Do Churches Care About Addiction?

By Alexander E. Sharp ’65 B.A.

In mainline Protestant churches, you don’t hear a lot about addiction. I’ve visited many congregations across the country. It’s been my experience that you can go into almost any mainline church and see no hint that addiction existsin our families, our friends, even in ourselves. But we need healing. We need advocacy.

Our mission focuses on healing, not punishment. Punishment has caused an unspeakable amount of human misery.

Many churches don’t do advocacy around the crisis of addiction. Why? First of all, it’s hard. Usually the problem is not that clergy lack courage. I think they just don’t know where to start: how to structure the conversation and find strategies for being heard. Most seminaries don’t teach that. But they should. There are good models in churches around the country to draw upon. And there are secular organizations with vast amounts of information on addiction, specifically drug use: The Drug Policy Alliance, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, and others. I hope ministers get to know them.

“Al, You’re Scaring Me to Death”

For some congregations, advocacy is too controversial. When I was in divinity school, I worshipped at a church near the campus. It was the Clinton era of intense public discussions about health care. I suggested to my own pastor that she invite experts on a Sunday after the sermon to debate the pros and cons of universal coverage. She turned to me with a pained look and said, “Al, you’re scaring me to death.” 

So it’s not surprising that many churches don’t talk about advocacy. Advocacy assumes an agenda. But my hope is people of faith will, in this instance, realize the urgent need to change our drug laws and to advance what is called “harm reduction,” helping people limit the harm of their drug use rather than insisting they abandon drugs altogether under an “abstinence only” policy. Harm reduction includes administering naloxone, which revives people on the brink of overdose death; providing clean needles and syringes to limit the spread of diseases such as hepatitis and HIV; medically assisted treatment, like buprenorphine and methadone, to assist in managing withdrawal; and, yes, safe consumption sites, where individuals can bring their drugs and self-administer them under medical supervision.

Regulation of Vice

To be clear: I am not encouraging drug use. What my organization, Clergy for a New Drug Policy, is saying is that drugs are a modern fact of life. Our focus should be not on drug use but on drug abuse and its harm to individuals and society. Prohibition is not the answer. We advocate education and regulation, which can take many forms. (Here I recommend Regulating Vice by James Leitzel, a public policy specialist at the University of Chicago. He defines “vices” as pleasures that can become harmfulcertainly drug use, but also gambling, pornography, and other behaviors.)

Clergy for a New Drug Policy opposes the nation’s protracted “War on Drugs”the mandatory minimum sentences, civil asset forfeiture, private prisons, cash bail, and the collateral consequences of drug convictions, including deeply racist patterns of incarceration that devastate communities of color. Under current law, drug offenses can carry with them the denial of public housing, food stamps income assistance, education grants. These may not seem directly related to addiction, but they can make addiction seem like a rational option if you are one step away from living on the street.

A Theological Wrong

The War on Drugs calls for punishment for individuals who are using drugs, including those who have an addiction, to be locked up. This is simply wrong, theologically wrong. This is not what Jesus did. He did not say to the woman caught in adultery, “Go down to the local jail house and turn yourself in.” No, he said, “Go and sin no more.” He did not lecture the Samaritan Woman at the Well on all she had done wrong in her life. He spoke to her about the “living water … (indeed) everyone who drinks of this water will never be thirsty again” (John 4:10, 13). Not a bad message for those drowning in alcohol. Jesus healed without condemnation. He held people accountable, but he did not blame them.

Our mission focuses on healing, not punishment. Punishment has caused an unspeakable amount of human misery. What is the problem that punishment is intended to address? To answer this, we need to consider for a moment the nature of addiction and its causes. Let’s join the perpetual debate about whether addiction is a “disease” or a “choice.” 

Disease or Choice?

Many federal researchers making great advances in neurophysiology are passionate advocates of the “disease” model. They talk about changes that become etched into neural pathways, “hijack” the brain, and never go away. Hence the notion that addiction is a “chronic disease.” 

Philosophers and psychologists are more likely to argue that addiction is, at some level, a matter of “choice,” even as they recognize the often-overwhelming difficulty of achieving recovery.

The reality is more complex. I like what pastoral theologian Sonia Waters of Princeton Theological Seminary tells us in Addiction and Pastoral Care: “It is not just one cause that creates an addiction, but a dynamic tangle of vulnerabilities that catches the individual in the net of addictive behavior.” Neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz accepts the concept of “disease” but sees addiction most fundamentally as a learning disorder. In Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, she says: “Addiction doesn’t just happen to people because they come across a particular chemical and begin taking it regularly. It is learned and has a history rooted in their individual, social, and cultural development.”

Lock ’em Up?

If addiction is a disease, it should be obvious why punishment does not make sense. When was the last time you heard that someone had been arrested for lung cancer or type 2 diabetes (even though “disease” proponents note that individuals themselves have contributed to their own condition)? By contrast, according to punishment ideology, we can be held responsible for our actions because drug use is a choice. We have moral agency. So … lock ’em up.

One practical difficulty with punishment is that law enforcement generally lumps drug use and addiction together. Even if prison might deter a drug user from future usegenerally not the case – do we really think that’s where those living with addiction belong? Most of us who live relatively comfortable lives are oblivious to the violence that jail and prison inflict upon body and soul. Locking someone in a cage and giving him or her a number, not a name, even for a short period of time, are surely acts of violence. As others have observed, “Poverty is violence in slow motion.” So is incarceration.

A Punitive Spirit

When it comes to healing addiction and stopping drug use, punishment for the most part does not work.[1] When punishment is our first resort, we are making misguided assumptions about human behavior and how people change. Addiction forces us to address this question acutely. I submit that nurture, not punishment, is the better answer.

So where does that leave us? Here’s where advocacy comes in. We have an extraordinary opportunity right now to speak out with a dual message. First, that punishment – treating drug use and addiction as a crimeis wrong, indeed immoral. It stigmatizes people, giving us an excuse to shun those who are struggling and to walk on the other side of the road. It is a signal they are not welcome in our churches. And second, that drug treatment is the right and compassionate response. We can take the position, as clergy and congregations, that all low-level drug use should be decriminalized and, simultaneously, that anyone who seeks it should be steered to treatment.

Let me define decriminalization. This is not the same as legalization. Under decriminalization, drug use is deemed a civil offense, like a traffic ticket. Selling drugs remains illegal.

A Movement Afoot

This is not pie in the sky. Decriminalization has already become law in one stateOregonafter voters approved it last November. Low-level drug possession and use is now legal in Oregon. Treatment will be offered in any of 10 regional health centers to all who accept the referral. This will be paid for by higher-than-expected revenues from cannabis legalization.

Arguably we already have decriminalization in our midst. We took this step almost 40 years ago, when we first began to practice harm reduction. A pastor was at the vanguard of this movement in the US. The Rev. Edwin Sanders of Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville started offering clean needles to addicts in the vacant lot across from his church. He did not want people dying from HIV/AIDS because of dirty needles. Some in his congregation asked, How can you do that, pastor? He answered, I can’t save souls if people are dead.

Although drug decriminalization so far is limited to Oregon, it will become a movement among states. Advocates in New York and California are already exploring similar policies. Once you decide to help people rather than arrest them, you are practicing harm reductionthe rest is detail.

Reluctant Clergy

Clergy can advocate openly for this. This is actually easier for ministers to support than legalization of cannabis. In recent years, I’ve traveled to at least 10 states on behalf of cannabis legalization. I sought help from many clergy. I was always grateful if they were prepared to discuss this with their congregations, but I was not surprised that most did not. Even though probably 65 percent of the congregations supported legalization, that left 35 percent who felt that marijuana use is wrong. Who wants to take on a third of their congregation? Clergy were willing to allow me to use their names and personal addresses, not the name of their church. I respected this position and was grateful for their individual support.

Decriminalization is different. Such laws do not condone use. You can argue that drug use is wrong and still support decriminalization laws. They come with a civil penalty while preventing society from labeling someone as a criminal for low-level drug use or possession. It says that such branding is wrong and, in religious terms, immoral.

Other forms of advocacy are finding voice, depending on circumstances. There are neighborhoods where it makes sense for pastors and staff to be trained in how to administer naloxone. In these same neighborhoods, church leadership could invite mobile units that provide harm-reduction services, like clean needles, and basic health supplies to show up in the church parking lot at least once a week.

Invite speakers to your church to talk about addiction and harm reduction. It will not be long before cities across the country are considering whether to permit what are called safe consumption sites. Right now, there is only one in North Americain Vancouver, Canada. I’ve visited it. It saves lives and offers the possibility of treatment. More than 60 exist in Europe and Australia. In this country, Philadelphia is on the cusp:  the city has approved it, but it was stayed by the regional US Attorney. This opposition will someday be overruled. I am proud that Clergy for a New Drug Policy and a host of other religious voices have signed on to an amicus brief in this case.

Charity Isn’t Enough

If advocacy in churches is difficult, and often unpopular, why should churches do it, on addiction or anything else? I offer three reasons. The first seems obvious but too often we don’t articulate it. My friends, we can’t avoid advocacy. If we say nothing on the issues of the day, and certainly those of deepest Christian concern, we are endorsing the status quoa very political position. Silence is consent. The only question is what kind of advocates we will be.

A second reason for advocacy is that charitygiving to the food pantry or the homeless shelteris insufficient. Charity can help alleviate the conditionspoverty, poor education, and morebut it can never address the causes.

The third reason points to the very nature of love. At its core, our faith is about nothing other than love. But without action, what is love? One cannot love in the abstract. One loves in relationship. We can’t love our neighbor without caring what happens to our neighbor. Advocacy is a form of caring.

“We Can End This War”

At some point, we have to ask ourselves what kind of churches, what kind of pastors, we want to be. If we are concerned about congregation members who may walk out, it may be that even more individuals will be attracted to boldness and variety than to passivity and blandness.

Let me close by mentioning a man I deeply admire. Mark Osler ’90 J.D. is a professor at St. Thomas School of Law in St. Paul, MN, and a renowned expert and advocate on clemency and pardons for the wrongly convicted and those serving excessive sentences. As someone who grew up in a church environment, he could cite at least a few familiar biblical passages. They stayed with him.

For many years, Osler was a federal prosecutor in Detroit. His job was to send those accused of dealing, or even just possessing, crack cocaine to prison, sometimes for life. Under the law, those dealing crack, usually African Americans, were 100 times more likely to be convicted than those, mostly whites, using powder cocaine.

One day Osler remembered Jesus saying to the Pharisees who were about stone to death the woman caught in adultery, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

“I realized,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014, “I was the guy with the rock.”

What are we doing in our congregations? If we are silent about addiction, are we not holding stones in our hands, even if we do not throw them? Through an excess of caution, are we not failing to do what we reasonably could do to turn back the spirit of punishment that has made the War on Drugs the longest war in our nation’s history?

We can end this war. If prosecutors and legislators can see the light and step forward, surely as people of faith we can too.

The Rev. Alexander E. Sharp ’65 B.A., a United Church of Christ minister, is Executive Director of Clergy for a New Drug Policy, which advocates a health response – healing, not punishment – to the drug crisis. This article is based on a webinar he gave for The Center of Addiction & Faith earlier this year.

[1] See Cassie Spohn and David Holleran, “The Effect of Imprisonment on Recidivism Rates of Felony Offenders: A Focus on Drug Offenders,” Criminology journal, 2002, pp. 329-358; Brian Elderbroom and Julia Durnan, “Reclassified: State Drug Reforms to Reduce Felony Convictions and Increase Second Chances,” Urban Institute study, 2013; D. Werb, A Kamarulzaman, M.C. Meacham et al, “The Effectiveness of Compulsory Drug Treatment: A Systematic Review,” International Journal of Drug Policy, 2016; “More Imprisonment Does Not Reduce State Drug Problems,” Pew Charitable Trusts, March 8, 2018.