Temples and Prisons: Changing the Drug Culture

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

These words of Paul to the Corinthians have been used by Christians, perhaps more than any others, to condemn destructive drug habits. And rightly so. There is some disagreement over what the verses mean, but the overall intent is clear – honor your body and treat it as the property of God that it is. It is hard to imagine a legitimate reason for destroying holy property by subjecting it to a constant barrage of harmful chemicals. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right, and when it comes to drug addiction, it is difficult to deny that such is the case.

However, good personal ethics do not always translate easily into good public policy. A moral code cannot simply be written into law and enforced forthwith; in a pluralistic democracy, public policy must be shaped by public interests, not only private ones. And while some drugs have a devastating effect on public health, not all illicit substances are created equal. Marijuana, for example, while potentially dangerous to young people who make heavy and long-term use of it, has never been linked to any fatalities. Physicians estimate that a user would have to smoke well over 5,000 joints in succession in order to fatally overdose, a physical impossibility.(1)

Still, it is hard to argue that substances such as cocaine, heroin and street methadones do not destroy lives. Approximately 17,000 Americans die as a result of illegal drug use every year, an ongoing tragedy willingly perpetuated by substance dealers. And the problem is growing – in the past three decades alone, the number of drug overdoses has risen by 540 percent. (2) The principle of proportionality certainly applies here. Society cannot afford to sit back and ignore this problem.

Approximately 17,000 Americans die as a result of illegal drug use every year, according to the The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Approximately 17,000 Americans die as a result of illegal drug use every year, according to the The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Nor can Christians. The quick fix of legalization that many advocate will do nothing for the 1.5 million people who requested treatment for their addictions to illicit substances last year, nor for the countless others who needed help but never received it. In a fallen world, people will continue to be ensnared by the appeal of destructive but seductive drugs. The merchants of death who peddle them must be prosecuted, and this will do something to stem the tide of abuses. But who will care for the customers of death?

Here is where the faith community can respond to the War on Drugs. Christ came to earth to show love to the unlovely and to cater to the broken and lost in society. His followers do not always do an admirable job of emulating him, but by all rights, we should be first in line to serve our neighbors ensnared in addiction. We know that the addict is in a situation of his or her own making, and that few, strictly speaking, “deserve” our help. But then, none of us are without sin, and we, too, often find ourselves in messes of our own making. We are all customers of death in one way or another. Christ did not come to Earth to teach us a lesson in how to deliver justice more severely. He taught us to have mercy, and to allow His Father to administer the justice.

There are plenty of things that Christians can and should do in the political sphere if they want to improve America’s drug policy. Proportionality is important, and we as Christians should strive to improve the fairness of drug laws through political advocacy, to ensure that all sentences are well-matched to the severity of the crimes that brought them on. It makes little sense to impose harsher punishment on marijuana dealers than cocaine dealers when only the latter are endangering lives, yet such punishments are relatively common in today’s criminal justice system.

Still, anyone can advocate for changes in the drug law code. What we Christians are particularly well-placed to do is to change the way drug users see themselves. By making ourselves available to our friends and neighbors who suffer from substance abuse, showing Christ’s love to them on a regular basis and helping them to overcome the staggering challenges they face, we are doing what the state cannot hope to accomplish by itself: giving love to the loveless.

At the same time, the state’s justice system has in many ways abdicated its responsibilities. True justice must include a path back out of darkness for those who have done their time. Too many drug users lose their souls in prison and never find their way out of the darkness the state has plunged them deeper into. We must work to make sure that victims of drug addiction, whether or not they are prosecuted, have affordable access to counseling, therapy and support so that they can make their way out of their morasses and return to their former positions as healthy and productive members of society.

When thinking of personal drug use, it is all well and good to cite Paul’s words about our body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the day we would all like to be pure. But when thinking of others, it may be more appropriate to remember Jesus’ words in the parable of the sheep and the goats:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

We are all prisoners of one sin or another. Imagine if we treated the prisoners of all sins the way we treat the prisoners of substance addiction.

-Jack Hanke is a sophomore at Gordon College.

1 Iversen, Leslie L. The Science of Marijuana. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 178. Print.

2 Mokdad, Ali H., PhD, James S. Marks, MD, Donna F. Stroup, PhD, and Julie L. Gerberding, MD. “Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 291.10 (2004): 1238-1245. Print.