Thursday, January 12, 2012

Human Trafficking, Violence, and Scripture

In a recent commentary at Religion Dispatches (trigger warning), Sarah Sentilles analyzes misogyny and violence against women in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The film revolves around a serial killer whose sexual assaults and murders of women are based on passages from the Bible, such as Leviticus 21:9. With such violent Biblical passages in mind, Sentilles takes Biblical literalists to task for selectively ignoring the Bible's offensive content.
These bloody verses that insist women be punished with violent death—often for perceived or imagined sexual transgressions—are usually overlooked, downplayed, skipped over, ignored. Most people like to pretend they aren’t really in the text. Especially people who claim to take the Bible literally.
Passages like these should render biblical literalism impossible. Their existence illuminates that literalists always engage in selective literalism, choosing the passages that support the arguments they want to make. And what is the rubric for selective literalism other than convenience and the maintenance of oppressive power relationships? When faced with such verses—or even passages about keeping kosher or not being around women who are menstruating—many a literalist will argue something like “that was then and this is now,” while in the very next breath (I’m talking to you, Rick Santorum, and you, Michele Bachmann) they’ll insist that homosexuality is an abomination or that women should submit to their husbands. Why? Because it’s in the Bible.
Sentilles' review made me reflect on other wrathful Biblical passages about "harlots", as well as the approach of many modern Christians to prostituted women and girls.

I'm heartened by the plethora of Christian groups tacking sex trafficking, offering advocacy and outreach to trafficking victims. Efforts to help trafficking victims and raise awareness should be commended, and I for one am pleased to see Christians joining the fight.*

Still, I'm perplexed by anti-trafficking advocates who hold the Bible as the inerrant word of God, given that the Bible contains many passages demonizing prostituted women. How do Christians reconcile compassion for prostituted women and youth with reverence for a text that repeatedly uses the "harlot" as a symbol of evil and violence against the prostituted woman as a symbol of divine judgment?

  • Leviticus 21:9 commands that a priest's daughter who becomes a prostitute is to be burned to death.
  • In Jeremiah 13:26-27 and Hosea 2:1-13, God's chastisement of his disobedient people is likened to a man sexually humiliating his promiscuous spouse. Similarly, Ezekiel 16:35-41 depicts God and Israel's other "lovers" sexually humiliating and physically brutalizing her.
  • In Revelations 17:3-6, the tormentors of Jesus' followers are symbolized by Babylon the Great, the lavishly dressed "mother of prostitutes" drunk on the blood of God's people. In a scene fit for a snuff film,Revelations 17:16-17describes how the beast and Babylon's lovers sexually humiliate, cannibalize, and burn her.

I commend Christian organizations engaged in solid anti-trafficking work and want to see them thrive. The women and youth they have helped undoubtedly feel the same. Still, I think it would be fruitful to see more Christian voices critique and reject harmful images of prostituted women in scripture. Violence against women is abominable, and it should never be used to symbolize justice or goodness. To boot, it would be interesting to find out what prostituted women and youth think about these passages, and what impact such passages have on their own spirituality and self-esteem.

Healthy spirituality recognizes the fundamental humanity of all people, and recoils when the humanity of others is diminished. Christians (and others) who are involved in anti-trafficking work understand this well, as they labor to affirm the humanity of women and youth coerced into sexual exploitation. To combat human trafficking and affirm the dignity of its victims, there is much we need to do. We need to raise public awareness. We need to demand justice for traffickers and johns. We need to support service providers who provide advocacy and outreach to victims. We need to undermine men's demand for trafficked women and youth, and the patriarchal beliefs that undergird this demand.

Along these lines, we need to recognize the tension between compassion for trafficking victims and a belief in the Bible as inerrant. When fundamentalists dismiss disturbing Old Testament passages as “the old covenant,” it does not erase their misogyny – after all, those passages still indicate that the Biblical God endorsed misogynist ideas in the past. Readers of the Bible need to be critical of scriptural passages that ignore the human dignity of the prostituted women, caricaturing her as the quintessential symbol of idolatry and depravity. We need to reject inerrant interpretations of scripture in favor of nuanced interpretations that recognize patriarchal human influences on the text – and leave room for our common humanity.

For additional commentary, two excellent discussions of violence against women in the Bible are Joan M. Sakalas' "The Whore of Babylon Metaphor: Permission to Erase Evil?" and Renita J. Weem's Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets.

* I am not referring to right-wing voices that use dubious trafficking rhetoric to bludgeon Planned Parenthood. Nor am I referring to those who lump sex trafficking into the same moral category as behaviors they happen to dislike.


  1. It's pretty crazy what how we humans are able to rationalize and compartmentalize our thoughts to the point of preserving obviously faulty beliefs.

    Maybe in our time, Ahab, this issue will become that of the minority. Keep up the good work. Every little bit helps!

  2. This is a wonderful piece. Thank you for this.

  3. I've come to the conclusion two things will be with us always: Religion and prostitution. So, I no longer believe we can rid ourselves of either. The question, then, becomes how to best live with them?

  4. This post reminded me of a bible study I attended a few months ago where we were discussing the Good Samaritan. I grew up with the narrative that she was a prostitute and all the biblical connotations to that.
    But this time was different. My pastor (a liberal woman) showed her in a completely different light. She was the first evangelist. She was a strong and intelligent woman. The other members of the bible study were completely taken aback with this new narrative. It was a very neat experience.

  5. Wise Fool -- Compartmentalizing is a human specialty, unfortunately. I hope the day comes when we can abandon it.

    Michelle -- Thank you. That's very sweet.

    Paul -- Well, we might not be able to completely eradicate something, but we can still work hard to reduce it. I think that's a realistic goal.

    Vertigo -- Perhaps you mean Mary Magdalene? It's interesting that so many people assume she was a prostitute, since it is never stated in the Bible. I like how progressive theology is casting her in a positive light. Are you familiar with the gnostic Gospel of Mary?

  6. As I read the term "prostituted women," I am struck by the passive quality it implies; if we call them prostitutes, it is clear that they are active in this activity, but prostituted women may very well have been victims of circumstance or a "prostituter." That reveals your innate empathy.

    As to the Christians who work with prostituted women, they may or may not have empathy for the women; what is just as likely is that they are trying to "save" souls to "store up treasure in heaven" (Matthew 6:19-20) and to further "the greater glory of God."

    And I've got more problems with that than there is room in this comment form.

  7. Nance -- With some, they may indeed be trying to proselytize to a vulnerable population, which I too find unethical. Others do seem sincere in their efforts. I may need to look into these programs more in depth.

  8. I agree this is a wonderful piece. It also brings to light the cognitive dissonance that many religious people engage in.

  9. Donna -- Thanks! Cognitive dissonance and Biblical literalism go hand in hand as a matter of course.

  10. A very interesting post Ahab. Literalism is one thing, and accepting the writing as written is quite another. Let me explain. Literalists of course believe that God in a manner, actually wrote the bible, and chose the words to be used, and that they have the meanings that we would attach to them today. Of course all literalists are not literalists on a good many things--those areas in the bible which differ from their own views of what they believe God means.

    However, to be against human trafficking and to respect the texts for what they are is quite another thing. I am certainly a non-literalist, but I must accept that the people of that time, in attempting to say things "about God" used imagery and common thinking of their day to express it. We should never read into the text that God wishes "prostitutes" to be killed, but rather that God does not wish any of us to demean ourselves in such a manner, and that bad things happen when we treat ourselves so poorly. Surely the writers of the day did believe that prostitutes were bad and to be rejected but today we don't read that literally but as a means of understanding behavior toward ourselves and others as good or bad to the humanity of ourselves or them.

    I'm sorry. I'm probably not explaining this well at all. The guy who wrote about his bible study and the Samaritan woman said it well. She became the first true apostle. That is the lesson we can see today, and frankly,such a lesson was always there, just not perceived past the simplistic "sinner" profile.

  11. No, I mean the woman at the well parable. Sorry for the confusion.

  12. Sherry -- Oh! The Samaritan woman at the well. I mistakenly though Vertigo was referring to Mary Magdalene. Thanks.

    I appreciate you bringing a progressive faith perspective to the matter. It's interesting how people approach the scripture so differently.

  13. The Bible is a violent and terrible book, especially in its treatment of women. Old Testament and New Testament both. When people cite it as authority for anything I have to wonder how much of it they've actually read.

    Excellent post, Ahab. Thank you.

  14. Cognitive Dissenter -- Thanks. I do think a closer look at the text would be fruitful.


All comments are subject to moderation. Threatening, violent, or bigoted comments will not be published.