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  • Spiritual Activism as Interfaith DialogueWhen Military Prostitution Matters
  • Keun-joo Christine Pae (bio)

Buddhist–Christian dialogue, interfaith dialogue, military prostitution, spiritual activism, U.S. military bases

What kind of interfaith dialogue would emerge if a Christian cisgender woman prostitute and a Buddhist cisgender woman prostitute met face-to-face?1 What knowledge about gender-based spiritual, psychological, and physical violence can we, scholars in critical Buddhist and Christian studies, learn from their dialogue? What kind of peace and justice can we envision in our respective religions by listening to their conversation? Analyzing how transnational militarism has industrialized prostitution (and created what many scholars refer to as militarized prostitutution), I have imagined an interfaith dialogue between Buddhist and Christian prostitutes because of two grassroots organizations: EMPOWER in Thailand and Durebang in Korea. I first visited the local center of EMPOWER (Education Means Protection of Women Engaged in Recreation) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2007. As the name suggests, EMPOWER aims at empowering "sex workers" through sex education, English education, and education about human rights. Although EMPOWER is a [End Page 71] secular feminist organization, it has been working with Venerable Dhammananda's all-women temple and International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice, founded and led by Buddhist feminist Ouyporn Khuankwae. The EMPOWER women understand that Buddhism is a source that empowers sex workers and oppresses them simultaneously. Durebang, known as My Sister's Place to the English-speaking world, was founded by two Christian women, Fay Moon and Bok-nim You. Through the Korean minjung theology of liberation, the two founders articulated the empowerment of women working in prostitution around U.S. military bases in South Korea.2 For more than thirty years, Durebang has advocated for the rights of military prostitutes around U.S. bases and trained feminist activists. When I first visited Durebang, I felt the presence of EMPOWER. It might not be a coincidence that the two organizations were founded around a similar time—EMPOWER in 1985, and Durebang in 1986.

Taking U.S. military prostitution, particularly in Thailand and Korea, as a site for a Buddhist–Christian dialogue, this paper delineates interfaith dialogue informed by feminist spiritual activism.3 The critical analysis of military prostitution presents the system as dukkha (suffering) and generates a context for this feminist interfaith dialogue that emphasizes peace and justice. Although military prostitution has existed in the global war theater for millennia, many of the dialogues surrounding peace have ignored it. If we scholars and activists who invest in interfaith dialogue for peace understood that military prostitution has been a crucial part of a state's military project and, as Australian feminist Sheila Jeffreys puts it, "an important vector in the industrialization and globalization of prostitution," we would hardly condone this militarized system of prostitution.4 Furthermore, it is vital to study military prostitution because the system has harmed so many people regardless of their religion, gender, and sexuality. Moreover, both Buddhism and Christianity have constructed masculinized military ideologies that normalize military prostitution while condemning prostituted bodies, but not the (mostly) male bodies that use them.

One crucial question underlying liberative dialogue between Christians and Buddhists is how to liberate the masses from the root causes of suffering, for example, the three poisons—delusion, greed, and aggression (moha, raga, and dvesha). Arguably, war is the manifestation of the three poisons in the material world. Hence, liberative interfaith dialogue, particularly in the context of military prostitution, cannot be separated from peacemaking and antiwar activism. Military prostitution, as cultural theorist Jin-kyung Lee defines it, is a form of "necropolitical [End Page 72] labor," which means "the extraction of labor from those condemed to death" in service to the state or empire.5 Necropolitical labor, as the most disposable form of labor, highlights a living death or a fundamental linkage between labor and (the possibility of) death. Critically engaging Lee's concept of necropolitical labor, I further contemplate here how liberative Buddhist–Christian dialogue can articulate "life" that is creative, audacious, and powerful enough to transform a death-bound culture of militarism in our contemporary world into a life-centric one. Spiritual activism articulated by transnational and religious feminists maps...


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