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.

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kpettus

I am a political theorist, oblate in the Order of St.Benedict, and advocate for universal rational access to essential controlled medicines for pain and palliative care in the lower and middle income countries. I work a lot in Vienna at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and in Geneva at the World Health Organisation, and the Human Rights Council representing the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care. Right now I am full time caregiver to my sister Ruth, who has brain cancer and lives in Baltimore. I am also writing a Catholic Caregiver's blog to document the experience.

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