Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 10—Boundaries Against Harm

You shall not pass!

An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within;
when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it, for there are seven abominations concealed within;
though hatred is covered with guile, the enemy’s wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.
(Proverbs 26:24-27)

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about fools, liars, and enemies.

I think it’s important, in this contentious season, for Christians to acknowledge that Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, but he did not say that they would have no enemies. In fact, in the same chapter he tells his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), he says that they can expect persecution (verses 11-12). He tells his disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees,” and says that religious leaders “tie up heavy burdens for others” that they do not bother to lift (16:6, 23:4). He himself would be betrayed by a friend, thrown under the bus by religious leaders, and turned over to Roman authorities who used crucifixion as a way to terrorize the populace and advertise their authoritarian version of “law and order.”

Enemies exist—but we don’t have to be enemies in return. This is also part of a healthy boundary. Setting a boundary is not an invasion of someone else’s privacy or an imposition on their right to live. It marks where my control stops. I cannot control other people, no matter how hard I try. I cannot make them love me, or act appropriately, or believe certain things. For me to have healthy boundaries, I also have to acknowledge theirs.

This is why the Proverbs’ writing about enemies isn’t just talking about other people: it’s addressed to me. “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.” The act of doing harm or nurturing animosity can harm us. Whenever I read this, I think of Wile E. Coyote.

You can see it coming, can’t you?

The world does have its share of fools, liars, abusers, bullies, thieves, and Wile E. Coyotes. It is not “unloving” to acknowledge this reality, or to name folly, lies, abuse, bullying, and thieving. We may not be able to control the behavior of others, but we can establish boundaries which keep our physical and mental health safer. And we do not have to respond in kind. We can respect other peoples’ boundaries. The Road Runner doesn’t respond with violence, but with a kind of judo, using Coyote’s machinations against him.

Yes, I realize it’s just a cartoon. Real life doesn’t have the kind of instant karma of Looney Tunes. But there is still a wisdom in its teaching.

It’s also important to recognize that in real life, “enemy” is not a static category. One of the sayings of community organizers is, “We have no permanent allies, and no permanent enemies.” We acknowledge that relationships change. We have the power to set new boundaries, or redraw old ones, even with people who may disagree with us.

In our present moment, I find that masks are a good illustration of this concept. These days when I meet someone in person and one of us isn’t masked, I simply ask, “What’s your risk tolerance? Would you rather stay masked, or is physically distanced okay?” This way I’ve given them an either / or option. (This is also a good strategy to use with toddlers! Give them a choice of options, and they are more likely to comply). I also have no problem asking other people to mask up when distance isn’t an option, but I don’t automatically assume they are an enemy. I find that if I ask, “What’s your risk tolerance?” and give them a choice, I make them aware that I’m willing to negotiate with them, but that I have boundaries.

While there are a few liars about the current pandemic (like our current president), and many people who are taken in by such lies, I try to see this as an opportunity to make the ideas of boundaries and consent more explicit in our social life. I can behave with integrity and respect, even if other people find it difficult to do so. If someone won’t respect my boundary, I do not have to be in relation to them.

These boundaries—the ones we set for ourselves—can be the most important ones of all.

Prayer:
God of boundless grace and gracious boundaries, you have designed a world in which we are most connected to others when we have a strong sense of self. Help us to be people of integrity, respect, and clear boundaries.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Maintaining Your Peace in an Election Cycle

Image by Villy Fink Isaksen, from Wikimedia Commons

I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:

Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.

The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.

The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia.

But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies. Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”

Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.

Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.

In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.

Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?

We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.

Theology and Kink in the News

Today’s reporting from CNN. Click for story.

The unfortunate thing about the salacious sex lives of our so-called-conservative leaders is that not only are they unsurprising, but when they are outed it simply reinforces the stigma associated with being honest about sexuality.

None of us believes Falwell’s particular kink is unusual, right? Or that “cuck” is a term loaded with contempt precisely because *so many* manly men sense that their jealousy is an aphrodisiac, and they are secretly embarrassed about it, right? Just like so many virulently anti-gay pundits are in the closet. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves. We are masters at projection.

I have to admit feeling some schadenfreude, because Falwell is a cruel and hypocritical person.

But y’all, it’s also so, so sad. We cause so much misery in our own lives by refusing to be curious about *why* something appeals to us that is socially taboo.

For example: there is a reason the woman in the Song of Songs teases her lover by saying,

Tell me, you whom I love with all my heart—
where do you pasture your flock,
where do you rest them at noon?—
so I don’t wander around with the flocks of your companions. (Song of Songs 1:7)

She teases him by saying she will give her affections to his friends. She says this BECAUSE jealousy evolved to create this very response, a mixture of anger and arousal that is highly stimulating. White conservative men, many (but not all) of whom are perpetually angry, are particularly attracted to this brew of emotion. They are also highly defensive about it. That (and misogyny) is why “cuckold” is their epithet of choice.

(FTR, I think it’s pretty obvious that what we’ve heard in the media is only the surface-level stuff. Also, I don’t really need to hear any more.)

The Bible also tells the story of an explicit BDSM relationship between Samson and Delilah. Pastors have often preached that Delilah “tricks” Samson, but she doesn’t. She asks directly, “Tell me how to tie you up.” He tells her, and then submits to being tied up. THREE TIMES.

You think *modern* people invented bondage play? Like human beings only *recently* learned about kink? (And that’s not all that’s in the Bible, BTW).

Why does Samson eventually reveal his secret? Because even the strongest man in the world needs to feel vulnerable sometimes. The burden of being strong is exhausting. Samson was tired of performing all the time. So it’s particularly bitter that he ends his life performing! (Judges 16)

All that to say: so much of religious conservatism is about performing. Most of these preachers and pundits who have such loud voices in our society are performing. When Falwell says he was depressed, I believe him—but not for the reasons he gives. It is sad that their comeuppance creates *more* incentive for people performing conservative religiosity to be incurious about their own brains, their own sexuality, and their own spiritual lives. Seeing their colleague publicly humiliated, they bury their secrets deeper.

And no, admitting, “We’re all sinners” is not helpful. Sin isn’t even the point. The point is if you’re afraid of your own internal life, you will never be at peace. You are at constant enmity with the world and God because your theology of sin sucks. It is our own incuriosity about our inner life and our binary view of good and evil that creates such manufactured suffering.

When you live your whole life under a giant SHOULD, you develop a “worm” theology. “You are not worthy, and you never will be, you pervert, you miserable worm.” It does not shame one into being a virtuous person. It makes one into a hypocrite.

Hypocrite literally means “actor.” A performer.

In our society, we are lousy with them. And this kind of religion is killing our planet.

Heroes and History

The far right has few heroes.

That’s why so many of these climate-change denialists act like they are Galileo. All these jingoist Christian nationalists try to claim they are like Martin Luther or Dietrich freakin’ Bonhoeffer. Many closet white supremacists use the name of Dr. King or Rosa Parks. Co-opting the names and messages of great people is necessary to present terrible ideas as palatable.

In private they may praise the name of Hitler, or Nathan Bedford Forrest. But publicly, they have no inspirational fighters for truth and liberation, and that’s why they have to appropriate the words and images of famous people they would have burned, shot, or hanged.

Whenever they try to lay claim to some aspect of inspirational history, some selfless act of bravery that made humanity better, they whitewash and obfuscate. (This is why John Merrill had the temerity to justify voter suppression in the same breath as he mentioned Dr. King and Rosa Parks, claiming that automatic voter registration “dishonors their legacy”.) Their rhetorical acrobatics tell a funhouse mirror version of history. They envision a world where statues of slave owners teach history, but actual curriculum that teaches about slavery is “divisive.”

(This is pretty much the same thing they’ve done with Jesus: Worship the man. Ignore the teaching.)

And that’s why their name dropping of heroic figures stops with the top tier, with the Dr. Kings and the Galileos. They don’t talk about Oscar Romero, or Angela Davis, or Sojourner Truth, or Hypatia, or Martin Niemoller, or Dorothy Day, or Bayard Rustin, or Cesar Chavez.

And this is why we need to lift up the voices and names of those who are not instantly recognizable, to broaden our scope of heroes, to move away from the “Great [white] Man” approach to history.

Have yourself a lot of heroes. And make sure most of them *aren’t* famous.

Old White Guy Whitesplains Social Justice

Screenshot of David Brooks’ most recent NY Times column. Link here.

David Brooks has swallowed a big lie. Now he is propagating it:

“…a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed.”

Until now, I’ve largely seen the “social justice is a religion” trope from right-wing white evangelicals terrified of losing their political power. Their targets have usually been people like me: pastors who believe Jesus did indeed have much to say on matters of power and oppression. They have simply wanted to discredit folks like me as “not real Christians.” I’m used to this, and have largely let it go.

But David Brooks, who has a much larger platform and sophisticated audience, has now brought this trope into the mainstream. I know a lot of clergy-types and moderates who love Brooks, so I am addressing this primarily to you:

Brooks is giving voice to some of the discomfort you may feel. He’s also completely wrong about activism, and late to the party about symbolism.

Let me start with the obvious bullshit before I come back to the “social justice as religion” trope.

Academics, activists, and organizers ALWAYS point out that symbolic changes are not substantive. This is a truism. A tautology. It’s like saying frosting isn’t cake, or “beauty is only skin deep.” There has been no end of activist writing over how painting “Black Lives Matter” on a street doesn’t change policy, or that “greenwashing” and “rainbow flags” don’t solve anything. “Performative” allyship is primarily about “virtue signaling” (like “politically correct”, this phrase was a liberal self-critique before conservatives co-opted it). And historically-oppressed groups need “accomplices, not allies.” So in pointing out that symbolic changes are… well, symbolic… you are very, very late to the party, David Brooks.

Yet symbols are important, and often most important to the people who say that they *are not*. It is an old, old trick to pretend you don’t care that someone attacks a beloved symbol. Symbols and the rituals around them have power. If they didn’t, most religion would evaporate.

Which brings us back to “religion.”

As a scholar of religion, I need to point out that there are a lot of things that can be called “religion.” Sports, for example, have chants, hymns, rituals, codes of ethics, myths, and sacred texts.

But the rhetorical goal of calling this movement for social justice a “religion” is not to give it importance, but to discredit it. It’s to create a binary choice for people who do consider themselves religious (to support a “false” religion or their own) and for those who do not (to be “religious” or agnostic). It’s to rebuke white evangelicals, some of whom are just waking up to the fact that systemic oppression might be something God cares about, and a call for them to return to the individualistic, status-quo, white supremacist religion of their predecessors.

There is little institutional organization to this anarchic, diverse, grassroots movement we are seeing, so slapping the label “religion” on it is a way to both create a false expectation it can never live up to and to elevate Brooks’ own worldview, which is thoroughly white, male, respectable, and homogenous.

Brooks’ rhetoric also obscures and marginalizes the religious and theological critique of white power. This is especially harmful to womanist, black, and queer theologians and pastors who have been calling us religious folks to take this stuff more seriously for AGES.

There’s a lot more wrong with this article, like the fact that he accuses SJWs of being narrowly focused both on “symbolism” and “structures.” It comes off as argle-bargle from an old white dude. I think he’s anxious that his voice might have less power in the new world that is emerging. “A hit dog will holler,” as they say.

So as one white dude to another: grow up, David Brooks. Take several seats. Read a book. Listen before you opine on stuff you know little about. People have been talking about this stuff LONG before you.

An Inauspicious Anniversary

Nixon and Ehrlichman, from Wikimedia Commons

49 YEARS AGO TODAY, President Nixon kicked off the so-called War on Drugs with a speech on national television (linked in the comments).

This is what his domestic policy advisor said in 1994:

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, 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.” (citation).

This kicked off a five-decades-long increase in mass incarceration which would disproportionately affect black individuals, black communities, black political power, and black economics. It was a primary driver of racist policy down to the state level.

Please understand: substance abuse does harm. But policies weaponized against black people and the poor of all races do so much more harm. It’s an open secret our president has a substance abuse problem, but he’s not in jail. Nor are wealthy businesspeople in Mountain Brook. Or their kids who are involved in using and selling drugs.

Right now, there are human beings wasting years of their lives in prison, while a disproportionate number of wealthy white boys make money off of dispensaries in states where cannabis is legal.

We need to end this farce: Take money away from enforcement, and give it to treatment. Substance abuse is a public health and a mental health problem.

Anything short of this policy overhaul is white supremacy in action.

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.