Faith and harm reduction. What defiles and defines us.

cypriot jesus

Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them,

“Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” Mark 7:14-23

People who use drugs that are illegal are not “defiled” by the substances, although they might be harming their health, since the drugs enter their physical system but not their “heart” – and end up back in the sewer. The ones who are defiled are the people whose hearts generate “evil thoughts” – particularly the arrogance and folly that condemn the most vulnerable to a life of stigma, shame, unemployment, prison, or worse because of their drug use.   They are the politicians and elites who continue to support policies that benefit powerful constituencies while hurting the weakest, easiest targets.

So what is the best approach to those evils that come from within? I’m afraid – since I must do it – that the best approach starts by being aware of the “evil thoughts” in myself, watching them as they arise and motivate me.  I certainly have my share of thoughts that are full of judgment, arrogance, and folly.  I am no stranger to licentiousness, unchastity, adultery, greed, envy, blasphemy or deceit, much as it embarrasses me to write those words.  I too am defiled from within.  So how I can I judge the ones who make policies that cause harm?  My spiritual practice teaches me to pray for those who persecute me (Matthew 5: 43) and to bless those who persecute; bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14).

My humanist friends will no doubt gag at such a sentiment and practice (as do I initially), but then people of faith are “fools for Christ” and tend to do things upside down from the perspective of the secular worldview.  Praying for those who persecute us and being aware of our own defilements in no way prevents us from working for justice, though.  We can bless and not curse while still taking whatever steps need to be taken in public life to ensure that people who choose – or are no longer able to choose – to put certain substances in their bodies that are designated illegal are not treated as though they were defiled, stigmatized, punished, and executed.   We can still ensure, by taking practical steps, that people are treated with friendliness, dignity, and compassion, rather than contempt.  I’m on the right track if what comes from my heart doesn’t defile me, or anyone else when I do my work, which is always a challenge as someone who has been brought up, and professionally trained to be a critic.

Drug Policy, Faith and Vulnerability: Salt and Light

A meditation on drug policy and the Word: security, vulnerability, and light. 

Katherine Irene Pettus, PhD 

If you remove from your midst / oppression… then light shall rise for you in the darkness, / and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

 Isaiah 58:7-10

I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

I. Corinthians 2:1-5

Much of the talk about “drug policy” in local, national, and international circles I move in focuses on the concept of “security” and indeed, much of drug policy is now “securitized” – meaning that politicians connect the threat of “drugs” with threats to national security, combating it with increased law enforcement funding and intelligence services.  The rationale is that drugs not only threaten individual and public health, but that trafficking and money laundering destabilize good governance, sustainable development, human rights, etc.

There is no doubt that many individuals, families, and communities experience the very negative and often tragic effects of illegal drug use and trafficking. My family is only one of the millions suffering the effects of prohibition and mass incarceration.  The question, though, is whether it is “drugs” themselves – the plants and pharmaceutical preparations that cause narcotic effects, that are the problem, or the fact that they are illegal and therefore unregulated. By definition, their illegality puts the drug economy in the hands of criminals and international criminal networks. People who use drugs, whether for pleasure, because they are “dependent,” or are “addicted” must then also participate in criminal networks, often at the cost of their health and their lives.

What on earth, or in heaven’s name, you might be wondering, might this have to do with faith, or with religion, or even today’s readings?  A lot.  The oppression Isaiah names, which must be removed, is the illegality and stigma that accompanies drug use.  That oppression brands people who use drugs as outsiders, as separate, or unholy, and is reminiscent of the illegality, ostracism, and repulsion that branded the lepers and “demoniacs” Jesus healed from his compassion.  Purity laws, whether Talmudic, Christian, or secular (in the form of drug prohibition) by definition separate people considered ‘unclean’ from the body of Christ and the Kingdom.  Jesus very intentionally turned those laws upside down when he touched the ‘impure’: bleeding women and sex workers, paraplegics, schizophrenics, the dying, and even the dead.  It seems self evident that, as Isaiah said, and Jesus demonstrated, removing oppression from our midst brings light.

Paul’s disarming admission of weakness, which he (counter) intuitively understands as Power, combines two apparent opposites that generate the paradoxical resource of vulnerability. This universal, incredibly uncomfortable, aspect of the human condition, makes us shriek as infants, and use substances or activities (alcohol, coffee, tobacco, sex, shopping, or narcotics] as young people and adults. Paul’s letter puts us on notice that our search for the (individual or collective) security that temporarily offsets our vulnerability is futile. As one who oppressed the vulnerable himself – Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? –would have rung in his ears through his dying moments, Paul learned at a molecular level on the road to Damascus that the current of Power only flows through the fabric of utter defenselessness.

Jesus tells the disciples that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, a light that must not be hidden. Apparently speaking in riddles, he asks what salt can be seasoned with once it loses its taste.  His/our vulnerability is our saltiness: even our tears are salty, and the moment we try to armor ourselves against the “weakness, fear, and much trembling” Paul describes, by scapegoating and sacrificing others, we lose our savor and dim our inherent and collective radiance.   Societies that support rather than punish vulnerable people who use drugs are more resilient and have better public heeclipsealth outcomes than those that try to stamp them out in the futile effort to create a “drug free society”.

The apparent power of the state (us) to criminalize drug use only empowers traffickers, police, and prison guards. Admitting and sharing our individual and collective defenselessness in the face of our very human desire to alter our consciousness, paradoxically returns to us the power to remove oppression, casting a very different light on the “drug problem” and allowing us to begin resolving it together, in the parliament of the Kingdom that admits of no outsiders.

Katherine Pettus, PhD is an independent scholar and consultant who represents the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care as an NGO at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.  She is also a convert to the Roman Catholic faith and a member of the English community of Sacred Heart church in Budapest.