In preparing to teach my students about Jesus’ hard saying about the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:29) this week, I couldn’t help but make the connection to the recent, bizarre criticism of Evangelical efforts to end the sex-trafficking trade. What’s the charge? Well, apparently taking women and children out of the pay-for-rape game smacks of Evangelical colonialism to some. According to Yvonne Zimmerman, a professor of Christian Ethics, instead of focusing on trafficking in all of its forms, Evangelicals seem to narrow their concern to sex-trafficking, likely because of their “Protestant” theology of sex and vision of the “sexually pure and pious” woman. (Read “evil, Victorian sexual mores that Freud opened our eyes to, and Foucalt exposed as forms of social control.”) If they weren’t so obsessed with restricting sex to their particular norm, they wouldn’t be so focused on the prostitution-trade. What they seem to be overlooking is that some of these women might actually want to stay in prostitution and so the imposition of our values is, at the very least, problematic. They are assuming an idea of freedom and inadvertently limiting the freedom some of these women would choose for themselves.
At the front-end, I must say that, yes, trafficking in all of its forms is wrong and ought to be stopped. Evangelicals should definitely expand their focus to labor trafficking and be aware of their own economic interests might pull them away from working for justice in that area. At that point, I find the criticisms helpful, and ones that ought to be thought through carefully by Evangelical leaders in the fight against trafficking. That concession made, I find the rest of the charge silly and wrong. I’d argue for it extensively, but Timothy Dalrymple and John Mark Reynolds have already done a magnificent job of it.
So what’s the connection between these criticisms and the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?” In a nutshell, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is calling the good work of God evil–imputing the work of God to the devil. The context of Jesus’ dark saying is Mark 3:22-30, in a conflict between Jesus and the teachers of the Law, the scribes. Word has gotten out about Jesus’ work of healing, exorcism, and rolling back the kingdom of darkness with the good of God’s reign. The problem is he’s doing it in ways that don’t suit the scribes’ particular vision of the coming Kingdom of God. His authority isn’t being exercised in the ways approved of by scribal interpretation of the Law. In order to discredit him while still accounting for the obvious power he’s wielding and the good he’s doing, his critics attribute his Holy Spirit-empowered authority over demonic spirits, to–get this–another demonic spirit! “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mk 3:22)
Jesus moves on to point out the silliness of the charge with a few parables to the effect that Satan instigating a civil war within in his own kingdom isn’t a winning strategy. If Satan is going around casting out demons, he’s basically shooting himself in the foot. It makes no sense. He moves on to paint a picture of his ministry as “binding the strong man”, defeating Satan and loosening his grip of human lives and destinies. Jesus’ ministry is bringing the kingdom of God, God’s good rule and grace into the world, and he presents it as a battle between two kingdoms–the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, the ruler of darkness. One is about bondage to darkness, to slavery to sin, addiction, shame, and opposition to all that’s holy. The other is about grace, healing, freedom from sin, forgiveness, the love of the Father, and all that God intended for human life to be.
If that’s not a description of the end of the sex-slave trade, I don’t know what is.
And yet, like the scribes with Jesus’ original ministry, the critics are attributing the liberating work of the Holy Spirit to false spirit of “Protestant” purity theology. I don’t mean to demonize Zimmerman because, along with the teachers of the law in Jesus’ day, she surely means well, but this kind of nonsense need to be identified as the grotesque mockery of truth that it is. Evangelicals working to end the sex-slave trade is a good thing. Thousands of women and children taken out of degrading and dehumanizing conditions and brought into healthy, safe, and hopeful environments is the restoration of shalom. Justice for the oppressed is the spirit at work here, not Protestant prudery. As Tim Dalrymple summed it up, “evangelicals are committed to rescuing the sex-trafficked not because they disapprove of the sex workers’ activities but because they feel compassion for the little girls (and sometimes boys) who are raped for profit. To call this ‘colonialism’ in another form may make for a passing dissertation but honestly it’s the kind of nonsense I fled academia to escape.”
While it is right and good for Evangelicals to expand their focus and work against trafficking and injustice in all of its forms, they have nothing to be ashamed of in the fight against sex-trafficking. If that’s “colonialism”, then it’s the holy colonialism of God at work through his people.
Soli Deo Gloria