“We have to stop and think what it would be like if we had Buddhist, Islamic or Jewish groups coming to the United States and focusing on areas where there are victims of trafficking, and setting up systems where they not only rescue the girls, but they say that you have to get up early in the morning and do your meditation and chant and wear your robes.”
Part One of Two of an interview with
Buddhist Chaplain and head of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Denver
Some US Evangelical Christians have recently been calling for, and engaging in, a strong push to stop human trafficking. This has led some observers, like theologian and feminist scholar Yvonne Zimmerman, to ask questions like: are these Americans imposing their values and culture on vulnerable victims of trafficking or those at risk?, and the response from Evangelicals has been, on the whole, no, and, in one case, if we’re colonialists, then its the holy colonialism of God. This prompted a very sharp critique that it certainly is not holy, and a progressive Protestant pastor to try to capture the way that these two sides might be missing each others’ message. So to attempt to make some progress — find a middle ground, or perhaps another way of framing the issue — we examined DhammaMoli, a Buddhist monastic community for at risk girls in Nepal, and asked:
What is the moral difference (if any) between an American Christian bringing an at-risk girl to a church and teaching her Christianity, and a Buddhist nun bringing her to a vihara and teaching her Buddhism?
We are now turning to Claude d’Estrée for a possible answer. He leads the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Denver — and is also its Buddhist chaplain. d’Estrée has spent over a decade “on the ground”, in places like India, South Africa, and the red light district in Geneva, both trying to stop trafficking and learning about the work that organizations do there. He lives in the US but is not affiliated with a Christian denomination, and has not worked much, if at all, while embedded in an Evangelical group. A few years ago he answered a United Nations request for a set of best practices in anti-trafficking efforts by developing a Code of Conduct, along with Zimmerman — with whom, he has said, he does have points of disagreement. He is someone who has seen anti-trafficking efforts in real life, but from outside an Evangelical organization, and, as a professor, has the tools to describe with nuance and rigor what he has observed to an intelligent, English-speaking audience — that is, you, our dear readership at Patheos. So we spoke, and this two-part interview is the result. This is Part One, and I’m leaving a cliffhanger question at the end. But let’s start with the italicized question above — the moral difference between a Buddhist and a Christian anti-trafficking effort:
On the surface of this issue, if I were to be consistent in applying that Code of Conduct that Yvonne [Zimmerman] and I have put together, we have the same problem with this monastic setting for the young girls. They say they’re giving them an education in a monastic setting, but then we see the photographs of them in their robes, as young nuns, we have a potential conflict almost immediately.
We do keep in mind, of course, that all these different religious groups — Buddhist, Christian or Islamic — all have the best of intentions in dealing with young people or anyone who is at risk, or a victim or survivor of human trafficking. In the sphere of religion it tends to focus almost exclusively on girls who are, have been, are being, or likely to be trafficked into brothels, and forced into prostitution. I find it more than a curious phenomenon, the fixation that religious organizations have, on that one aspect of human trafficking. That influences much of the response of faith-based organizations.
One of the issues that potentially might differentiate an Evangelical Christian group from a Buddhist group in Nepal is that Christianity is not the dominant religion in Nepal. Asking that they learn Christianity, Bible studies, or liturgy in one form or another is not taking into consideration that they have their own firmly established indigenous belief system. When it comes to Asian Buddhism, it’s a very common practice for boys and girls to become young monks and nuns for any period of time. Then they have the choice to stay in the monastic system, or they can leave at any point in time. It’s not the same, especially when they’re young, as Christian monasticism. Once you have taken an order’s vows, it’s a lifetime commitment.
US Evangelicals aren’t expecting that, either?
No no no, if we look at these young girls in monastic robes, it is in the context of a cultural norm dealing with Buddhism. Having said that, I still have some very deep concerns. If part of — in Western terminology — their therapeutic modality is to teach Buddhist values and train them as young nuns as a way of imbuing them with all the proper aspects of what it means to be a good, wholesome human being, and therefore lead a good life and be supposedly free from being victims of trafficking, I have some real doubt about that approach as well. Looking at it on the website, it is a heart-warming story in many ways. But if it is without the full consent of the girls… and as you said it has consent of the parents, which ameliorates it a little bit, but not totally.
Can a girl give any kind of real consent?
No. If she can’t give consent to engage in prostitution, then she also can’t really give consent to having to wear monastic robes or live a monastic life until the age of 18. That smacks to me like the old days of Europe, when girls were sent off to nunneries for lots of different reasons, and they had no choice but to become brides of Christ and to live that life. It was not usually a willing choice. Parents would basically sign them over. And it sounds like that in this case, with the Buddhist monastic issue you might be able to say that they are getting a positive, wholesome faith and education, and very good values in a safe environment, and it’s unlikely they’ll become victims of human trafficking. At the same time, they’re not really making the choice to enter this monastic lifestyle, which, like any monastic tradition, has a high level of control.
But we don’t criticize families in the United States who raise their children as very strong Christians. We don’t say to their parents, you shouldn’t be doing that. And it looks like these nuns are in some cases are taking over the role of the parents, when these girls are orphans, or they’re doing it with the parents’ consent, so what’s the difference between a kid being raised into a really Christian, Jewish, or Muslim family in America —
If you put it that way, there is none. But we were comparing and contrasting Evangelical Christian organizations going into another part of the world and as part of their therapy, to impose religious values on the survivors. If I decide to send my children into a strict religious education — a private Christian school, or Buddhist monastery — I’m not sending them there because they’re at risk for trafficking. As a parent, I do have primacy and in international human rights, parents have enormous control over the right to their child’s education. In that case, a monastic education is like a Christian boarding school.
So you have to look at the girls. There’s not a singularity. How you’ve described it to me, some of the girls are there because of the parents, some are orphans at risk of being trafficked — in that case, I don’t know who has the authority to be sending them there — and maybe a third group are survivors of trafficking. [Ed.’s note: I don’t believe that any of these girls have already been “trafficked”; as far as the Venerable DhammaVijaya explained it to me, they are all young and were found in villages around Nepal. But I’m not sure.] All these groups have to be thought of in very different kinds of ways, respecting their agency, individuality and needs. I really can’t ultimately argue with parents who want their kids to have a strict or conservative religious education.
I went to Roman Catholic school. My parents chose that because they thought the education was better than that of public schools. They thought that exposure to the Roman Catholic catechism was not going to do me any harm. [giggling]
Which is something you might have doubted later on?
[laughs] My father being an ex-Roman Catholic, he could often be almost vitriolic in the way only an ex-Roman Catholic could be. He coached me on a regular basis on how to have arguments with the catechism I was being fed every day and he’d fill me with stories about Borgian popes, which on a regular basis got me kicked out of school… but that’s another story.
One could also say this about these monastic settings as well. That it also goes back to the cultural tradition. The place of education looks a lot like it was in medieval Europe — if you wanted to make sure your kid was getting a good education, you’d send them to a monastery.
In the Buddhist tradition, as soon as these girls become 18, there’s no one pressuring them saying, you have to stay a nun. You’re an adult now, and you’re on your own.
In Christianity, especially some types of Evangelical Christianity, there’s this notion of being saved. Once you’ve known Christ, so to speak, for the rest of your life, you are Christian. You belong to Christ. Buddhism doesn’t contain a notion like that, does it?
In practice, on the ground, is there something like that?
Not really, except among a small sect in Japan, the idea of evangelizing, let alone proselytizing, is unheard of in Buddhism. It’s a highly personal choice. It has all the trappings of one of the worlds religions, but many practitioners, including myself, would say it’s a philosophical tradition. When it gets involved in politics, like everything else, it gets messy. Unfortunately it’s not free from those kinds of tangles that we see in many countries dominated by the Buddhist tradition. The monastic orders are powerful and political.
What I’m hearing from you is that the the critique of Americans and Evangelicals is hegemony — US organizations are imposing their values which some, like Yvonne Zimmerman, argue, derive from American Protestantism, and they include things like heteronormativity, and certain family values, and in some cases evangelization —
I clearly differentiate evangelism from proselytizing. We have to stop and think what it would be like if we had Buddhist, Islamic or Jewish groups coming to the United States and focusing on areas where there are victims of trafficking, and setting up systems where they not only rescue the girls, but they say that you have to get up early in the morning and do your meditation and chant and wear your robes. We’d probably be appalled at that. That’s the issue.
My concern is not with Lutheran World Services or the Catholic Conference of Bishops, for the most part, and organizations like that have been doing relief work for a long time. They learned a long time ago how to quote-unquote behave in other people’s countries. The issue has been with Evangelical traditions — usually coming out of megachurches, but not exclusively — who use this not as an opportunity to evangelize but to proselytize, further damaging the victims. They’re powerful and resource rich, and have taken human trafficking on as one of their causes celebres. The primary motivating piece is not relieving pain and suffering of these girls, but to spread the gospel of Jesus.
I’ve done a number of interviews now with Evangelicals, and most of them would not repeat the language you’ve just repeated. Most of them would say they’re primarily doing this to relieve the suffering of these girls – that this is modern day slavery, and it needs to be stopped.
Then there should be no need then to suggest that Bible study or church services need be part of their recovery/therapy and making them whole human beings. Now if the survivor-victim makes that request — that’s fine, although we have some caveats on who should be providing those kinds of services to avoid a conflict of interest. I have seen a number of large organizations over the past 5 years who have, quite frankly, matured and shifted in terms of how they were interacting with these populations. But there are still other organizations… I deal with them… and it’s pretty clear that the modality of what they’re doing is driven to save souls.
Can you paint a picture of this? Give us a real story about one example, that you’ve seen on the ground?…
In part two, d’Estrée will describe specific examples in which he’s seen groups break the proposed Code of Conduct.