Apr 5, 2012

Evangelicalism's internal tension over social justice & 'choice'

Evangelicals have been engaged in social reform movements since the beginning. Evangelicals themselves point to those early evangelicals who were opposed to slavery as an example of this. Those critical of the Religious Right today point to evangelicals' involvement in the amendment of the U.S. Constitution to prohibit alcohol as a prime case.

A lesser known but maybe more useful/less fraught example is Southern evangelicals' campaigns to criminalize dueling. A more current example, which illuminates the same issue, is efforts among today's evangelical to combat sex trafficking.

What one finds, in these cases, is a significant restraint on -- a limit to -- some evangelicals' conception of how society works, and thus a restraint and limit to how they can imagine engendering social justice.

There's a conflict, internal to evangelical conceptions of society, dividing evangelicals against themselves, between the need for social reforms fixing societal problems, and an anthropology that identifies all problems as sin, and all sins and problems of individual choices.

Methodists, Baptists and others took a stand against the aristocratic Southern culture of chivalry and honor, before and after the Civil War, arguing the "code of honor" that required men to kill each other over (real or perceived) slights and insults was wrong. According to a Methodist periodical in 1881, duelers should be treated as murders. In an earlier proclamation by the (I think inter-denominational) publication American Missionary, the evangelical position was that:
"a Christian conscience will displace a false code of honor among the people as a rule of conduct, and methods more civilized than the pistol and the bowie-knife will be resorted to in adjusting misunderstandings among neighbors."
Note the tension, the conflict internal to the evangelical engagement with this social issue. On the one hand it's seen as a social issue, which should be changed by changing the system -- here the law. And yet, somehow, also, more than an issue of structure or system, it's supposed to be matter or individual morality.

Ultimately, it's not a problem of the system that supports and perpetuates this henious thing, that makes it possible and, for some, necessary, but a problem of bad people who could but don't or won't just "do better."

Note the identification of the root cause: the individual conscience. The personal choice. I.e., an act of free will, free even from the system of which dueling is a facet and has a function.

The "sin" of dueling is supposed to be in the choice to duel.The fact that dueling exists is understood to be entirely a result of individual choice, and even though there's some sort of tacit recognition dueling is supported/produced/enabled by societal structures, i.e., that making a law would have some effect, it's still imagined to be a matter of individuals and choice. There's no sense, no admission, that people who duel might not want to duel. That they might find themselves forced into that position of "pistols at dawn."

The opposition to dueling, done this way, denies the possibility that those involved may be stuck, due to the society they live in and that society's structures, and forced to choose what appears to them to be the least-worst option among a selection of terrible, terrible options. Instead, it's imagined that, whatever happens, one always has a free choice. It's imagined the real problem is always ultimately someone's morals. Nothing's wrong until one chooses to do wrong. Those involved in the activity opposed are sinners, even when they're the victims, and that's the real problem to be addressed, rather than, say, addressing or redressing the societal structure and system that produces and requires, profits from and necessitates such societal ills as shooting someone over an insult.

This basic issue -- this internal, evangelical conflict -- is the mark of many evangelical engagements with issues of social justice.

This is also why evangelical efforts to effectively oppose prostitution face such seemingly strange and startling criticism from evangelicals. Who end up arguing against measures that would stop sex trafficking and prostitution on the grounds that those measures' are too kind to the victims of prostitution. Where pentecostals often find themselves limited in the way they engage with perceived social problems because of their cosmology, which locates the ultimate reality of whatever problem they're concerned about in the realm of angels, demons and cosmic clashes, rather than laws, economics, or social systems, many evangelicals think the true sphere of every struggle is in the heart. In the individual acceptance or resistance of Jesus, not the way societies are structured or organized.

So, for example, an evangelical group working to help prostitutes in New York City has to make the argument that prostitutes deserve to be helped and not just preached at, because other evangelicals can only conceive of victims as being victims of their own sin.

Faith Huckel, founder of Restore NYC, says:
"I think that we have kind of a misconception about actually what prostitution is because of a lack of awareness and understanding.

"Often times people see it as a choice, but when you take into consideration the amount of abuse and violence, the fact that you have 50 percent chance of homicide as a result of prostitution, and that the average entry age is 12 –to-13-years-old, I can't look at something that is as devastating and as evil as prostitution and think that anyone would want to choose that for their life."
 Significantly, the very first commenter on the Christian Post story about Huckel counters:
"If a person is 'selling' themselves for money, food, drugs, etc, then it IS A CHOICE & therefore sin. Common sense."
Where Huckel has conceived of society as involving forces stronger than the human will, limiting, at least sometimes, individual's range of options and their freedom to choose, the commenter thinks that, first, a prostitute needs to repent. Anything else, he thinks, is muddling the issue, because it's a matter of individual consciousness, and people do what they want to do, and they're responsible for their actions. What seems like heartlessness appears, to him, as clear-headedness. He thinks he's pointing out the real problem, which isn't that society is structured so as to create and maintain prostitution, but that the prostitute is, herself*, a victim of her own sins.

Social problems, in this anthropological understanding, are ultimately not social problems, but individual, spiritual problems with a social result.

It's not just this lone crank in the comment box, either.

Last summer, the state of Georgia passed a law recognizing sex-trafficked prostitutes under the age of 16 were victims, not criminals. The age of consent is 16 in Georgia. Sex with someone under the age of 16 is, thus, always rape. Yet, up until last summer, if a child was raped in Georgia and then their pimp was paid for that rape, the child was held legally responsible, punishable for being raped for money. Since prostitutes are regularly arrested and put in jail -- while pimps are rarely, rarely prosecuted and johns almost only ever taken in on the relatively minor offence of "solicitation" -- this was actually happening on a somewhat regular basis.**

The legislator behind the bill to change this was a right-to-life Republican, Renee Unterman. She argued that child prostitutes were victims, and victims of a system over which they had no control, systems out of which they could not simply choose-themselves-free.

In her conception of the world she lived in, prostitution was made possible and perpetuated by society, and it was society and society's structures that needed to be changed, not the hearts of these individuals. To the extent that child prostitutes had choices, they were bad ones and worse ones. As Unterman graphically put it,
“When you’re 12 years old and you’re laying on your back, you are not a criminal ... You don’t even know what sex is.”
She faced significant opposition from evangelicals, though. Because, for them, the law declaring child prostitutes to be victims not criminals was tantamount to endorsing prostitutes' "choice" to be prostitutes. It was argued that,
“Sure there are those who are forced into prostitution, but I think most of them volunteer ... The threat of arrest, public humiliation and a police record has scared straight many minors and adults."
At first glance, this is totally baffling. It seems like these evangelicals are opposing efforts to help exploited children. And doing so in the name of evangelical Christian morality. They seem, additionally, particularly thick-headed about how prostitution happens, where and when and why it happens, being judgemental where, really, nothing's more in demand than empathy.

Though it may end up in this cold-hearted, thick-headedness, though, it comes from a severely restricted conception of society, which sees only individuals, and never systems, only human hearts and free wills, and never structures forcing people into bad, bad situations.

The aim of this view of the world, this focus on choices and hearts and individuals, is to help people. It's meant to engender justice. The effect, though, is blindness to victims, dismissing their suffering as what they deserve, simply the result of their own sin.

*So far as I can tell, discussions of prostitution in evangelical circles only ever concern female prostitutes. It's as if speaking of homosexuality and prostitution at the same time is just too much, and too far past the bounds of "polite" conversation.

**Atlanta is one of the worst cities in America for sex-trafficking and prostitution. During my time as a crime reporter , there were 13 houses of prostitution within a 20-minute drive to the south of the Atlanta airport. The prostitutes were Asian immigrants who spoke no English, had no cash, and were not allowed outside. There were, additionally, two or three places where black, white and Latina prostitutes would street-walk. Not incidentally, those stretches were also always places where drugs were sold. It was not uncommon for a police sweep to lead to the arrest of 10 or 15 prostitutes. No one that I know of was ever, ever arrested for pimping or trafficking prostitutes, though.