Drug Policy and the Church, Day 6: Whiteness and Drug Policy

Simplified visualization of the persistence homological scaffolds. left: normal state. right: under the psilocybin effect, by G. Petri, P. Expert, F. Turkheimer, R. Carhart-Harris, D. Nutt, P. J. Hellyer, F. Vaccarino. In plain language, the image on the left represents neural connection in a normal brain, and the right represents connectivity under psilocybin. From Wikimedia Commons

I have decided it is important to be bold in sharing that I have had psychedelic experiences for several reasons:

  1. I had the privilege of using them legally, in a safe, therapeutic, research setting. Part of that privilege was obtained by being an ordained religious leader, which in turn was made more likely because of the privilege of being white, male, and middle-class.
  2. I believe in the potential therapeutic benefits of plant medicines, not only for those suffering from various forms of mental illness, but also for “well” people.
  3. I believe in the potential of these therapies to address not only personal, but also generational trauma that has epigenetic effects.
  4. It is absurd that these naturally occurring substances are classified as schedule 1 drugs, and that nearly incalculable harm is done to human lives under the pretense of keeping them “safe.” We warehouse human beings in prison at tremendous cost to society, when it would be more humane and cheaper to give them free housing and mental health care.
  5. I had two experiences nearly two years ago, and continue to reap the benefits; whereas many people are taking a pill every day for years or decades in order to alter their brain chemistry.
  6. I obtain some of this power to speak for change by virtue of having practiced abstinence before and since. I have never smoked pot or consumed any illegal drug. I am no hedonist; my motivation for changing drug policy is simply the outrageous injustice and harm it is doing to our society.   

I started out this week sharing that the War on Drugs is a racist, failed policy, enacted by frightened men desperate to hold on to coercive power. I am very aware that the reason I am able to talk openly about my own experience is because of something known as “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Essentially, when white middle-class people use drugs, it’s okay.  

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, crack cocaine became a moral panic. Reflecting Nixon’s original logic in creating a War on Drugs, laws were written to create harsher penalties for drugs that black people were more likely to use. Drug policy was specifically geared to hurt black people worse. But in the current opioid epidemic, which is harming more white people, our national dialogue has changed course. Suddenly we are holding manufacturers accountable and talking about compassionate care for addiction.

All of this is due to white privilege, our society’s tendency to treat white people more humanely, as individuals with backstories, people who are worthy of respect.

Because I had the very rare opportunity to appreciate the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a substance currently classified as a schedule 1 “illegal” drug, because I am white, not addicted, and hold a position of privilege, I have come to realize that I have a moral obligation to expose the hypocrisy and systemic racism of our nation’s drug policy. As a religious leader with a Ph.D in preaching and ethics, I cannot be silent about this obvious and outrageous harm we continue to inflict upon generations of human beings, especially if that policy is upheld by moralizing from the pulpit.

There are certainly important policy discussions we need to have about decriminalization versus legalization, and how to mitigate the very real harms that substance abuse has on individuals, families, and society. Some drugs are worse than others, and there must certainly be a way to control access, especially for people most vulnerable. Drugs can do harm. But the harm we manufacture must end, and it should not be illegal to grow any plant medicine that God created.

It is beyond reason that a living thing should be illegal.

Jesus said that his mission was to a) bring people abundant life (John 10:10) and b) set the captives free (Luke 4:18-21). While drug addiction can certainly be both oppressive and life-destroying, our social policies have done far worse. Addressing this wrong will require us to acknowledge both the existence of white supremacy and the harm done by the War on Drugs.

Prayer:
Lord of Liberation and Life, we are born into oppressive systems which we did not design; but we can unmake them. Give us the courage and discernment to break every oppressive yoke.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 5: Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Children playing in a fountain in Centurion, South Africa, by Brian van der Spuy. From Wikimedia Commons

“What are you experiencing, David?” asked Bill.
“Um… I see some stained glass patterns, I think. There’s some movement and a faint light.”

I was about twenty minutes into a psilocybin session at Johns Hopkins. I was lying on a couch wearing an eyeshade and headphones. My support team sat next to me on the floor. An automatic blood pressure cuff gently squeezed my arm every thirty minutes, monitoring my body for signs of distress.

What I was thinking was, “Man, this is kind of a let-down. If I’ve gone through all this—taking time off work, telling my life story three or four times, filling out hours of screening forms and questionnaires, and this is all I get—I will be pretty disappointed.”

“And what will I do with my disappointment?” The question came floating up from deep inside me.

I looked down and realized I was holding my disappointment. I was cradling it, like a baby. And I was weeping with deep, wrenching sobs. I realized I had been carrying so much unacknowledged disappointment, hopes for ministry and for life and relationships. I had been unwilling and unable to acknowledge it. And almost as suddenly, I realized that God was also cradling me, like a mother, while I cradled my disappointment. She was telling me that it was okay to have hopes, and okay to be disappointed, and that I was loved more deeply than I could possibly imagine. And then she proceeded to show me how much I was loved.

I realized that I could not be truly grateful if I did not acknowledge my disappointment. I could not simply “put a brave face on it” and pretend to be cheery. And once I had acknowledged it, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all that was right and good in my life.

And that was all in the first 45 minutes.

At the end of a six-hour session, I felt as if I had been through six months of psychotherapy, as though I had lived a whole other life before coming home to my own skin and my own reality. In the days after, I felt more grounded, grateful, and stable. I felt more loving toward my friends, family, and even strangers. I was overwhelmed with appreciation of the beauty and mystery of life. Almost two years later, I still feel the lingering effects and the lessons of that first session. I know in my bones that God does not expect me to act grateful when I’m not, to feel the way I think I “should” feel. And that makes me more free to be truly grateful and to love.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy is an emerging field. It is being tested as a treatment for drug addiction, PTSD, and treatment-resistant depression. It has shown promise in reducing recidivism among ex-prisoners. One friend I know kicked a 30-year heroin habit after one session with an indigenous plant medicine. He has been clean ever since.

There is a lot of hype about psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy, and I think it is important to remain cautious about “new” therapies. People who are chasing an experience may not reap the full benefit of these substances because there is psychological, internal work that needs to happen in tandem. It cannot replace talk therapy. Our capitalist, consumerist, pharmacological approach to physical and mental health is about pill-popping and miracle cures, about “superfoods” and consuming or avoiding the trendy ingredient du jour. Big Pharma, like other industries, only makes money by commodifying wellness. My fear is that psychedelic therapy will experience the same fate.

But its roots are in positive psychology, indigenous practices, and holistic understandings of mental health and human society. Not only does it have the potential to help people who are suffering from mental illness, it has the potential to help “well” people thrive.

I wanted to spend this week focusing on drug policy and the church because this is a prime example of the way racism hurts everybody. These substances have been locked away for fifty years because the Nixon White House—and subsequent leaders—wanted to disrupt Civil Rights and the antiwar movements. Instead of healing people, we’ve been locking them away for decades, creating more generational trauma instead of healing it.

But there is a better way for us to be.

Prayer:
God of Salvation, you salve our wounds and heal all our diseases. Help us to be agents of healing in our selves, our culture, and our planet. Amen.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 4: Harm Reduction

Needle Exchange, by Danielteolijr. From Wikimedia Commons

How should we treat people who use drugs? There are two general schools of thought. The first is that users “should” experience all the negative consequences of their drug use: poverty, homelessness, illness, pain and suffering—in order to coerce them into better behavior. Actions or policies that are not geared toward total abstinence are considered “enabling.” We often call this “tough love.” This is an individualistic approach, and it is what we as a society have been trying for centuries. It doesn’t work.

The second school of thought accepts that drug use happens and is part of human society. While drug abuse does harm to people and society, this approach is about harm reduction: helping people avoid some of the worst consequences of drug use, empowering them to make their own choices about what will ultimately make them happy and productive, and giving drug users a voice in designing policies that will help them. It looks at addiction as a systemic problem exacerbated by poverty, hunger, poor relationships, and homelessness—and not just as the cause of those things. Harm reduction might be providing clean needles to heroin users to reduce the spread of HIV, or giving community organizers training in the use of naloxone to prevent deaths by opioid overdose. It might even mean giving people a safe place to use drugs so that they are not robbed or sexually abused by others, where they can be prevented from harming themselves or others.

I need to distinguish between harm reduction and enabling. Parents of adults, for example, are not obliged to provide their sons or daughters with a safe space to get high, especially if that drug use impacts their ability to earn a living or pay for their own upkeep. In such cases, firm boundaries may be most appropriate. Enabling is making excuses or being dishonest about the harm caused by drug abuse. Harm reduction acknowledges harm and reduces it.

It’s worth asking, though, why a society that has plenty of homes sitting empty (often due to foreclosure) and more than enough food cannot provide food and shelter for all of its citizens. When people who abuse drugs have secure housing and enough food, they are better able to curb their addictive behaviors. Homeless persons who use drugs are better able to get clean and sober if they have a safe place to live. This shouldn’t be surprising! Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. Food, clothing, and shelter are prerequisites to long-term decision making. Making these needs contingent on socially-acceptable behavior—as our current policy does—is a set up for failure.

As I said Tuesday, I tend to believe that people will thrive under the right conditions. Sure, there is a nature and nurture argument to be made about whether our environment determines our destiny, or whether our will and character do. But living things have a built-in drive toward living—not self-destruction, and when we see large numbers of people failing to thrive, it is an indicator that something is wrong in the environment. We do not blame plants for failing to grow without sunlight, or babies for failing to grow without love!

I believe there is more than enough suffering in the world that occurs naturally, but that we—as individuals and a society—manufacture more than necessary. This is a somewhat Buddhist way of describing what Charles Wesley called “our bent to sinning.” It is not so much a moral or judgmental statement as a practical one: we do harm to ourselves. We do not participate in the abundant life God designed us to live.

For followers of Jesus Christ, our primary task is figuring out what embodied love looks like in our world. The Wesleys came up with three general rules for the people they called Methodists: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. While I think there are situations where “tough love” and boundary setting are necessary and appropriate, I think Christians have to be the public voice of “do no harm” in policy discussions. For too long, we have chosen “tough love” over genuine love, and this attitude has lent influence to both white supremacy and greed.

Prayer:
God of Abundant Life, help us live according to your present abundance instead of imagined scarcity. Teach us to do no harm.


Drug Policy and the Church, Day 3: Plant Medicine in Religion

Peyote Cactus, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. From Wikimedia Commons. Over-harvesting by recreational users has put this life form at risk, jeopardizing indigenous practices that are thousands of years old.

On Good Friday in 1962, 20 divinity students gathered in the basement of Marsh Chapel at Boston University to hear a sermon delivered by Howard Thurman. Ten of them received a dose of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in “magic mushrooms.” The other ten received a placebo. Of the ten who received psilocybin, most reported having one of the most profound spiritual experiences of their lives. Nine of them became clergy and were still clergy several years later. In the control group, only four did.

Some psychedelics have been called “entheogens,” because they generate an experience of God (theo). In addition to perceptual changes, people often feel a presence or closeness to the divine, or a sense that they perceive ultimate reality. It would be easy to say that this is “all in their head,” except that we can apply the same brain science to people praying or meditating and see similarities. All spiritual experiences are brain experiences.

And there’s good evidence that such substances have had a role in the development of religions for thousands of years. Some indigenous people in the Amazon use ayahuasca, and in North America use peyote, and in Australia use pituri. (It’s important to note that only by seeking institutionalization as a “church” did indigenous people in North America gain protection for their spiritual practices, and religious use of peyote only received federal protection in 1996.)

Recent archeological evidence even suggests that Jews in ancient Israel burned cannabis on the sacrificial altar. For thousands of years, in temples and cathedrals, burning incense even provided a mild psychoactive effect, boosting mood and making humans more open to spiritual experiences. If these substances can aid or create a sense of transcendence, why would we be surprised that they had religious significance? When we open the Bible to Ezekiel and read of visions of wheels full of eyes, it is easy to imagine that some kind of naturally-occurring psychedelic played a role in his visions.

And why shouldn’t they? If, as I said on Monday, the Tacana people of the Amazon are right, and God did indeed provide a cure for every human ailment in the plants among us, why wouldn’t God include a substance that would make us more open to visions and inspiration? Drug policy reformers often point out that “drug” is a pharmacological term, a modern word that implies industrial production (from the words “dry goods”), whereas a more appropriate term that respects indigenous and historical origins is “plant medicine.” These naturally-occurring substances are living beings, part of a sacred web of life which includes human beings.

Two years ago, I was a volunteer in a Johns Hopkins study of entheogens and religious leaders. The study was an exploration of how faith leaders would interpret psilocybin-induced mystical experiences. I had two sessions in a safe, supervised setting, and I was asked to compare these experiences with other spiritual experiences. I have no hesitation saying these were as “genuine” as my encounters with God in my conversion or call to ministry. Moreover, I would say these experiences left me permanently changed, with a deeper appreciation of being fully present and in the moment. I have less anxiety and more confidence that there is life beyond this one. I feel more connected to other human beings, and—I think—I am more loving towards them.

There is a natural tendency for those of us raised in American Christianity to view this kind of spiritual experience as somehow “cheating.” Shouldn’t mystical visions require days of fasting prayer, long pilgrimages, and long dark nights of the soul? But this attitude is what we call “achievement spirituality.” It has its roots in the notion that we have to earn God’s favor, and that mystical fellowship with God simply couldn’t be as simple as opening your hand to receive it. Moreover, plant medicine is not a substitute for those other disciplines and experiences; but it could enhance or supplement them.

We also know that there are certain regions of the brain that relax during intense prayer and meditation, regions responsible for maintaining a distinction between self and the world, what’s “in here” and what is “out there.” This sense of separateness can be overwhelmed in an entheogenic experience. Distinctions between self and universe, or self and God, can fall away. One comes to know in a powerful way that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

If the church is to have a mature and justice-seeking approach to drug policy, we need to recognize that a) certain plant medicines have sacramental importance to many people, b) even our own Christian traditions in the West may owe more than we suspect to the sacramental use of plant medicines in our ancient history, and c) plant medicine will likely affect religious practice in the future .

Prayer:
Holy Mystery, we see you hidden and revealed in sacraments like baptism and eucharist. Open our eyes to the sacramental around us every day—in food, in neighbors, in plants, in work and play, and in our very breath. Amen.


Housekeeping:
On Monday, I shared the origins of the War on Drugs, which was weaponized for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism, to attack the “antiwar left” and black communities. Yesterday I shared how the church’s individualistic perspective on drug use and addiction distracts us from looking at systemic solutions. Today, my goal is to describe the importance of plant medicine to religious practice. Tomorrow, I will talk about harm reduction as an important goal for the drug policy of the future.

Drug Policy and the Church, Day 2: Models of Addiction

A portrait of Father Edward Dowling, a Jesuit priest and spiritual adviser of Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. From Wikimedia Commons

We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons. We support abstinence from the use of any illegal drugs.

Millions of living human beings are testimony to the beneficial consequences of therapeutic drug use, and millions of others are testimony to the detrimental consequences of drug misuse.

We commit ourselves to assisting those who suffer from abuse or dependence, and their families, in finding freedom through Jesus Christ and in finding good opportunities for treatment, for ongoing counseling, and for reintegration into society.

–Selections from the United Methodist Book of Discipline’s Social Principles, “Alcohol and Other Drugs”.

The United Methodist Church, of which I am a part, advocates the use of pasteurized, unfermented grape juice for Holy Communion instead of wine. This was an early gesture of hospitality for those who were recovering from addiction. The concern was that wine consumed during the sacrament could lead someone to “fall off the wagon.”

Churches often host Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction recovery support groups in their buildings. The model for most of these support groups is that an individual’s addiction is a disease, not a sin, and the best treatment for this disease is abstinence. There are some wonderful spiritual lessons in twelve-step programs, but the effectiveness of twelve-step programs is debated.

The church’s relationship to drug use has been defined by a history of the struggle of two mental models of addiction: addiction as “sin,” or addiction as “disease.” Both of these locate the primary source of the problem in the individual. Although people have different opinions about whether abstinence or moderation is better, in order to provide a safe space for recovering alcoholics, abstinence is usually the preferred choice (using Saint Paul’s words for guidance).

But why is addiction our primary lens through which we view drugs and plant medicines at all? We also have disorders related to sex, food, and media consumption, but we don’t automatically think of “disease” when someone talks about binge-watching Netflix. Drug policy reformers point out that alcohol, tobacco, and even sugar kill far more people than cannabis, yet we do not jail people for selling sugary breakfast cereal to children! When it comes to addiction, we have been trained to see particular drugs—and not others—as a uniquely contaminating substance, both morally and physically. The stigmatization of drugs and drug use has benefitted those who have pursued our racist, failed War on Drugs.

Modern perspectives on addiction and unhealthy compulsive behaviors are changing. There are different, less individualistic models of addiction. Thanks to a TED talk from 2015, one that has gotten a lot of press recently is Bruce Anderson’s 1978 study of rats in a socially-rewarding “park.” Rats in a rewarding environment are less likely to exhibit addictive behaviors than those stuck in a cage, even if they have access to an unlimited supply of cocaine. This model of addiction shifts our focus. Instead of seeing the drug itself as the problem, or the individual consuming it as diseased or morally flawed, we look at the environment.

I want to share that my own view is informed by a belief in the inherent tendency of living things to thrive if they are placed in the right conditions. Tomato plants can catch diseases, of course, and may have genetic flaws, but the vast majority of tomatoes, if they have the right soil, air, water, and sunlight, will thrive. If your garden isn’t producing, you look for what’s going on in the environment. Are there aphids? Soggy or dry conditions? Fungus? Too much shade? Sometimes it will require pruning, or the removal of a diseased plant. But it is the nature of living things to pursue life, not death. If the conditions are right, most living things will thrive.

If our society has an addiction problem, it is not simply the moral or genetic fault of individuals. It is a social problem. Through counseling, spiritual guidance, and discipline, we can certainly help individuals navigate a sick society, and give them tools to make better choices. But if churches, pundits, and government policy only frame drugs in terms of addiction, and addiction as a problem with individuals, then we will remain stuck.

One of the reasons American Christianity has focused on abstinence in conversation about addiction is that its theology is so thoroughly individualistic. Salvation is a matter of individual choice, and about getting individual souls into heaven. This neglect of social ethics is part of what has enabled the War on Drugs to be weaponized into a tool of white supremacy and militarism.

Abstinence, fasting, and attention to healthy living are certainly spiritual disciplines that the church should teach. But it is past time for our understanding of addiction and drugs to come out of the 18th century.

Prayer:
Lord of Life, we are part of a web of systems and processes. Help us tend our environment so that more people have the potential to thrive.

Drug Policy and the Church, Day 1: Start Here

Portrait of John D. Ehrlichman, assistant to president Richard Nixon for domestic affairs, by Oliver F. Atikins. From Wikimedia Commons.

“[We] had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

This is where we start. This is a quotation from John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, and it needs to be the first thing we consider. Sure, we can talk about addiction, and harm reduction, and prohibition, and the history of drug use and religion, and a number of other things. I plan to touch on those this week. But when we talk about drug policy in the United States—and by extension, in the world and in the church—we need to start with this quote right here.

We start here because nearly everything in our country has been weaponized for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism: religion, roads, housing construction, banking, marriage, the family, mass media. This is not an overstatement. EVERYTHING. But drug policy has been one of the most devastating weapons contrived.

Phyllis Tickle said that society goes through periodic 500-year cycles of revolution and reformation, a “rummage sale” where old ideas are brought out into the light, and we decide what to keep and what to throw away. Our approach to drugs is one of these areas that is up for review. Drugs and drug addiction regularly appear in sermons and prayers, even though these modern terms never appear in the Bible, so it is appropriate for us to consider them. 

I grew up in the 1980’s, during the “Just Say No” campaign. I have practiced abstinence from illegal drugs my whole life. As a pastor, I’ve seen the devastation wrought by opioid addiction—and who profited from it. But I’ve also walked in the Amazon with indigenous people who told me, “God has put a cure for every human ailment in this jungle.” Plant medicine from the rainforest, they believed, could heal the world—if the descendants of Europeans could only stop destroying it.

We need to acknowledge the harm that drugs can do to individuals and society, certainly. Alcohol and nicotine are responsible for tremendous social harm. Prescription drugs are the newest form of a long-term drug problem. Yet we often blame drugs instead of their antecedents: poor quality social relationships, being stuck in meaningless jobs, self-medicating for depression and anxiety. There are behavioral and biological components to addiction. Yet our policies are not about addiction: they are about disrupting communities and targeting certain people.

I start with the above quotation because we need to understand that the stigma associated with addiction and drug use is very intentional. Drug policy is responsible for the massive swelling of our prison population: The “home of the free” imprisons more people than any country on earth. The War on Drugs launched on June 17, fifty years ago, and its purpose was always to delegitimize the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. In order to weed out these toxic policies and attitudes, we need to pull them up by the roots.

Prayer:
God of Justice, we so often do the wrong things for the right reasons, or allow unjust harm because we are convinced of a greater good. Give us wisdom and discernment to know truth from lies, and to be ruled by love rather than fear—in our personal lives, as well as public.  

Let’s Make June 17 “End the War on Drugs” Day

Source: American Enterprise Institute

June 17th is coming. This is the date Nixon declared a War on Drugs.

John Ehrlichman was Nixon’s domestic policy advisor. In 1994 he said in an interview that the administration “…had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The story came out in 2016. Here is the link: https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/

It has been widely documented how this War on Drugs led to America being the incarceration capital of the world. The State of Alabama has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the world.

While most of the people we lock up are white, incarceration disproportionately affects black people. According to Alabama Appleseed, black folks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white folks, even though we know drug use is the same across race, class, etc. There’s just as much, or more, drug use in Mountain Brook as in West End.

And while pro-prison legislators in Alabama will point out most long-term prisoners are in for violent crimes, we need to ask about how our awful drug and mental health policies LED to those violent crimes. Alabama prisons are the largest provider of mental health care in the state!

As people begin to turn from protest to thinking “What Now?” I want to say again that POLICY needs to change. There is bipartisan support for prison reform, but I want to ask you to look at some of the arguments for prison ABOLITION. You don’t have to sign on. Just LISTEN.

(Even the American Enterprise Institute, who produced the graphic attached, supports changes in policy. The AEI is a conservative capitalist institution.)

Incarceration has add-on effects: many convicted persons can no longer vote. While in prison, census data records them as residents of the (mostly white, rural) counties where they are serving their time. Both of these effects create taxation without representation, and decimate the political power of black citizens. 15% of African-American adults in Alabama cannot vote.

All of the wasted money in prisons could be funneled into things that actually improve people’s lives. Treat addiction as a public and mental health problem. Move cannabis to lowest enforcement priority. Take psychedelics that show therapeutic promise off Schedule 1. Invest in harm reduction programs. Reduce economic inequality, make the world less awful, and people will spend less energy trying to escape it.

Remember, the Nixon administration knew there was a link between white supremacy and perpetual war. They made a strategic 50-year investment in subjugating our nation, creating a permanent carceral state and modern plantation system. We are now seeing the war machine being used on us in our own cities, as police with military hardware treat protesters like a prison population.

June 17 is coming up. We should mark the date by calling for an end to the failed, racist, militarized War on Drugs. Two days later is Juneteenth: a fitting day to celebrate freedom, and recognize that slavery and white supremacy are still very much with us.

Time for a New Religion

Hey, American Christians! Time for a new religion.

Christianity hasn’t made you more loving, or generous, or less violent and militaristic. Your scriptures say that God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only son, but you don’t love the world enough to even slow your economy in the face of pandemic or environmental collapse. So obviously, preaching Christianity from American pulpits hasn’t worked for y’all.

So let’s try a different religion. In this one, your immortal soul doesn’t go to heaven or hell. It time-travels and goes into the person who, during your life, you most treated like shit. Your reward, or punishment, is that you get to live their life. Punched someone in the face? You’ll feel it. Spread life-ruining gossip? You’ll feel that, too.

Suffering is inevitable for everyone, of course, but whatever suffering you manufactured for others will be visited upon you.

Of course, you’ll get their joys, too. And maybe you’ll have a chance to learn a lesson and develop more kindness, or maybe the lesson will simply make you more bitter and evil. It’s really up to you.

And here’s the kicker: depending on the size of your effect—say, you created or influenced public policy—you may actually wind up living multiple lives. If, for example, you were a ruthless dictator who killed thousands or millions of people, your reward is that you get to live every single one of their lives. You’ll get their joys, of course, but also millions of dashed dreams, millions of unimaginable griefs, just unbelievable pain. If you were a billionaire whose lobbyists pushed millions into poverty, you get to live ALL of their lives. You’ll get to feel what it’s like to have too much month left at the end of the paycheck. You’ll feel the rage and sadness of watching loved ones die because they can’t afford preventive healthcare. You’ll feel the trauma of racial disparities and other systemic injustices.

What happens to you when you die? You get to walk in the shoes of the people you hurt.

As a matter of fact, it’s silly to say “you’ll get to” live their lives. It’s already happening, because of time travel. See? The pain you inflict upon them is the same pain you are inflicting on yourself now. You just don’t know it yet. You may not even know it then, in the future-present. It depends on how spiritually stupid you insist on being.

You can erase some of this, of course, with your good deeds. And it may be that after you live the lives of people you hurt, you’ll get to live the lives of people you helped. There may be a reward, many lifetimes from now. But I suspect that in this new religion, we’ll need to keep that a far-off hope, because American Christianity has demonstrated it has a far greater affinity for hell and threats of punishment than for heaven. We seem to prefer a theology of deserving to a theology of grace. That’s why I think this new framework will be perfect for us.

And if you’re following the logic of this transmigration of souls, you begin to realize that we’re not actually separate souls. We’re all the same life, which makes it vitally important that we care for each other and the earth while we have the chance. You may have eternity to work it out, but there is an urgency to it—in part because our species won’t live forever, either, especially on our present trajectory. We can’t wait to fix our behavior and our attitudes until tomorrow, because tomorrow is already now.

American Christians, some of you may realize this sounds a lot like Hinduism. And, for the record, India is certainly having their own problems with selfishness, hatred, and terrible social policy right now. But maybe it’s time to try living our private lives (and adopting social policies) that take karma seriously.

You know, like “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Because those aren’t just hypothetical statements spouted by some random messiah. And your current leaders who are loudest in claiming allegiance to him while doing harm are liars. Or, as he said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

So it’s time to re-evaluate. It’s time you tried out a different religion. Or no religion at all.

And if this sounds like blasphemy to you, then you never knew Jesus Christ.

(Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 6:46-49, Matthew 25:41-46)

The Orwellian Christianese of “Love”

V0041892 An auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition and the execution o

Too many Christians confuse pity and paternalism with love.

Actually, “confuse” may be too generous a word. For some it can be Orwellian Christianese, where “love” or “forgiveness” is simply used as a tool to demand submission, or to silence complaints. One of the most common negative responses to prophetic language is Christian tone-policing—saying that it is “unloving” or “hateful” to use oppressors’ own rhetoric to disarm their religious weaponry, or to criticize those in power who use religious language as a political tool of domination. In this reading, much of what Jesus himself said is unloving and hateful.

It is a kind of weak rhetorical ju-jitsu to take the words of the prophets* and the complaints of those who are oppressed and describe them as “hate.” As if protesting the disproportionate slaying and imprisonment of black children is “hate.” As if objecting to for-profit sick-care is “hate.” As if decrying Christianese support of militarism and fascism is “hate.” As if championing the rights of “widows, orphans, and aliens” against the abuse of political leaders is “hate.”

There is something I gladly admit to hating: this kind of language. This condescending, paternalistic, bullying and bully-enabling language that uses the words of Christ for cover. (There is a difference between hating the sin and the sinner, right? Or does that only apply to gay folks?)

Rather than get tangled in endless psychologizing or spiritualizing about the inward state of debate partners, I’m much more interested in the effect of our language, practices, and policy. Where do we see the oppressed being freed? Where do we see widows, orphans, and aliens valued as fully human and made in the image of God?

That’s where love is.

I appreciate that Christ loves me, and I have full assurance of salvation through the Holy Spirit. I appreciate that Christ also loves the bullies and fascists of the world, the Torquemadas and Roy Moores and Bull Connors, and that where I’m unable to love I can intercede that Christ love for me while shaping me into someone more loving. I can acknowledge my own failure to love.

But I have no interest in a “love” that does not rejoice in the truth. Nor do I have interest in a religion that can only speak of “good news” if the oppressed are silenced.

There is difference between paternalism, pity, and love.

*(Of course, there is a critique of the less-than-loving attitude of the prophets in the Bible itself. It’s called the Book of Jonah.)

Jonah_and_the_Whale,_Folio_from_a_Jami_al-Tavarikh_(Compendium_of_Chronicles)

Reading a Pro-slavery Sermon from 1863

Family_of_African_American_slaves_on_Smith's_Plantation_Beaufort_South_Carolina

Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and learnnc.org

This is an excerpt from a sermon given at Christ Church in Savannah in 1863. It is a pro-slavery, pro-Confederacy sermon. I’m sharing it, with my commentary, because I think it illumines contemporary rhetoric about race, history, war, international politics, and the South. I’ve added emphasis where I think the rhetoric is particularly interesting.

Preachers need to understand preaching history because we often replicate the rhetoric of pundits and politicians in sermons. Churches soothe the moral conscience of parishioners by repeating the talking points of our dominant culture. But how do you know when you are preaching the gospel, and when you are preaching Empire? How can you determine when you are preaching prophetically, and when you are accommodating the culture?

It’s important to learn from the past, to watch the dance of rhetoric and ethics that preachers have done every Sunday for centuries. It isn’t surprising that white Southern Christian preachers justified both slavery and war. Some of their talking points sound awfully familiar.

This preacher (Stephen Ellis) preaches a sermon to encourage the young Confederacy. At 24 pages, it was probably at least an hour long. It is verbose, in the way of 19th-century homileticians, who were well-educated and thought it important to speak in a way that fit their class. He quotes Greek philosophers, contemporary statesmen, and news reports. He refers to the Greek language. He comes off as smart and well-spoken.

The scripture is the story of Samson getting honey from the corpse of a lion he killed. There is no exegesis of the text. It’s simply a jumping-off point for the speech that follows. Out of a strong conflict will come something sweet.

He touches on some familiar themes: the danger of appeasement, the difference between a just peace and an unjust peace, the horrors of war, and endurance through trying times. He uses flowery language and long, image-heavy descriptions.

But delightful as is the word [peace], and attractive as are its associations, we should not be seduced by them to yield up either right or truth or justice for its attainment. It would indeed be a great burden rolled from our hearts if we could take our children to our bosoms, and feel that they indeed had a country–if we could look upon our noble sons and rejoice that they were freed with honour from any further conflict with foemen so unworthy of their steel–if we could glance around our hearthstones and be satisfied that no rude trumpet would again disturb their peace, no roar of cannon drive us from their shadow–if we could enter the temples of God and sing the angels song of peace on earth, good will towards men.

White men, that is.

The preacher has done a good job setting up the siren song of peace. He indicated early on that he is crafting this image simply to undo it. This illusion is no real peace, he says.

Missing, of course, is any reference to the lives of slaves. (Presumably, the life of a slave is all peace.)

But until we can do so with honor and with security, let us banish the idea from our thoughts. Let there be no making haste to find Peace. It will come when God sees that war has accomplished his purposes, and it ought to come no sooner. Unless we follow his guidance in this matter, we shall fall into temptation and a snare, and in grasping at a shadow, lose the substance which we have already gained at the cost of so much precious blood.

In other words, dreams of peace must be put aside, for now, or else all the troops will have died in vain. This is a common pro-war talking point in any conflict.

“Precious blood,” of course, has theological overtones—it’s Jesus’ precious blood that saves us from hell and punishment, according to penal substitutionary atonement theory.

I believe this atonement theory is especially prevalent in the South because it helped justify slavery. If you want to exterminate indigenous people and base an economy on slavery, it helps to frame sin as “rebellion,” and God’s justice as physical, painful retribution—in this life or the next. The requirement of justice is the violent death of someone—and the unjust death of an innocent man, a lynching, helps restore equilibrium. Any violence you then use to enforce social order and compliance is infinitely more merciful than social anarchy or the eternal flames of hell. For the good of the nation, the powerless must die. But their deaths are noble. Preserving social order, the Great Chain of Being ordained by God, is necessary to prevent a slide down the slippery slope into the anarchy of the savages.

The preacher also establishes that the war, a historical necessity, must be the will of God. War is a refining, purifying fire, in which the mettle of their (manly) resolve is tested.

Now the preacher turns to the political part of his sermon, justifying secession and portraying the Northern aggressors in negative terms:

We seceded from the Government of which we were once a part, because we felt that under it we no longer had a country. For what is our country? Our country is in its constitution, and its provisions were openly and shamefully violated–our country is in its religion, and its altars were desecrated by infidelity and the vilest fanaticism–our country is in its institutions, and they were threatened with total subversion –our country is in its social life, and that was covered all over with rude abuse and malignant defamation. And shall we, for peace sake, think for a moment of returning to the embrace of such an Union? God forbid! Let us learn at once the stern truth that we have no country until we make one. We can never go back to that whence we came out. We should not recognize it in its present garb of tyranny. We should not discern that once proud Republic under the mask which it now wears, with the oriental despotism that rules over it, and the oriental submission that kisses its feet. In its delirium it has lost all sense of regulated liberty–it remembers only passion and vengeance. Closing its eyes against all truth, and shutting its ears against all wisdom, it is striking at man madly in its rage, and it is cursing God who has placed the bit in its mouth, and is saying to it, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

Abraham Lincoln? He’s no Christian. He’s an “oriental despot.” (Today, he might be called a Muslim tyrant.) He’s no Western statesman who believes in representative government (for white men).

The preacher describes four kinds of federal overreach—constitutional, religious, institutional (the unnamed institution being slavery), and social. In all of these ways, he says, the South was a victim. Abolitionists and the North have closed their eyes “against all truth” and shut their ears “against all wisdom.” They are examples of the “vilest fanaticism,” impugning the character of honest Southerners.

When activists recently advocated for marriage equality, they were likewise shaking their fist at God, according to Franklin Graham, and undermining the institution of marriage. They subjected their opponents to “malignant defamation” by calling them bigots, or worse.

People who support status quo inequality between white and black folks, who object to discussion of white supremacy and systemic racism, continue to complain about the “malignant defamation” that white people or police officers or America receives at the hands of activists. Advocating for justice is perceived as “vile fanaticism,” an attack upon our country and our way of life.

Yet the preacher offers patriarchal hope to his congregation:

In quietness and confidence is our strength. Manly fortitude and heroic patience will accomplish for us in due time all that we are contending for. We did not enter upon this conflict in the temper of children, who were quarrelling for some mere point of pique, but with the resolution of men who perceived that every thing which made life tolerable was trembling in the balance. Let peace come to us, and let us not forget our manhood and go in search of peace.

The preacher moves on to mourn the fact that the international community has not come to the aid of the South. He only gets around to mentioning slavery toward the end, but it forms the background of everything he says. At first, it’s only an oblique reference: “the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.”

At the commencement of our revolution… we believed very sincerely that the cotton interest constituted so large a portion of [England and France’s] manufacturing and commercial wealth, that any serious interruption of the supply would create not only great distress in those countries, but would perhaps produce revolution. Under this delusion we continued for eighteen months after our movement began, and it is not yet entirely dissipated. It will require at least two years more of British endurance to convince us of our mistake, but we are, nevertheless, learning our lesson by degrees. We are finding out that God does not permit, under his Providential arrangements, any one nation to hold in its hand the fate, or even the destiny of other nations, but that climate, soil, labor, staples, are so distributed throughout the world, that if a supply of any necessary article is dried up in one direction, its production can be forced in some other direction.

England can replace the slave labor of the South with India. Such is the law of the marketplace.

That we hold great advantages over any other portion of the earth in the growth of our great staples, no one can deny. We can defy competition, because of the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate, but we cannot rule the world as we once conceived that we could.

This line gets me every time I read it: “The peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.” Wow.

The limits of Confederate exceptionalism have become clear to the preacher. But slavery? It’s still hunky-dory:

Until within a year after our war began, many of our own people, and almost all the nations outside of us, considered the institution of slavery as resting upon a very insecure basis. They almost universally believed that domestic insurrection would accompany foreign war, and that we should find our slaves rising “en masse,” and distracting all our efforts. Those who had studied this question most thoroughly, and looked at it in the light of philosophy, and especially of the Scriptures, did not fall into this error, and were satisfied from the beginning that the institution would come out of the war stronger than it went into it. Two years of the war have rid every one of any evil anticipations upon this head, and have satisfied the United States government that if these people are to change their condition, it must be changed for them by external force. And while this quiescence on the part of our servants vindicates us from the charges of cruelty and barbarity which have been so industriously circulated against us, it is also teaching us that we can, hereafter, with entire safety, and with most excellent results to ourselves, introduce them gradually to a higher moral and religious life. They know all that is going on. They are well informed about the proceedings of our enemies, and about their pretended philanthropy, and yet what advantage have they taken of it?

One of the favorite tropes of white-privilege apologists is that anyone who stirs up conversation of racial inequality is not really interested in racism, but simply exploiting racial tension for political gain. It is pretended philanthropy. But our black folks are happy just the way they are.

Dang, this strategy is old.

When were they ever more quiet, more civil, more useful, more contented than they now are? Ignorance is really our worst enemy amongst them, and I sincerely hope that when this war is over, we shall, in token of their fidelity and good will, render their domestic relations more permanent, and consult more closely their feelings and affections…

Wow. We’ll let them keep their families together.

Of course, you could also read “domestic relations” as perpetual servanthood. And they didn’t need slavery to do that. They had Jim Crow.

Take a look at this logic:
1. Our slaves (black folks) are fine and happy.
2. If they wanted to change their condition, they would do so themselves.
3. It’s wrong for outsiders to come in and stir them up toward rebellion
4. We’ll help them improve their condition when other conditions are met.

See, it’s all benevolent. Heritage, not hate.

It belies the fact that the Southern elite were terrified of slave revolt, and had spent a century passing more and more restrictive laws to keep poor whites and black slaves from working together or colluding to overthrow the institution of slavery. The preacher himself mentions Harpers Ferry early in the sermon.

Toward the end, the preacher swells to a crescendo praising the Confederacy:

But at the war-cry of her children, “Sic semper Tyrannis,” how her rich blood has rushed back upon her heart, and startled her into life! The sound of freedom’s cry has disenchanted her, and she has sprung full armed into the arena. Her noble sons have gathered around her from her hills and from her valleys, from all her fields of historic fame, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the dark rushing torrent of the Kanawha–sons worthy of such a mother. All her old energy has come back to her. All her power of self-denial and self-sacrifice has revived within her. Proud, fearless, indomitable, she looks into the very eye of tyranny, and makes it quail before her majesty of right and truth! The mother of States, she bares her bosom to receive upon it the strokes which are aimed at her children. Hurling defiance in the teeth of her oppressors, she prepares herself to conquer or to die. She hopes, she prays, she struggles for victory, but knowing that everything is in the hands of God, she presses on, uttering the noble words of DeRanville–“If the genius of evil is to prove triumphant, if legitimate government is again to fall, let it at least fall with honor; shame alone has no future.”

And thus white supremacy held onto the notion that it would be justified by God and history well after the war’s end. It wed notions of Christian destiny, feudal honor, patriarchy, slavery, and violent atonement theory.

White patriarchy continues to use this same rhetoric. It appropriates the language of oppression and justice, hoping to turn the tables on activists by pointing out their “vile fanaticism” as a cowardly mask for political or financial gain. People who advocate for equality are “tyrants” who will oppress the majority, if they ever get their hands on political power. We fear our own sin so much that we project it onto our enemies, imagining that they will be just as oppressive as we are—while denying that oppression even exists.

We are such gentle rulers. They will be such harsh ones. That is why they must be kept in their place.

Same song. Different verse. White supremacy did not need to rise again; it was never defeated. It has been hiding in plain sight (from white Christians, anyway) for a long, long time.

I like to imagine how someone in 200 years will read my sermons. I cannot imagine what my blind spots are—that’s why they are blind spots. But if we do not study preaching history, our cosmic vision of what God is up to in the world is limited to our immediate pastoral, ecclesial, political, and social concerns. We will miss the ways that God is working with the church—and in spite of the church—to bend the arc of history toward justice.