Sunday, December 22, 2013

World's Oldest Profession and you

Colombian orchid photos courtesy Agnes Epp

Canada's prostitution laws have been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada. The Canadian government has one year in which to come up with something better. Read all about it here.

The outcries are coming from many directions, of course, as they generally do when “moral matters” and state law rub shoulders. In a sense, all laws are based on somebody's definition of what is moral and what is not, but when it comes to enacting a good law that satisfies the sensitivities of a multi-faith, multicultural citizenry, answers don't come easily. Take gay marriage, prayer in schools, family planning, war on drugs, gun control and now, prostitution, and you have an encyclopedia of passionate controversy.

Prostitution makes an interesting case study in and of itself and as a platform for thinking through religion/state separation and cooperation.

On its face, sexual prostitution responds to a basic biological need, namely the drive to extract pleasure from sexual behaviour with another person. The exchange of sexual favours for cash has been a feature of every age since the invention of money and writing, and likely before that. In a way, one could apply the innocuous,  simplistic, “you have a need, I have the means; let's make a deal,” description. Viewed in this way, sexual prostitution is not radically different from general commerce: for instance, people exhibit a need to witness violence, so fighters beat each other to bloody pulps in the ring, observers experience an “orgasm” of vicarious pleasure and the fighters are paid.

But the professional hockey player, the owner of theme parks, the movie actor and opera singer don't wear the patina of sexual taboo that sex workers do, the ones who are seen as “hard prostitutes.” It's surely for this reason that organized crime and pimps are attracted to the benefits of controlling sexual prostitution exchanges. When have we seen criminals kidnapping budding hockey players, transporting them overseas and selling them to the highest bidder among foreign hockey teams? How prevalent is the incidence of opera singers being forced to pay a portion of their salary for “protection?” That which is forbidden in law often becomes a commodity in the criminal marketplace; drug trade, tobacco smuggling, gun running, rum running are phenomena comparable to sexual prostitution in this light. 

As a Christian (albeit one who has been described as being notoriously liberal on social issues at times) I see prostitution as a very sad symptom of cultural and/or economic dysfunction. There are paths in our growing up that lead to being a john or a prostitute, a pastor or a used car salesman. There are paths in our growing up that lead to violence against—and exploitation of—other persons, as there are paths leading to generosity and empathy. It is at this level that Christian witness and service must be aimed: education, nurturing and an indefatigable fight against those forces that contribute to inequality and poverty.

Making better paths, in other words.

On the state level, the tendency is to solve problems and inconveniences legally. For one, this approach generally deals with the aftermath of transgression and anti-social behaviour and seeks to deter behaviours through punishment. For another, the lack of consensus in the population often means that legislation ends up taking its cues primarily from the interests of those who hold power at the time—and hope to maintain it—and those with commercial interests and the means to sway parliamentarians.

As churches, we are—or ought to be—about prevention. Waiting for the government to enact laws as if our church were the whole world both flies in the face of our preference for church/state separation and diverts us from the tasks we've been given in the world.

How our government tackles the legislative changes on this issue will be interesting to watch. It's touchy when 40% of the vote can provide any party with a majority. Eliminating prostitution through legal means is a pipe dream; curbing the exploitation of—and trafficking in—women by organized crime might be the best we can hope for; how to make that happen is the government's challenge in the coming year. Distasteful as it will be to some, state regulated brothels as in the Netherlands is one possible consideration that will emerge, like safe injection sites for addicts and liquor board stores for drinkers. 

 Prostitution as it exists in our cities today is symptomatic of social dysfunction, and is likely here to stay. Recognizing that, how does the church respond? how does government? If you know, tell me and I'll pass it on. Just click here.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Vertical, Horizontal

I'm finally getting around to reading and contemplating Steve Heinrich's book, Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry, a great collection of essays on the settler/indigenous interface in North America. A great book to read and study for all of us “settlers” who are impatient for the finding of a solution that will finally bring about equality between us and the people whose land we bartered for in everlasting treaty arrangements.

I was reminded by several of the essays of a concept I used to present when teaching Hamlet to high school students, namely the “Great Chain of Being,” a hierarchical conception of creation that ranks all its components on a vertical line (see above and here). Going back to the philosophical musings of Aristotle and Plato, this construction implies degrees of authority and dominance so that men, for instance, have authority over women and women naturally defer to men. Animals, of course, are inferior to all humankind and rocks and minerals being at the base of the chain are there for exploitation by all the rest of creation. (It strikes me that when Paul wrote in the New Testament that women's relationship to men is as men's relationship to Christ that he might have been looking at a diagram like the one above.)

The horizontal plane in the illustration is roughly representative of an indigenous conception of creation, where the elements are seen in a side-by-side, roughly-equal configuration. This implies a very different concept of authority and deference, where men and women are equal and plants and rocks, minerals and animals are co-creations and not ranked hierarchically.

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry is, in a manner of speaking, about the clash of the two concepts. Creation care, for instance, resides quite naturally in a spirituality that reveres all the elements of creation as residing on a horizontal plane. And there's a vast difference in outlook between a god that resides “high above” and one that resides in the creation “beside and in.”

Think for a minute about the Great Northern Pipeline proposal, the indigenous people of BC and the Canadian government in this light.

But all this, too, is simplified. Spiritual concepts on both sides are shifting and fluid. Indigenous people are Christianized, Christian doctrine is rethought, changing conditions demand new thinking, etc.

When I think about the residential school system and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at work right now, an image arises of men and women in black robes heaving at the horizontal plane in the hearts of their dark-haired charges, trying to drag the plane 90 degrees to the vertical. The tragedy being that in many cases they manage only to drag it 45 degrees, leaving their students in a state of limbo and spiritual confusion.

A real and pernicious tragedy.