Grace to you
The bell in the CMM steeple has not sounded since 1897. Apparently when the 3.5-ton bell rings it shakes the foundations of the nearby buildings. Deemed a safety risk, it was silenced. The bell is a reminder of what a Church is meant to do, and that is to shake the foundations of the surrounding society as it sounds the Divine call for justice and mercy for all.
Seeing as we are not allowed to ring the bell, we decided a few years ago to use the well-positioned steeple in a different way, yet hopefully in a way that still shakes the foundations of our society. We decided to hang bright yellow banners from the steeple to call attention to various issues of injustice and suffering. Often we would partner with civil society organisations that were involved in engaging the particular issue we were addressing. We also seek to address the issue from a uniquely theological perspective. This week is no different.
It is crucially important for the church to join the call for the de-criminalisation of sex-work for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that the scriptures are very clear that we are to safeguard the lives of the most vulnerable and stand in solidarity with those that society in general treats as outcasts. To state the obvious, sex-workers are some of the most vulnerable people in our society who are consistently treated as outcasts.
The basis of our protection and care for the well-being of sex-workers is rooted in the theological fact that all human beings are engraved with the indelible image of God and therefore are to be treasured as the priceless gifts they are. In other words, our care for another has nothing to do with how they live and everything to do with the mere fact they are alive.
The Gospels are full of Jesus doing exactly this, over and over again. The outcasts of his day were so grateful for his welcoming invitation, affirming word and loving touch, but this caused much displeasure among the religious of his day as it does to this day. Yes the church is often better known for its judgement and rejection of the social outcast than loving solidarity. In other words, the church is often the one who throws the first stone! Sadly this is often done in the name of Jesus – the same Jesus who saved a woman whom the law had criminalised – from being stoned by religious men. By intervening, Jesus effectively de-criminalised her in that moment.
Now, if we are to protect the vulnerable and stand in solidarity with the outcast, then surely we must also oppose that which contributes to their vulnerability and outcast status. The criminalisation of sex-work does just this, and more, including violent abuse. For example, sex-workers are often abused by law enforcement (SAPS, Metro Cops and even security guards) by demanding sexual favours for sparing arrest, or securing early release.
The criminalisation of sex-work also disempowers the sex-worker to demand clients to practice safe-sex, thus adding to the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. [In fact according to research in the Lancet Medical Journal the de-criminalisation of sex-work could prevent between 1/3 and almost ½ of all new HIV infections globally in the next 10 years among sex-workers and clients.] Furthermore the criminalisation of sex-work contributes towards increased prejudice against them from both individuals and also service institutions like healthcare facilities. This may cause some not to seek out care when they are sick or injured placing their lives at great risk.
Finally on a simple level of logic: The criminalisation of sex-work has not eradicated sex-work as it intended to do and nor will it ever do so. So why would anyone continue to support a law that cannot ever do what it aims to do, yet in the process of repeatedly trying it causes such terrible harm?