“BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL, FOR THEY SHALL RECEIVE MERCY”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Clemency, Faith Perspectives

Those of us who have grown up attending church  can recall at least a few familiar Biblical passages. For attorney and law professor Mark Osler, these passages have guided his life.   In 2011, he was a federal prosecutor in Detroit.  His job was to send those accused of dealing, or even possessing, crack cocaine to prison, sometimes for life. Under the law, those with crack, usually African Americans, faced sentences 100 times greater than those, mostly Whites, with powder cocaine. One day Osler remembered Jesus coming upon a group of pharisees who were about stone to death a woman caught in adultery.  When they asked him what they should do, Jesus answered, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” All the men present dropped their stones, and walked silently away. (John 8:7-8)  In the courtroom, Osler realized, “I was the guy with the rock.” Osler resigned his position and took a teaching job at Baylor Law School, where he and legal colleagues successfully challenged the 100 to 1 crack-to-powder disparity. In 2011, he moved to St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis and founded the first law school clemency clinic in the United States. He was instrumental in the creation of the Clemency Initiative at the end of President Obama’s second term. Osler’s work continues to attract national attention. Last week he spoke with Clergy for a New Drug Policy about the Obama Clemency Initiative and prospects for clemency under the Trump administration. Q: Of the 1,715 individuals who received clemency under the Obama Clemency Initiative, how many of their convictions were in some way related to the draconian laws of the War on Drugs? A: Nearly all of them. Q: In light of this, what changes would you propose in our drug laws? A: I would argue for changes in our tactics and strategy, as well as in our drug laws. One of the biggest drivers of unfair sentences is that we use the weight of the drugs at issue as a proxy for culpability. That’s just wrong. If I hire somebody for $500 plus expenses to go down to Laredo and pick up some kilos of methamphetamine, I’m going to make tens of thousands of dollars once I sell those kilos.  If we both get arrested, we are going to face the same sentence because we’re involved in the same activity. But we are not equally culpable, or anything close to it. We should not be addressing people at all.  When it comes to interdiction, the most we can hope for because of the laws of economics is to marginally and temporarily raise the street price of drugs. It’s supply and demand. As long as the demand is there the supply is going come back.  Labor is especially easily replaced. What they should go after is the cash flow because you’re never going to close down a business by sweeping up low wage labor but you can close down a business by denying them cash flow and credit.  The FBI have become real experts at grabbing money going back to terrorist groups. We can apply that expertise to narcotics, and shut them down that way. This would demonstrate a whole new model: The guy who’s selling crack isn’t going to be in prison, he’s just not going have that job anymore. Q: Concerning drug laws, I thought you would say that we need to get rid of mandatory minimums and three strikes. A: Absolutely. The First Step Act is starting to move towards that. Q: If we had proportionate, fair sentencing laws, would we still need clemency? A: You wouldn’t need it as much, but we would still need clemency to take into account people who received long sentences, even if they had serious involvement in narcotics or other crimes, who have changed their lives, who aren’t the same person. You take Rudy Martinez. That was not a case where someone got racked up for a minor role. He was transporting  a lot of cocaine, but the person he was when he did that is fundamentally different than the person he is now. That idea of redemption is that there can be a transformation in a person’s life. You would always need clemency to account for those people whose lives have changed, whose souls, and hearts, and minds, are different. Q: How does that argument apply to the hardest core crimes? Let’s take first degree murder. No matter how repentant, no matter how much one changes, isn’t there degree of retribution needed for some crimes? A: Certainly there is a role for societal retribution. It helps to avoid vigilantism. As long as people are assured that the state is going to take an approach that ensures punishment, they are not going take action into their own hands. But, even for the worst crimes, we can’t rule out the possibility of redemption. King David was a murderer. Paul was a murderer in a conspiracy. They were redeemable. They were given a role. We visit those in prison with the goal of there being a role, a vocation, even for those people who have done terrible things. Q: The Obama Clemency Initiative chose to look only at individuals on a case-by-case basis.  Are there categories he could have used? For example, the ACLU report A Living Death argues that we should review all non-violent offenders who have been given life sentences without parole. A: You could look at people who received really long sentences before they were 22 years old.  We know the brain science which tells us how much people change after that age. We are not serving public safety by spending millions of dollars to incarcerate those people. One thing we could do is go to the warden of each prison and ask “Who doesn’t belong here?” They will tell you. My students go into the prison to interview their clients and the guards say, “This is the guy who should be getting out.” Q: Mark Mauer of The Sentencing Project has argued for no sentences longer than 20 years.   A: I don’t think that’s politically feasible. We’re a long way from that.  There’s an ongoing argument within the advocacy community: Do you go for incremental changes, or do you try to have everything change right now? Even the briefest analysis of our political history will tell you that everything’s incremental. That’s how things change. Look at the civil rights movement.  There wasn’t a before and after. There was a movement toward what’s better. It’s that gradual arc towards justice. Q: Are there other nations with better drug laws? A: Portugal is a reasonable model to look at. It has decriminalized all drugs.  But they also have treatment on demand. One thing that we have to take into account is that the United States is a much greater consumer of narcotics than a nation like Portugal. Our usage rates outstrip those of any other country. The social costs are significant. Most of us know someone who is consumed by opioids and the tragedy that goes with that. We’re going to have to put more resources towards treatment, for example, than a country with a lower rate of consumption. Q: Why do we consume so much more? A: I think it’s in part because of our individualism. We all believe that our lives have to be significant, important, and exciting. Drugs do that. In the same way that Americans all want to be on television, we all want to see things in an exciting way. Selling or doing drugs provides that. Q: What is your assessment of the First Step Act brought forward and passed under the Trump Administration? A: I wrote a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune supporting it. It’s an incremental step and frankly, it’s a lot more than people expected to come from this administration. I think the response is, “That’s great. Let’s keep moving. Let’s get to that next step.” Q: Who is going to implement it?  Attorney General Barr does not seem sympathetic. In his first term as Attorney General, he said, “We have a choice between more prisons and more crime.” A: I think that there is some real opportunity in this administration. In the past, the bar to reform has consistently been the Department of Justice.  Politicians and presidents tend to defer to DOJ. This President does not. This brings a remarkable opportunity We saw that with the First Step Act. The First Step Act includes a lot of things we did not get from the Obama Administration, and the reason was because DOJ said, “Don’t do that.” Well, Donald Trump doesn’t care what DOJ thinks.  On that score, we’re better off. Also, there is a remarkable advocate for reform within the inner circle of this White House. That’s Jared Kushner. Because of the experience of his family due the incarceration of his father, I think he’s really motivated to take action in this area. The third thing is that Attorney General Barr is a believer in the unitary executive theory: the president has to re-claim from the bureaucracy the power that is given to him or her by the Constitution.  This is completely consistent with our argument on clemency: the president has to claim that power and take it back from DOJ. Q: Our discussion thus far pertains to the 181,000 people in the federal prisons system.  This is a small percentage of the over 2.1 million individuals in state prisons and jails.  Is there anything federally that can affect what happens in the states? A: Not directly.  But hopefully, we will see some “leading by example.” It helps that there are some conservative Republicans leading the charge at the national level.  This gives conservatives at the state level permission to do the same thing. When you’ve got Senator Mike Lee and the Koch Foundation arguing for this, it sends a signal to the states. Harsh punishment across the board is no longer entirely a core Republican belief. That’s a game changer. Q: In the introduction, we commented on your Christian faith. Are there other scripture passages that have guided your work?   Micah 6:8 is common to a lot of people.  I remember first coming across that when I was a prosecutor. On the surface, it seems almost glib. You have three values:  justice, mercy, and humility. They are all good, but in criminal law they are in tension with one another. If justice is viewed as treating similarly situated people the same way, it’s fairness.Mercy cuts into that.  In a way, it is an argument for unfairness. What we learn is that the criminal justice system can’t be all mercy or all justice. It has to have aspects of both if it’s going to be principled. Our tendency in the United States is to have all justice and no mercy.  The active push from people who take those principles seriously has to be towards mercy because we are too far towards the other pole. We also need to learn humility. Consider juvenile life without parole. We are saying someone is irredeemable.  We are playing God when we have such certainty about something that is ultimately unknowable, namely the chance of redemption for someone we barely know. Christ also told us, “When you visit those in prison, you visit me.”  This is transformative for me. There is an imperative to visit all those in prison, not just innocent people, not political prisoners, not our friends, but all those who are in prison. The power of that directive is shrouded until people actually do it. I have students who have generally had fairly privileged lives. My clinic students are required to go a prison and spend two days with a client.  They come back transformed. Taking down someone’s life story as they sit in a cell is something that alters the way they see the world. That is exactly what Jesus is after when he tells …

Clergy Support Medical Marijuana in South Carolina

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Faith Perspectives, Jewish Perspectives, Medical Marijuana, Muslim Perspectives, SC

On Wednesday, March 20, more than a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Islamic clergy voiced their support of legislation to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina. Four spoke at press conference, joined by Rev. Alexander Sharp of Clergy for a New Drug Policy. Here are their press conference statements. The South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (S-366) is expected to be taken up by the state senate within the next several days. Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, United Church of Christ “I come to Columbia this morning to stand with my interfaith colleagues in support of the Compassionate Care Act, which will help those who are suffering with chronic and terminal illnesses. I’m here because my faith compels me to care for the suffering. In my seventeen years in congregational ministry, I’ve been present to many suffering with illness. My vocation before church work was that of professional hospital chaplain and bioethicist. In that work I was often at the bedside of someone who was dying, and I worked closely with their doctors and families as we tried to ease their physical and emotional pain. In that work I almost always saw the best in people. Regardless of our many differences, we always came together in the hospital to care for someone and do everything we could to help. And that’s what the Compassionate Care Act does. It brings us together across the lines of faith and partisanship that too often divide us to do something to help each other. I dare say that in these polarized times a bill like this is good medicine for us all. It shows that we can still work together to make a difference. And have no doubt, this bill will make a difference. If we work together to pass it then real people will suffer less. With access to medical cannabis under the direction of their doctors, real South Carolinians will have less pain. Some have suggested that those of us who support this bill have been put up to it somehow, or there are, perhaps, some special groups or secret interests are behind it. But I would like to say very clearly that no one has put me up to this. I traveled to Columbia today to speak for myself about an issue that effects many who suffer with chronic and terminal illness. I am here because I believe the act is aptly named and really is about compassionate care. I’m here because my Christian faith taught me the Golden Rule, that we should treat others in the way that we would want to be treated ourselves. And all of us, were we in pain, would want to have our pain addressed and managed by our doctors. Most South Carolinians, I think, understand the Golden Rule. According to a benchmark research poll taken last December, 72% of us support medical cannabis. This may explain why the bill is bipartisan and why representatives of such diverse faith traditions stand together in support of it. We know that we should care for those who are suffering. Before I close I would like to tell you why I am really here, why this issue cuts close to home for me, and why I am grateful to all who have worked so hard to bring the Compassionate Care Act to South Carolina. When I was in college my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I left school for a time to return home and help my mother take care of him. He became a hospice patient in our home, and I remember the doctors and the nurses working so hard to help us manage his pain, which grew worse and worse over time. It was incredibly difficult to see someone we loved so much in so much pain. In my father’s case we relied on morphine, not cannabis, yet under the supervision of his doctors, the medication was able to ease his pain enough that he could rest. Friends visited. Family sat by his bedside. Everyone came together to help, and we created a place for him that was loving and dignified. As this bill moves through the process I offer my own prayers that it will pass and that our state will embody the golden rule when it comes to those who suffer with illness. May we treat our neighbors with the kindness and compassionate and care that we would all want for ourselves. Thank you.” Rev. Ivory Thigpen, Baptist “When we look at the name of this bill, Compassionate Care Act, there could not have been any better name given to it. For, indeed, we should as a civilization, as well as humanity and legislators, always teach ourselves to care for others and have compassion. When we look to the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ example is very clear. Not only does it say “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” but at every miracle and every turn of Him engaging and caring for the lives of those that he so dramatically changed, the scriptures read that He had compassion. And in this day and age, where we really need to be our brother and our sister’s keeper, when we have individuals who have illnesses that debilitate them, illnesses that are terminal, illnesses that reduce their quality of life, let alone their quantity of life, we must have compassion. And so, as we look to pass this legislation, I want you to think about if it were your family member that was suffering, if it were your family member that was in debilitating pain and there was something within your means to care for them, then you would, by all means, have compassion. So as we seek to encourage others and educate them on the benefits of what this type of legislation can do, we will see a lot of people across the state of South Carolina helped because we were, as our scriptures say, called to be compassionate. Thank you so much.” Rabbi Eric Mollo “In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses, “I’ve heard the cry of my people, I will save them with an outstretched hand.” We are made in the image of God, and being made in the image of God we have the opportunity to extend our hand, too, in compassion, in love. We have the opportunity to lift up the fallen. That’s what the Compassionate Care Act can do. It can lift up those in pain. It can lift up those who are suffering and provide them the relief they need. It’s not a “can we do it, it’s a must.” We must do it. The medieval rabbis taught, “Men are stood well,” but we are still debating today. They wrote, “Where there exists a possibility that a certain cure or medicine is administered and the patient may have a quality of life or it may have the opposite effect of hastening his death, it is permissible to provide the medication.” Those words are five hundred years old, surely we can do better today to provide care and a better quality of life to those who need medical cannabis to quell their suffering. We are behind the times. There can be no sufficient excuse to believe otherwise. Thank you.” Rev. Terry Alexander, Baptist “On almost a daily basis I know of friends who are suffering from chronic pain, whereas if they take prescribed medicines that they have now, it would have them all discombobulated, addicted, particularly our veterans. They do not take the medicine. They walk around or they cannot walk around because of the excruciating pain that has grabbed their body. Medical cannabis is an alternative for the opioids, and it’s an alternative to pain. Alternative, another option, just as you would go to the store and get Aleve or Excedrin, why is it or why can’t an individual who are suffering from pain not have an option, as well? This bill gives relief to those who are hurting.  Not only does it relieve the sufferer, but it also helps to relieve the caregiver. Sometimes miss that point: the caregivers, who see their family member suffer because they do not have the medication that would give them relief. What kind of state or what kind of country is this? We have the assistance, the medication, have the know-how to provide relief for its people and we refuse to do so. And until it hits home, we will probably have a different posture, but I’m here because I’ve seen it. I’ve been approached by those who are hurting, who are saying, “Terry, we need that bill. It relieves me, it helps me, it comforts me.” So I encourage you who are watching, I encourage you to call your legislator and encourage them to support this bill, get it out of committee so we can move it to the governor’s office for signature. Thank you very much.” Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, United Church of Christ “Clergy for a New Drug Policy seeks a health, not punishment, response to drug use. I am delighted to be here with a genuinely interfaith, interracial gathering on behalf of this bill. If you look at the folks who are supporting and signing on, you will find Christian, Jewish, and Islamic voices coming together for all the reasons that you’ve heard. I’d like to support what has been said, but, perhaps, not been said clearly enough. Scientific evidence supports this bill. That is not in doubt. If you can oppose this bill you maybe have your private, somewhat, cramped reasons for doing so, but you can’t oppose it because there isn’t scientific evidence. In my state, we have passed a bill that provides medical cannabis as a substitute for opioids. Think of that. In the midst of an opioid crisis, a response that is less expensive, has less side effects, and relieves pain. Thirty-three states have approved this bill, it’s time for South Carolina to do likewise.”

“Of course addiction leads to crime…We have made it illegal”

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Faith Perspectives

Every generation has its icons. When it comes to drug policy the Rev. Howard Moody belongs at the top of our list.  As pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village from 1957 through 1992, he opposed the War on Drugs even before Richard Nixon declared it.   When most in society responded to drug addicts—then called “junkies”—as modern-day lepers, Rev. Moody embraced them.  He founded the first drug treatment clinic in Greenwich Village. He called out a society that to this day condemns as criminals those who use drugs.   We know—above all else—that criminalizing drug use is immoral.  As we work to end the War on Drugs, lost long ago (although its bureaucratic generals in Washington D.C. do not recognize this), we can  learn and be guided by insights Howard Moody gave us. The following texts are excerpted from sermons, from a book, and from articles published in the journal Christianity and Crisis. “It is important that we finally recognize that cures and prescriptions for ending drug use by the intimidation of harsh legal penalties are much more dangerous than the drug itself.” [CAC, Nov. 24, 1969] “Attempts to control social behavior by legal fiat, as in the case of our attitude toward heroin addicts, leads to certain immorality.  We judge that the addict’s ‘sickness’ or ‘personality weakness’ is morally or legally wrong and then we deny the patient relief by making his medicine illegal and its acquisition a felony punishable by imprisonment.”  [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971] “It is evidence of our pharisaical self-righteousness that we, a people who manufacture, pre-package and sell escapism as a salvation, at the same time label a portion of our population… as dangerous, criminal types, ‘dope fiends’ and ‘insanely sick’ people.”  [Voice] “The problem is not drugs as pharmacological agents, it is people—not only people who take certain drugs, but people who are prejudiced about those who use certain drugs and people in authority who pass laws against certain drugs.”  [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971] “Of course addiction leads to crime because we have made it illegal to carry or use the drug.  I wonder if the diabetic who was deprived of insulin and had to acquire the next shot illegally would seem any less a criminal type in the extent to which he might go in acquiring it.   “The trouble with most of our policy in the past 15 to 20 years is that it has not recognized that control, prevention, and treatment cannot be dealt with separately…Every attempt to isolate a human problem from the social milieu that produces it and nurtures it is doomed to failure.   “For this reason those of us who stand on the other side of the law from the addict and the drug user should take a serious look at ourselves and the society out of which illegal drug addiction has grown.  It might prove a helpful exercise in humility to confess the collective immorality of a society that spawns these social ‘miscreants.’ “For a culture that legally spends millions on betting, booze, and beauty, it seems incongruous (if not morally reprehensible) to condemn to everlasting shame and dehumanization the bewildered and frightened ones who choose to get lost in the netherworld of a heroin high.” [CAC, June 14, 1965] “Drug use is natural and universal, found in all times, all places, and in many societies.  So it is a little ridiculous to treat drugs as the ‘Enemy,’ whether it’s the church treating drug use as a ‘sin’ or the state treating it as a crime.”  [Sermon] “The Church has been and will be, consciously or unconsciously, unwitting accomplices in ‘scares’ and ‘wars against drugs’ because drug hysteria always indicts individual behavior and morality rather than the endemic social and structural issues that are at the heart of a form of social disintegration in this country.” ([CAC, Nov. 15, 1971] “I think church people, and perhaps many people, love the ‘just say no’ campaign; but that was the concoction of an administration that had just said ‘no’ to every program aimed at creating alternatives for kids in the ghettos.  Unfortunately these kids can’t say no to poverty. They were born and bred in it.  They can’t say no to not working.  There aren’t any jobs.” [CAC, Nov. 15, 1971] “The greatest beneficiaries of the outlawing of the drug trade are organized and unorganized drug traffickers.  More than half of all organized crime revenues come from the illegal drug business.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990] “Interdiction is supposed to reduce street sales by raising the price of drugs through increasing the cost of smuggling the drugs.  But a recent Rand Corporation study showed that ‘smuggling cost’ accounts for one percent of the street price. That will scarcely affect sales.  Interdiction accomplishes almost nothing.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990] “Why is it that the more money and personnel we put into interdiction, the more drugs we have on the streets?  Decades and billions of dollars later, we are worse off than ever.” [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990] “The $10 billion a year spent on interdiction hasn’t done much to stop the flow of drugs.  But we have managed to clog our prisons with drug offenders and bring to a stand-still the criminal justice system in our large metropolitan areas.“ [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990)] “The attempt to prevent, regulate and control drug-taking is always greeted with protest and evasion…During Prohibition, people still got drunk, became alcoholics, and menaced the highways—but some things were worse.  Contaminated ‘rotgut’ whiskey caused blindness, paralysis and death.“ [Fentanyl is today’s version of a prohibition-induced drug. —Ed.]   “If Congressman Rangel knew history better, he would not add to the hysteria by taking up the sword in the drug war against a spurious enemy, for he will be impaled on his own sword and the people of the black and Hispanic ghetto will be the victims.“ [U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel served five primarily African American districts in New York City from 1971 to 2017.  He supported the War on Drugs in the 1980s—Ed.]  [Sermon] “What is the role of the churches in this troubled area?  First, to educate themselves about the facts and fictions of addiction… perhaps the most important and immediate task is to help create a new climate of public opinion whereby our laws may be liberalized so as to deal realistically and humanely with the victims of addiction.“ [CAC, June 14, 1965] “Unless we are willing to evaluate the options, including various legalization policies, we will likely enlarge the catastrophic consequences of our present policies.”  [CAC, Feb. 19, 1990] SOURCES: Christianity and Crisis. Vol. 25, 1965-66; Vol. 29, 1969; Vol. 31, 1971; Vol. 50, 1990-91. [CAC] History as Antidote to Drug Hysteria. Sermon. March 1990. [Sermon] Moody, Howard. A Voice in the Village. New York: Howard Moody, 2009. [Voice] I wish to thank Abigail Hastings, long-time friend and parishioner of Rev. Moody, for compiling this material. Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

The Church of Safe Injection Saves Lives

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Drug Education, Faith Perspectives, Harm Reduction

There is a new church on the horizon.  It usually operates out of the back ends of cars, often after dark and late into the night.  So far it exists in six locations in Maine as well as in six other states. It is called the Church of Safe Injection.   Its founder is a 26-year old drug recovery coach named Jesse Harvey.  He preaches the Gospel of Harm Reduction: we should use all possible measures to protect drug users from the harm of their drug use. Measures include clean needle exchanges, and, in the case of potential overdose deaths, a life-saving substance called naloxone.   “All too often, people who use drugs are offered only two choices, ‘Get sober or die.’” Harvey wrote recently in the Portland Herald.  “Jesus would have rejected this shameful and lethal binary….’Let all that you do be done in love,’ states 1 Corinthians 16:14. Too often when ‘religious’ people attack us on Facebook, their hate shines through and they betray this passage.  They betray Jesus.” Last October Harvey started loading up the trunk of his 2017 Honda with sterile needles, naloxone, rubber tourniquets, alcohol swabs, and other materials to avoid infection.  Every week, usually in the evening, he drives to a site in Lewiston where drug users congregate. He makes these supplies available to all who need them. For many, these gatherings seem almost like a mass.  Harvey himself has no doubt he is doing what Jesus would have done: “If syringes had been around in Jesus’ day, He would have supported safe injection, and he would have made sure the people he hung out with had access to sterile supplies.” While many states have now authorized needle exchanges, 15 do not, and services that do exist are often sparse.  Maine, which spans over 35,385 square miles, offers only six, mostly in the southern part of the state. Only four make naloxone available. Harvey is certified as a minister by the Universal Life church, which ordains individuals to perform weddings, baptisms, funerals, and start congregations. He carries a card that identifies him as a “disciple & acolyte.” The Church of Safe Injection has only three rules for members:  they must welcome people of all faiths, including atheists; serve all marginalized people; and, of course, commit to supporting harm reduction. For the most part, the individuals have gathered outdoors. But there have been some house meetings along readings, including scripture. The location within a physical structure will bring Harvey closer to what has been his goal from the beginning:  a safe injection site where individuals can administer their own drugs under supervised care to insure safe and clear conditions. Such sites exist in at least 60 cities spread across Western Europe, Canada, and Australia. They are illegal in the United States, but strong support exists in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle.   Harvey’s strategy at this point is: first, to incorporate the church as a not-for-profit; and, then, to apply for a religious exemption from federal law.  He is looking to a 2006 Supreme Court decision that permitted a small sect to continue import a mind-altering drug – ayahuasca – for use in religious services. At the end of the day, what Jesse Harvey is doing is an act of civil disobedience. He is breaking the law.  He distributes more than the limit of 10 needles at a time permitted in Maine. He also has never obtained certification to operate a needle exchange facility.    He sees no alternative. “Overwhelmingly, the churches I’ve reached out to are not interested in helping people who use drugs…Politicians, law enforcement, and health care haven’t taken the lead here, so our church is,” he writes. “Join the Church of Safe Injection and save lives.”   “We do not encourage drug use. However, it is our sincere religious belief that people who use drugs do not deserve to die, not when there is a proven, cost-efficient, feasible, compassionate solution that can be so easily implemented.” Who among us can disagree? Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, Executive Director

Responding to Addiction through Faith, Not “Fixing”

grygielny Faith Perspectives, Guest Pieces, Harm Reduction

Bob Feeny is a third-year student at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He is seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ.  I am never sure where to begin the story of my brother Jeff’s addiction. This is largely due to the fact that his story is not mine; I can only tell my story of his addiction.  I did not know it then, but I think that my story of my brother’s addiction began on Christmas Eve, 2007.  We were in the apartment where my mom and brother lived. My mother had recently stabilized after a few years of erratic bipolar swings and isolation worsened by an abusive relationship, and my brother had moved in with her after living with extended family for a few years.  We were spending Christmas together like a normal family. Things were good. We spent much of the evening with my aunt and uncle—both “functioning” alcoholics. At some point a bottle of vodka came out, and my 18-year old brother started drinking.  A few hours later he stood over the sink, violently ill. The next morning, instead of the up-at-dawn Christmas of our youth that I had hoped for, I sat around with my mother wondering when Jeff would emerge from upstairs. Fast-forward to Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016. It has been 4 months since I learned that my 27-year old brother had become addicted to heroin—and he has just sent me a text that reads, “I’m sorry man, I am too sick to come out for Thanksgiving.”  I had been out to see him as he had gotten clean. He was confident, we had a vision for his future, I was so hopeful for him. Clearly, he had relapsed. I could not begin to understand how this had happened.  He seemed so determined to change his life. But over time it became clear that willpower was not enough to keep my little brother clean.  His confidence began to seem foolish to me; my own hope, hubris. If I’m being honest, I resigned myself to the fact that my brother’s life was essentially over.  Given our family’s history of addiction and the staggering statistics surrounding this country’s opioid epidemic—this seemed like a warranted stance. Addiction seems to be a demon that America simply cannot cast out.  Decades of the War on Drugs have done nothing to mitigate the problem.  We’ve spent an unfathomable amount of resources telling people to “just say no,” and trying to convince them along with ourselves, that if they just find something to be hopeful about, they are going to drum up the confidence it takes to beat addiction.  Our response has been in vain. I wonder, however, if faith may offer us a unique perspective, one that has not yet been attempted.  It’s easy to mix up faith with hope. And certainly, the two are interrelated in many ways. However, as someone who loves an addict, I must admit that I am not capable of responding hopefully to every situation.   But what if faith really isn’t about hope?  What if faith is less like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and more like just standing knee-deep in sludge, in a tunnel that seems to go on as far as we can see in either direction?  What if faith is simply being willing to stand in that hopeless place, and know that somehow, God is present? I don’t know what the future holds for my brother.  I don’t know what to hope for, and quite frankly, I’m not sure that hope is really the best thing that people of faith can offer.  There are people everywhere willing to offer hope. Medical professionals, rehab centers, community health initiatives- these things all offer hope.  Some offer hope as a commodity, others are genuinely confident that addiction can be overcome. The truth is, all of these things are necessary at one point or another in recovery.   But all of these things look past the person suffering, into the person they can be if they just believe in themselves.  I want to believe that when Jesus tells his disciples that they lack faith, what he’s really telling them is that they’ve failed to see the child for who he is.  In their excitement about the possibility of ‘fixing’ him, they’ve refused to bear witness to his brokenness; they haven’t stood in the dark and the muck. I often struggle to imagine what it is that’s ultimately going to save my brother.  But maybe I don’t need to. Maybe faith doesn’t require me to visualize the positive ending.  Maybe it doesn’t require me to find a solution, or even to think that there is a solution. Maybe my mustard seed is having the courage to admit that I love my brother, Jeff, the addict, just as he is.  The person who may never hold a steady job. The person who may never find true love. The person who may die younger than I’d hoped.   My prayer for the Church is that as a people who have been transformed by God’s grace, we would never give up hope that lives shattered by addiction can be redeemed.  I pray that we would never lose our confidence that our God is a God who keeps transforming lives, opening up possibilities that we could never have imagined. With this hope, I pray that we will speak up about addiction, and champion research-based approaches to prevention, treatment, and policy reform regarding addiction.  But more than that, I pray that we as the Church would realize our truly unique contribution to casting out the demons of addiction: faith. Not the Hallmark version of faith, the one with the rosy flourishes and the sappy endings, but the faith that looks the demon square in the eyes, and refuses to stop seeing the soul that it tortures.