Prohibition and purity

Text: Matthew 15:1-20 (what makes a person holy?)

Policing what goes in our mouths is a common practice. Parents try to stop toddlers from sticking random objects in their mouths. Nutritionists warn us against eating foods loaded with sodium, sugar and saturated fat. Public health campaigns urge us to not smoke and to drink only in moderation.

Others try to convince us to put things in our mouths. Food and alcohol companies spend fortunes on advertising. McDonald’s has succeeded to the point where the first hint of literacy in a child is often recognition of the “M” of the Golden Arches. Drug companies give doctors incentives to prescribe their medicines. Small- and large-scale criminals ensure that teenagers have access to illegal drugs outside every school and concert.

Then there are the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. They are concerned with purity – in this case, hand-washing. They also remind people that certain foods are considered unclean.

Despite being as Jewish as the leaders of the Pharisees, Jesus is not so concerned about the rules around eating and drinking. He reminds us that everything we put into our mouths — kosher and un-kosher — ends up in the sewer. More important, he says, are the actions that flow from our hearts. Do we lie, cheat, and steal, or do we speak the truth, welcome the stranger, and care for one another?

Jesus’ relaxed attitudes towards ritual purity has not stopped his followers from focussing on eating and drinking. Some denominations like the Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians. Other churches prohibit alcohol.

Many of the founders of the United Church were active in the movement to ban alcohol. In the 19th Century, alcohol consumption had shifted from beer and wine to distilled liquor, and the problems associated with drunkenness grew. In response, churches built powerful movements against “demon drink.” Their efforts led to legal Prohibition of the sale of alcohol in many parts of North America during and after World War One.

My parents inherited this culture. When I was a child, my father showed me a Women’s Christian Temperance Union card that he had signed when he was just five years old. It was a pledge that he would never drink.

But I was puzzled that my father, despite being a minister, seemed less focused on religious observance and purity than my aunt and uncle who had stayed on the farm. My parents often ate meals without saying grace. My aunt and uncle never did. My parents let me grow my hair long, while my aunt railed against it. My parents were relaxed about what we wore to church. My aunt was scrupulous.

A few years ago, I found an explanation for this split in the family. In a course on church history, we were taught that the temperance movement of the early United Church was not focused on pure behaviour. It was about social justice. Churches railed against demon drink not just because it was ungodly, but because male drunkenness was associated with domestic violence and family poverty. Prohibition was part of the work of building God’s realm on earth.

In the decades since Prohibition, the Social Gospel movement split in two. One wing represented by my aunt is puritan. The other wing represented by my father focuses on social justice. My aunt and my father adopted different approaches to holiness, but they both flowed from the same source.

Prohibition of alcohol didn’t outlive the 1920s. It had encouraged the growth of organized crime, ruined the lives of those caught in the criminal justice system, and failed to stop people from getting drunk.

The same thing can be said, I believe, about The War on Drugs of the past 45 years. It turns otherwise law-abiding people into criminals, it makes the use of drugs less safe, and it does little to stop either the use or abuse of drugs.

Canadians are going to hear a lot about Prohibition between now and the next federal election in October 2015. The Liberal Party wants to legalize marijuana, as it now is in Colorado and Washington State. The Conservatives are strongly opposed.

So-called values issues like drugs and prostitution loom large in politics. Perhaps this is because issues like war, the economy, and the environment are largely immune to the actions of any one government. In a competitive world market, governments can’t seem to do much about the big problems, so they sometimes focus on morality instead.

Drugs do carry many risks. We no longer have access only to the drugs developed by our ancestors, which in my case would be beer and wine. We now have access to those from all cultures: tobacco from eastern North America, cocaine from South America, coffee from eastern Africa, hallucinogens from Mexico, and opium from Afghanistan. Drugs are now manufactured with industrial efficiency and sold in a culture dominated by consumerism.

The problems that flow from industrialization and consumerism can be seen in our food. New products present a continual challenge to food regulators and public health advocates. In the competitive race to make a profit, human health is not always the top priority of the food industry.

The end of Prohibition didn’t end the fight against alcohol abuse. Sobriety is a virtue that we proclaim both when a drug like alcohol is illegal and when it is freely sold.

The same will be true when Prohibition is lifted on marijuana. Just as with alcohol and tobacco, regulators and health advocates will work to inform us about the dangers of pot, to expose industrial malpractice, and to promote moderation and safety in its consumption.

Drugs are not necessary for a fulfilled life. Alcohol can relax one in social situations, but so can psychotherapy. Marijuana can expand one’s consciousness, but so can sustained exercise or meditation.

Similar things can be said about medicines. Instead of taking blood pressure pills, one could try diet and exercise. Instead of taking anti-depressants, one could try walking briskly for an hour every day.

Nevertheless, drugs are here to stay. We live in a society with large industries that produce and market medical and recreational drugs, and we will continue to do so.

Our focus, I think, should be on how to stay sober and healthy even if we use drugs of various kinds. Churches in particular can offer alternatives to the forces of consumerism and greed that create so many problems with our food and drugs.

God is holy, and so many of us aspire to greater holiness. For some, this is about asceticism and denial. For others, it involves navigating the minefields of consumerism while still sometimes eating food that is considered less than healthy or using recreational drugs.

Jesus reminds that holiness is achieved more in how we act than in what we put in our mouths. My prayer today is that our families and churches will continue to help us to avoid alcohol and drug abuse, and to provide us with opportunities to work for a more just world in which everyone will experience God’s abundant love.


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