Last June, a close friend of my wife’s and mine died.
Cindy was someone who transformed our life, faith and spirituality.
She taught us about frailty, vulnerability and suffering by showing us something of Jesus in the most unexpected ways.
As well as being a friend, Cindy was a crack addict and a prostitute.
Prostitution is a multi-million dollar business, and one that is practiced across the world. This, of course, is not news to anyone.
But it begs the question: how might those who claim to follow a God of justice, compassion and grace respond to prostitution as a major example of human rights abuses?
Although there are many forms of sexual exploitation that take place in and beyond Lebanon, I will focus on one form that is well known, officially tolerated and regulated – the “super nightclub.”
It is estimated that there are approximately 2,500 “artists” (prostitutes) in Lebanon who work at an estimated 127 “super nightclubs.”
Visitors to these “super nightclubs” typically arrange to meet “artists” the following day, and they are paid between $50 and $200 to engage in sexual relations.
Though they control the “artists,” club owners are protected from prosecution by stating that what goes on beyond the doors of their clubs is not within their control.
A specific department of Lebanon’s General Security grants an “artist visa” to women who will “dance” (perform striptease) within licensed “super nightclubs.”
These visas are valid for six months and only renewable after the woman – typically from the impoverished parts of eastern Europe – has been out of Lebanon for a minimum of a year.
This results in the trafficking of vulnerable women caught up in this “business” around eastern Mediterranean countries.
They are regularly required to be tested for HIV and other STDs, are only allowed to stay in certain registered hotels, and their freedom of movement is severely curtailed.
Many of these women, who have been deceived into these situations, become captive to debt bondage and risk reprisals were they to try to escape. They are also victims of legal frameworks that offer little, if any, protection.
For instance, they can be deported if they contract any form of STD or become pregnant while the employers who are forcing them to engage in prostitution are never punished.
Lebanon’s legalized prostitution is a highly lucrative business. Within a three-month period, one “artist” can earn tens of thousands of dollars, much of which will likely be given to her “employer.”
The dignity awarded to all human beings by nature of God’s design (see Genesis 1:27) is clearly distorted when women become objects of sinful desire and victims of systematic and structural abuse.
So, what might a Kingdom-focused response be within this situation?
In this context, it is difficult to know how to respond in a way that will bring justice and wholeness to the victims of sexual exploitation.
But one thing is certain. If the church were to engage in significant levels of advocacy on behalf of the victims of this modern-day slave trade, we would be confronting a very powerful system and there would be significant consequences.
How we practically go about confronting the particular system in our midst today is a mystery to me. However, here are a few suggestions.
1. We need to refuse to blame the trafficked women.
2. We must accept that our actions to seek justice will attract negative reactions.
3. We can educate ourselves about such issues and support organizations better equipped to work on the front lines.
What is clear is that, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
We move forward, despite the difficulties we will face, because we believe that in God’s Kingdom, many who currently experience oppression from the rich and powerful, poverty in all its forms, and disgust from those who consider themselves righteous can and will be restored into wholesome relationships through the welcoming and unexploitative embrace of Jesus.
Arthur Brown is the BMS World Mission Regional Leader for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and former BMS youth and theological worker based in Lebanon, working with a Christian theological seminary regularly dialoguing with Islamic scholars.