A living room decorated in the neutral tones of creme and beige – Nobody choses such decor. It is always chosen for you by the landlord. Sitting on a second-hand couch in a rented room I sat sipping coffee with an old friend. He and his companions shared the rent in their first accommodation away from the parental home.
We sipped coffee and caught up. Usually there’s not much of ourselves to catch up on since we live close enough to share most of the significant events anyway. We catch up on our reading habits and what we think of various current news stories before hastily finding something to disagree over.
Today, however, I notice something different. Every now and then my usually sharp-tongued and quick-witted sparring partner is drifting off. Mid sentence, he stops and stares at the coffee in his cup.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, I dropped acid four hours ago”
I learned that LSD makes everything very interesting.
It heightens sensual experience making it difficult to resist novelty, all the while making everything you experience somehow more real than it was before. It does not, as popular fiction would suggest, cause one to have visions or hallucinations as such.
I have learned rather a lot about drugs over the past few years through the well-insulated lives of my white, middle-class friends who use these substances as a replacement for tobacco or to fuel an energetic night out and everything in between. From mundane to occasional, banned substances permeate the lives of many of my good friends.
I’ve become used to the sight of someone rolling a joint and I don’t even notice the smell.
No one of this group are, to my knowledge, addicted to any substance (besides tobacco, but apparently we’re all ok with that).
They use these illegal, mind-altering substances in much the same way other people use legal mind-altering substances like alcohol.
When this is the case, it becomes rather difficult to maintain the shrill moral outrage against the evils of drug abuse without beginning to look pretty hypocritical. Sure, they might smoke pot in the evenings and take MDMA when they go to a night club but they’re not starting fights in bars or driving intoxicated, which is where most of the harm from mind-altering substances comes from.
There is a great difficulty in maintaining a moral outrage at people with whom you have shared history and great affection.
Tolkien once spun a mythical yarn of swords, betrayal and legions of darkness. The black tower under the shadow of Mount Doom was the perfect abode for evil in this fantasy world. Frodo and Sam engage in their inevitably successful quest to overthrow this blight on the land. Such is the plot of a fairy-tale.
Frodo’s fellowship with this darkness is his shameful secret and his deepest pain, a world he is abandoned to when he wears the ring.
This is a comforting metaphor for the battles we face and the trials we overcome yet it is fatally bound to the ideal of a harmonious relationship between The Good and personal morality as mediated by the rule of law.
Christians adore this myth.
We are sent into the world to be “salt and light” in the power of the Sprit and to be witnesses to the resurrected Christ to the unbelieving world. We must fight the darkness, struggling up the mountain to cast away our own sins and the sins of the world.
What sins? The easiest thing is to adopt the laws of the land as Divine Command. Therefore to enforce the rule of popular piety becomes the means by which the salt is spread. If all people obey the rule of law, then they might as well be Christian, thus we believers have fulfilled our calling.
My brave crusade against the evils of drugs came to a shuddering halt when my disapproval was not the perfect instrument of God’s will to end their pot-smoking habits.
Their well-reasoned (though slowly stated) response to the righteous indignation of my furrowed brow was to point out that there are plenty of legally available substances, sourced from poorer nations, which negatively impact the health of our society–Fast food, alcohol and tobacco being the most common. In their philosophy the only reasonable response to recreational, yet dangerous, substances is moderation. I think they are right to point out the mere fact of the illegality of a thing is not sufficient justification for a moral objection.
The legality of a thing ought to follow from reasonable objections, not the other way around.
Jesus was indignant at the politicians of his day for maintaining a law for its own sake, forgetting the people for whom the law was introduced. After being challenged for picking grain for food he declared: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).
If this is to be my hermeneutic for understanding legality and personal morality, then whatever opposition I have to drugs must have a broader grounding in all recreational substances. This has been the subject of much contention in Christian history.
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon invited D.L. Moody to speak at an event he hosted.
Moody accepted and preached the entire time about the evils of tobacco, and why the Lord doesn’t want Christians to smoke.
Spurgeon, a cigar smoker, was surprised at what seemed to be a cheap shot levelled by Moody, using the pulpit to condemn a fellow minister.
When Moody finished preaching, Spurgeon walked up to the podium and said, “Mr. Moody, I’ll put down my cigars when you put down your fork.”
Moody was overweight.
Both of these men are right in seeking to expose the sinfulness of harming the body. It is, after all, a temple to the Spirit of God. Yet such an ideal cannot claim direct correlation with the banning of any one substance.
It is not simply “I am harming my body with alcohol, therefore sinning, so abstaining is the will of the Lord.”
Add to this the complexity of relating the non-believer to ethical decisions which hang, largely, on a faith confession. I might understand my body in a certain way, resulting then in the choice not to intoxicate myself, but that understanding relies on faith and not reason.
My friends would all agree that it is a bad thing to be addicted to heroin. Yet the grounding for this moral declaration is in the damage such addiction does to the body, to human life and to society. My objection to taking heroin in the first place is to do with the way intoxicates a person, impairing judgement and subduing the senses.
This is rooted in the characteristics expected of those in Church leadership which I take to be a template for all of Christian discipleship:
“An overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.”
1 Tim 3:2-3.
Since these who are my friends are not, nor claim to be, members of any church, such an ethical expectation is completely inappropriate. It’s like expecting a German to speak perfect French when he has no desire to ever visit France.
So if an objection to drugs ought not inhibit my friendship with this community, then neither can the substance of such a relationship be my quest to convince these people to stop intoxicating themselves.
After all, Christ’s purpose in befriending me is not to stop me from sinning. Christ calls humans to be his friends for the sake of participating in his loving fellowship with God (John 15:15). This friendship opens us to the possibility of other friendships “by freeing us of our preoccupation with ourselves” (Hauerwas).
In reality, it is such preoccupation with myself which causes the violent reaction of my will to overthrow the ‘evil’ of drugs. The outrage I feel is a violent impulse toward the stranger, the Other, and is totally inappropriate for the Christian. If Hauerwas is right in defining love as the “non-violent apprehension of the other as other” then my encounter and continued relationship with people who take drugs must–if it is to be characterised by love–not be hindered by these acts which form part of their being in the world.
To do any other would be to react violently toward a part of their personhood.
Or is this just a longwinded way of letting people get away with breaking the law for the sake of the inconvenience of making a fuss?
The risk of a friendship is that it creates a community of over-lapping people. This is to say that the identity of the individual is shared and has an impact on the other, yet that individual is too impacted and changed by their encounter with the other.
For the Christian in their encounter with those whose lives and personal moralities conflict with the Christian ideal this can become complicated, as they inevitably find their lives woven into the fabric of a larger cloth which may not look like they expected.
Yet perhaps this can be more accurately described as the substance of Christian life in the world, far more than middle-class moral performance and enforcement which has tragically become the caricature of Christian witness today.
To be a friend in a community where banned, mind-altering substances are a normal part of life means firstly sharing a bond of mutual affection and love. With this established, the difficult conversations and substantive sharing-of-self may follow without violence being done to either person. Here, it becomes possible for disagreement to exist not only in the realm of ideas, but in the existential space of actual-life-lived.
You might not be spreading Christian values, but you’ll be following the example of Jesus and that’s probably more important.