personal conversation, you can rest assured that the demands of the protest are driving the agenda.

I hope I’m wrong.

I recall a story at another United Methodist seminary where a successful pastor was lambasted for sharing his honest efforts to honor his convictions about biblical morality and pastoral care. Interestingly, that story also involved the quotation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The school responded by apologizing.

Hays has not apologized. Indeed, he has been criticized (in a post Tweeted by the Reconciling Ministries Network) for seeking to clarify rather than apologize. I hope he and Duke are able to work on the issues internally, but I worry that such hopes are naive.

What people with Down syndrome are worth

It appears women will soon have a better test to determine if their unborn babies have Down syndrome.

This story about the new test speaks of the $6 billion market that the test will create as women who can “afford to be choosy” pay for the testing.

The story does not mention the likely outcome of those tests.

Jean Vanier, Stanley Hauerwas, and Amos Yong have taught me to see such stories in a different light than I might have at one time in my life. The popularity of such tests reveal to us that we live in a society that declares people with Down syndrome of no worth. We would, if we could, prevent them from being born.

How does the church witness to God’s love for all his creations in the face of a secular discourse that decrees it is more merciful to eliminate people rather than care for them?

Do not ignore sexual abuse in church

My father is a psychologist. He told me once that any church that has children in it and is not looking for signs of sexual abuse is asking from trouble.

I thought of this after I learned of Bob Jones University firing an investigator it had brought in to investigate sex abuse on its campus.

The story led me to this blog by Boz Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor who writes about sexual abuse in the church and investigates it. Here is the message he delivers at the end of one of his recent blog posts:

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this ruling has nothing to do with who is or who is not an “actual supervisor”. It has everything to do with the urgent need for the Church (Yes, I mean both Catholic and Protestant) to expend itself in placing the value and safety of children above all else, including institutional reputation.

If we fail to embrace this fundamental Gospel lesson, not only will there be more prosecutions (as there should be), but the beautiful lives of those made in the image of God will continue to be devastated and discarded. Jesus demands that we learn this lesson and begin living it out.

The United Methodist Church has formal policies and programs in place that are meant to protect children. Reading Tchividjian’s blog reminds me that these are not merely bureaucratic rules, but the living gospel.

Delmar’s baptism and Phil Robertson’s repentance

One of my favorite scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Delmar’s baptism:

Delmar comes up out of the water and declares his sins washed away to the point that neither God nor man has any claim on him any longer.

I thought of the scene while reading one of the less newsworthy parts of the GQ interview with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.

During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. Kay Robertson persuaded the bar owner not to press charges in exchange for most of the Robertsons’ life savings. (“A hefty price,” he notes in his memoir.) I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent—if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.

“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.”

As far as Phil is concerned, he was literally born again. Old Phil—the guy with the booze and the pills—died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.

Robertson may not follow in the church of Delmar, but it sounds quite similar to me.

And that got me thinking. Is this correct? Doesn’t repentance require an effort to make right the damage we have caused others?

For some folks that could be an impossible task, of course. We cause so many hurts and wounds that we cannot even count them all, much less repair each injury. But there is still something here that sounds wrong to me. Even if we hold to a strong reading of Paul’s words that we die to the old self and rise as a new self, it seems to me that repentance toward God does not mean we have truly repented of the harm we have caused other humans. It feels to me, rather, that using our baptism as a way to absolve ourselves of wrongs we have done to other people is trading on God’s grace in ways God did not intend.

This is a complicated, pastoral question that probably does not lend itself to absolute rules. But I wonder how others understand it. To what extent does repentance require seeking to undo or heal the damage we have done to other people?