alt=”" width=”149″ height=”225″ />A few years ago, a series of commercials for a shampoo product saturated television programming. Each ad portrayed a woman experiencing sexual ecstasy as she washed her hair in the shower. Quite the product—or, at least, quite a promise.
The disconnect between our ordinary experience of hair washing and the implicit claims of the commercial is partly what made some of us laugh at the ad. When we remember that particular advertisement, or the dozens of others that are like it, we laugh or sometimes smirk. Perhaps we are also mildly shocked by the crassness, the explicit sexuality, but we don’t often name the misunderstanding of sex it represents or the flippancy of our own responses. If we think about it at all, the ad is utterly ridiculous, but it is not harmless.
Around the same time that those commercials were running, a board member of Word Made Flesh traveled to Sri Lanka. She collaborated with a friend there in assisting the government as they shut down thirty children’s homes. Most of them were homes for young boys.
Ordinarily the closing of children’s homes would be very bad news for the vulnerable and orphaned children of Sri Lanka. Community-based, residential-care homes meet basic needs for many of them. In this case, however, it was good news—it meant freedom. The homes that were shut down were fronts for the commercial sex tourism industry. Impoverished and vulnerable little boys were essentially being kidnapped and then forced to serve as sex-slaves—primarily for European men on vacation.
Sex tourism is big business. Men from numerous so-called developed nations book their holiday package, catch a flight to Sri Lanka or another accommodating destination and check in at their resort. They then visit one of the boys’ homes to select the child (or children) they prefer and take them back to their rooms. They then rape the boys, often repeatedly, throughout the duration of their vacation.
The misuse of money, sex and power is inscribed on those little bodies, over and over again. To be sure, there are local people who are complicit in this business, but that only makes the story more appalling. And the story is replicated in many other places, often with young girls—kidnapped, sold and exploited repeatedly.
When we hear about these stories or see the news reports, we are shocked, troubled, horrified. We wonder what we might do to help end modern slavery and the sexual exploitation of children. Is there a way we can help in bringing an end to such outrageous expressions of evil and injustice?
Well, we could start with not buying products that make sexuality and sexual experience a joke. Would that help? Whom would that help? It wouldn’t do much for the little boys in Sri Lanka or the young girls in Thailand—at least not immediately. But perhaps by paying closer attention to advertising and entertainment, and to how morally callous we’ve become, we’d see things a little differently. And perhaps it would help us connect concerns about righteousness and justice a little more closely.
In our hunger to be liberated and to throw off some of the stereotypes of uptight, narrow Christians, many of us have forgotten how to blush. Advertising and much of the current entertainment would continually invite us to trivialize or misuse the God-given gift of our sexuality. The media are not alone in contributing to our moral callousness. Practices in business and politics have reinforced a shockingly greedy and self-centered approach to money and power.
Followers of Jesus could be far more attentive to the bridges between our personal lifestyle choices and the injustices around us, between our individual righteousness and our work for justice. A wholesale loss of the capacity to blush, personally and in the society at large, contributes to an environment in which the ripple effects are devastating for the most powerless among us.
Being friends with Jesus and with those who are poor requires that we give up being friends with “the world.” When James writes that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (4:4) he is warning followers of Jesus to be wary of the world’s values and practices. He challenges us against adopting lifestyles of coveting, violence, self-indulgence, ambition, impurity and arrogance.
Sure, it is just a shampoo commercial, and it has little if any bearing on sexual exploitation in Sri Lanka. But when those boys or girls are our friends, and they bear the scars of sexual misuse, it makes us take a second look at how our imaginations have been shaped by careless views of sex and power.
Those men who booked vacations didn’t just wake up one morning and decide that misusing the bodies of children was an acceptable form of entertainment. What in their formation and environment, in their prior choice and social experience, led them down such destructive paths? Moral callousing comes in many forms and in varying levels of intensity and destructiveness, but each of us, even as Christians, is vulnerable to blind spots regarding money, sex and power.
Christopher L. Heuertz is the International Executive Co-Director of Word Made Flesh, a community called and committed to serving Christ among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. He’s also the author of Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World (IVP, 2008) and Friendship at the Margins: Discovery Mutuality in Service and Mission (IVP, 2010) with Christine Pohl. Follow him on Twitter @chrisheuertz.