Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Nahum 3:1-7) transports me to East Oakland’s International Boulevard, the center of the city’s red light district, known as “the Track,” where an estimated 100 underage children are among the hundreds of hustlers working the street corners every night. A recent Youth Radio story on NPR documented a typical law enforcement sweep of the Track, which garnered 7 adult women, 3 girls, one pimp, and no johns. Nola Brantley, a formerly trafficked teenager who now runs a program trying to rescue girls from the sex trade, lamented the practice of prosecuting these children, simply because they are the easiest to arrest. The Oakland system is not unusual; prosecuting the janes and ignoring the johns is common practice across society. It’s why former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who had made a career of busting prostitution rings by prosecuting the madams and the prostitutes, was not charged when he was caught with his hand in the Emerald Club’s cookie jar. US Attorney Michael Garcia explained that it was not the policy of federal prosecutors to charge the customers in matters of prostitution. And so our courtrooms and jails are full of the guilty temptresses, while those who succumb to the temptation remain innocent and free.
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew language has no word for “temptation.” Rather, they use stories and images to illustrate the dynamic of temptation. And one of the most used stories and images is that of the street corner girl, the hated whore. Reading today’s prophetic passage reveals that focusing judgment on the temptress instead of the tempted is nothing new. Ignoring the demand side while throwing the book at the supply side has a long history, and Nahum had quite an explosive book to throw. He uses the metaphor of whoredom to characterize the evil of the Assyrian empire. Apparently, the Assyrian capital of Ninevah had created quite an allure for neighboring states. The trappings of power – military might, security, economic prosperity – were just that, trappings, snares that drew the unsuspecting neighbors, including Israel, into captivity. And so the prophet foretells God’s judgment and punishment on Ninevah by first portraying the dominating imperial capital as a common hooker – having hooked the allegiance and attention of Judah’s Eliot Spitzer types. And then, in common fashion, the prophet sees God making a sweep of the Assyrian red light district, arresting the whore, and putting her on a humiliating display. The underlying misogyny of the practice shines through in this passage, as the prophet hears God’s voice pronouncing the judgment: “I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame. I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.”
After many a millennia of this kind of approach to prostitution, that is, humiliating and criminalizing the women (an approach that has never been effective at diminishing the problem, by the way), Sweden of all nations decided this year to try something different. It made world news headlines when the Swedish government decided to go after the johns and the pimps and prosecute the demand side of the equation. And lo and behold, it is working. Who’d of thunk it? Maybe Jesus thunk it. It occurs to me that when Jesus came, he understood the dynamic of temptation very clearly. He understood that there was indeed a hooker-like allure to power and control, violence and greed. And instead of humiliating the local whores, he went to the heart of the matter. He went to the demand side of the equation and caught the johns with their pants down. Jesus talked about the need for us to deal with the lust in our own hearts, the anger, the desire for vengeance, the greed, in short, all those aspects of power embodied most fully in the empires of the world. It’s the seduction of being a superpower, both on a national scale and on a personal scale. I imagine Jesus would be in solidarity with Nola Brantley in her efforts to create safe escape routes for the girls chained to prostitution rings, and in her efforts to re-direct law enforcement’s attention to the root causes of the problem. It’s not these street-walking girls’ skirts that need to be lifted up for public scrutiny. Perhaps America can take a cue from Jesus and the Swedes, and start asking what we can do about the lust for power and control on the other side of The Track.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.