Child Prostitution:This is My Body. It’s Not for You.

November 10, 2010

Commodification is the process of turning a good or service into something that can enter the marketplace.  It happens when economic value is assigned to something that wasn’t previously used under those terms.  Something like, oh, say, teenagers.

This week 69 teens aged 12 to 17 were removed from the control of pimps across the country thanks to a national sweep by the FBI, called the Innocence Lost National Initiative.   A total of 99 pimps were arrested, along with 785 “other adults” (mostly adult prostitutes and “customers”).  The teens were placed in protective custody or returned to their families.  I hope to God (literally) that their lives will be better where they end up.

What struck me was not so much the number of teenagers — heaven knows there are thousands more than that still out there.  I was actually more struck by the “40 cities in 30 states + D.C.” figures.  It’s a reminder that child prostitution is huge here.  This is not Thailand were talking about.  This is Downers Grove, Illinois, a Chicago suburb near where I grew up.  It’s Cleveland, it’s Tampa, it’s Puget Sound.  All across the country underage people (mostly girls) are being used as items of exchange.  As Michael B. Ward, Special Agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark division said, “In this world, children are bartered and sold like products on a store shelf with no regard to their well-being or the physical and mental damage done to them.”

The Commodification of people and their bodies occurs in a wide variety of ways in our culture, from mainstream magazine images, to pornography, to many of the day labor practices associated with illegal immigration.  Practices such as these efface the sacredness of other people, replacing their inherent value with one determined by the marketplace.  We lose sight of the small,  bright flame of the holy, flickering inside the ribcage of the model, the migrant worker,  or the traditional dancer whose talent and (non-white) culture are appropriated by the theme park.

Even as I pray for the teens rescued (and for the thousands more still in forced prostitution, AND  for the  safety and dignity of the adult sex workers arrested — even if my kind of blog post ticks them off), I wonder, in my own liturgico-nerdly way: can Holy Communion, as a worship practice and a way of life, help form us to resist commodifying each other?

Can Holy Communion, as a worship practice and a way
of life, help form us to resist commodifying each other?

On the one hand, when we gather together to share food as children of God,  our interaction may help us to see that small, bright flame of the divine in each other.  The gathered assembly is, after all, the primary sacrament, right?  It may also help us to then to walk out on the street in astonishment as  the people we pass  light up like the characters in Katy Perry’s video “Firework.” (I say “may” because A) people often experience Holy Communion very differently from each other, and B) I’m assuming that we are actually encountering each other at Holy Communion, which is often not actually the case.)

On the other hand, most services of Holy Communion today tend to focus  narrowly on a body (whether we understand that body as symbolic or actual) that is shared (more like “distributed”) and consumed.  So then, are we formed by practices that enact the commodification of Jesus as an item of ritual exchange?  What are we learning-by-doing when we  treat Jesus as just a body, and a body that can be handed out or kept for later use?   Regardless of  the reverent rhetoric that we use, regardless of tell ourselves about why it’s okay,  aren’t we interacting with a body (symbolic or actual) in ways that indicate that this is a body from which the ethical restraints against  commodification have been removed?

If any of these teenagers find their way into a  church, the words of institution that they hear (“This is my body, broken for you”)  may help, but they may just as easily make things worse.  It’s true that they may be comforted by Jesus’ willingness to share in their suffering, but they may also continue to be formed in what Mary Daly called “the virtues of the victim.”

I would like to imagine these teens coming to the table and standing  together with people who don’t shame them, or patronize them, but who stand with them as “God’s beloved…who are called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7).  I would like  to see them looking down and noticing the inviolable flame at the core of their “deeply loved flesh” (Toni Morrison).  Maybe those of us in communities of faith can find a way to stand with them, and others like them, and help them to regain their voice, their choice, their ability to say to any who would use them, “I am not a commodity, not a thing.  This is my body, and it’s not for you.”

The Associated Press: FBI: 69 children, 99 pimps found in national bust.

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