January 8

Reading Apocalypse

As we hear predictions of the End Times, and as people compare the President to Jesus (or certain apocalyptic characters from Daniel 7), it’s important to examine how we read the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. These works are not easy to read. They are heavily symbolic, confusing, and easy to misconstrue. For example, over least a thousand years, people of each generation have tried to apply the events of Revelation to their own time. So far, Christ has not returned.

Ian Paul, in a thought-provoking post, describes the conventional view of the book of Revelation:

The Book of Revelation is a divinely inspired prophecy of the end times in which we now live. Although John didn’t understand what he was seeing or describing, events which were far distant from him in time, we now know that he was accurately predicting events that are happening in our lifetime. Because of this, we need to get ready for Jesus’ imminent return.

Yet, while Paul debunks some of the flaws in our reading of Revelation in particular and apocalypses in general, his interpretation still has some shortcomings. There are particular themes and methods in apocalyptic writings which we easily miss, and this leads to flawed interpretations.

Time

As human creatures, we experience a linear existence. We thus expect the Bible to provide a linear narrative. This experience of time was called by the Greeks chronos time, or sequential time.

But God isn’t linear. God is all, including past, present, and future. Early Christians described God’s time as kairos time–experienced by us as the moment when God breaks into chronos time. The apocalyptic writers understood this concept well. We can see it clearly in Revelation’s references to the fall of Babylon:

God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath” (Rev 16:19b). Here, Babylon seems to have fallen already.

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 18:2). Here again, Babylon appears to have fallen. The Greek uses the aorist tense, which indicates a past action or an element of a continuing action.

Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed” (Rev 18:6). This appears to put the fall in the present tense, even though previous passages suggest it has already happened.

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning… And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore…” (Rev 18:9, 11). The Greek uses the future tense in the first passage, and the present tense in the second. Here, the lament over Babylon is both future and present.

Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more…‘” (Rev 18:21). Here again, the Greek (like the English) uses the future tense.

In this narrative, then, the verb tenses to the opposite of what might be expected: Rather than being seen as future, then present, and finally past, the events begin as being described in the past, then move to the present, and finally the future. In a linear sense, the story is moving backward. But the writer is not envisioning a linear sense of time. This is God’s time, kairos time.

Patterns

Related to the apocalyptic sense of time is the apocalyptic sense of history. In biblical writing, one can trust God in the future because of what God has done in the past. The Exodus is, of course, the pivotal narrative: the God who saved Israel from Egypt will save Israel again. Nearly every Old Testament book references the Exodus as proof of God’s love. We can see this also in the psalms: Even the plaintive Psalm 13, “How long, oh Lord?” ends with the recollection of God’s favor in the past as assurance for the future. “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Ps 13:6).

Apocalyptic writings take this one step further. Daniel, for example, is set in Babylon during the Exile, but its prophecies are not about Babylon. They are about the Seleucids, several centuries later. The message is clear: as God destroyed the historical Babylon, so God will destroy the oppressive Seleucid regime.

Likewise, Rome was referred to as Babylon because, despite Rome’s apparent power and its destruction of Jerusalem (like Babylon before it), God had destroyed Babylon, and thus God will destroy Rome. We can see, as Robert G. Hall writes, that the apocalyptic author “is clearly interested in the future, and in how the determined plan of God touches his present…”[1] But more importantly, John  J. Collins notes, “The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of historical events, but on recurring patterns.”[2] What has happened before will happen again.

This suggests a cyclical rather than linear view of history. And it helps explain the verb tense confusion in the Babylon narrative. Babylon has fallen, Babylon is falling, and Babylon will fall– because, so long as history endures, there will always be a Babylon, and God will always intervene.

Reading Faithfully

As we read Revelation, Daniel, or the apocalyptic sections of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, we should keep these characteristics in mind. Apocalyptic writers do not see God’s time as linear. They see history as cyclical. Yes, there is an end to history toward which God’s plan moves. But their concern is not the imminence of that plan’s fulfillment, but its meaning for us today.

As we read Revelation, we ought not to interpret the events of our time as portents of an imminent Second Coming, nor of the New Jerusalem appearing in our lifetime. Rather, we might interpret events and divine interventions consistent with God’s character and what God has already done in human history.

Above all, the message of the apocalypse is that what appears to us as chaos does actually have order to it– and it is an order instituted by God. Yes, we should be concerned when our actions (and those of our nation) are destructive and oppressive. This is what “Babylon” and “the nations” were judged for. Yes, we may expect divine intervention. It may even be the end of the world as we know it– just as the fall of Rome was the end of the world as many knew it. But the end of time is probably not yet here. As Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36).

Babylon may fall, but we still must plan for the future.

 

Notes

[1] Robert G. Hall, Revealed Histories: Techniques for Ancient Jewish and Christian Historiography, London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 43.

[2] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2016), 62-64.

January 5

Dusk: An Epiphany Lament

There is a kind of darkness that lies like a blanket, thick and oppressive. Even the moon, shrouded by clouds, is barely discernible. The blackness weighs on the heart and soul, a darkness within and without.

This is what the Lord showed me today as I worshipped with my congregation in celebration of Epiphany, the coming of the light.

Dusk is falling.

In the coming night, the light will seem to have departed. But, like the moon obscured by clouds, it will not depart, for the darkness cannot overcome it.

The coming of the night should not surprise us if our eyes are open. It has been on the horizon for some time. But perhaps we didn’t recognize the signs.

How could we know that elevating science over spirituality would empty us of meaning? That consumerism would shift our allegiance to personal comfort and the elevation of self rather than societal wellbeing? And that this shift would change the political landscape to promote sameness to protect our comfort at the expense of others? That it would shift our economic outlook to seek short-term comfort rather than long-term stability? Or that such an attitude might mirror the addictive behavior now ravaging our communities?

We couldn’t have known, unless we happened to read and understand the Bible or any of the sacred texts of any world religion. Even Buddhism, arguably the religion friendliest to science, warns against materialism and self-centeredness.

These, of course, are now far in the rear view mirror as we have found new sins to practice: arguing rather than listening, rejection of responsibility in almost any form, and entitlement. Their manifestations devour our society in polarization, military adventurism, and self-destructive behavior from individual overdose to premeditated climate devastation.

I have prayed for change. I have worked for change. But the change I have seen has been in the wrong direction. There’s no point in assigning blame, there is plenty to go around, just as the consequences will affect each and every one of us.

We could, of course, blame Trump, a president who has now turned his back  on nearly every element of his declared foreign policy. We could blame the violent words and actions of some of his supporters. We could blame Democrats for running a losing candidate against him. We could blame thirty years of structural violence that led to our present political polarization. Or a foreign policy that has created the enemies we now face–including the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratic government. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s history, and we now face the future.

We have reached a point of no return. There is no turning back.

Dusk is falling.

Those with a cyclical view of time will not be surprised. Night must come before morning. This is the good news: at the end of whatever kind of night this is and however long it goes on, light will once again shine. Something new will have dawned, and the promise of a new day. What will we make of it then? Will we have learned from our mistakes? Will we teach to our descendents the lessons we learned? History suggests that such lessons are soon forgotten.

But that is yet in the future. For now, what lies before us is the dark night.

October 8

What Is Addiction Treatment?

 

How is addiction treated in this country? There’s no single answer. There isn’t even a standard for what makes treatment successful. Some measure years of abstinence. Some seek moderation, but don’t consider abstinence to be part of recovery. Others seek temporary reduction in use through incarceration, or simply a reduction in socially unacceptable behavior.

One reason for this is confusion about the nature of substance abuse. Science recognizes three categories: the risky user, the physically dependent person, and the addict who returns to the substance repeatedly even after being separated from it. Medicine, on the other hand, used to recognize the first two categories. But the DSM-V, the latest version, combines all substance abuse under the single label, “Substance Use Disorder.”

Another reason is the disconnect between science and medicine on the one hand, and public policy on the other. For example, the largest single “treatment” provider for drug users is the prison system. More than half a million nonviolent drug offenders are incarcerated, at a cost to the taxpayers of around $15 billion per year. While there are some drug treatment programs in some prisons, the majority of inmates do not receive drug treatment. The National Institute of Health cites public desire for retribution rather than rehabilitation as a major barrier to drug treatment in prisons.

The amount spent on incarceration pales in comparison to the $30 billion or more spent annually on treatment facilities. In 2017, over 4 million Americans received treatment in a variety of settings. Of these, 2.5 million attended a treatment facility, residential or outpatient. Others may have received help from doctors, psychologists, or Twelve Step programs. Of the treatment facilities, 53% received government funding, meaning they are prohibited from using any spiritual or religious approach, including the Twelve Steps.

A more startling statistic is that of the 20 million Americans who needed treatment in 2017, only 12% received it at a treatment facility. Another 7% received treatment at non-specialty facilities. Still, 81% of those who needed treatment didn’t get it. The most common reason, cited by 41%, was lack of insurance coverage.

Some 10% of treatment facilities provided Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT), in which physical dependence on heroin or other opiods are treated with methadone or buprenorphine– long-acting opioids that are much harder to quit after long-term use. Of these, 95% still offered methadone, while 65% offered a choice between the two substitutes. There was no indication of how many facilities used these replacements for detoxification only, and how many used ongoing maintenance. (I’ll post another time about the nightmare of “methadone maintenance.”)

So what does all this tell us? First, most Americans who need help for substance abuse don’t get it.

Second, there’s a wide variety of approaches to treatment. Some, like prison, embrace the belief that if you punish someone enough, they will somehow magically change. Others, like substitution therapy, seek to reduce the criminal and health effects of addiction, but do not seek to actually treat addiction. Still others seek to return the sufferer to “social” use. Those that do seek abstinence measure it in various ways: abstinence for the duration of the program, or at 90 days, or at a year, or at 5 years.

A study of veterans in Twelve Step programs found that 70% of those who participated for a period of months were still abstinent at 16 years. In contrast, some treatment facilities that don’t use the Steps have abstinence rates around 10% at one year.

The most successful treatment approaches, at least for those who suffer from true addiction, seek total abstinence and a changes way of living. As noted in my previous post, it’s not enough to just get someone off drugs. Addiction is a way of life, a purpose for living, and a moral framework. For treatment to be successful, these old ways of being have to be replaced with new ways of being.

To be successful, treatment does not focus on moving away from drugs, but toward a suitable new way of life.

August 5

Addiction, the Alt-Right, and Sociology

This wasn’t going to be my next post on the subject of addiction, but the mass shootings over the weekend changed my mind. At least one of the shootings was racially motivated.

What do mass shootings and the alt-right have to do with addiction? I believe they stem from common causes, namely a national ethos that gives no meaning to life other than accumulation of wealth, and a rising wealth inequality that makes the national purpose unattainable for increasing numbers of people.

But first, let’s start with some demographics. The alt-right draws primarily from the white working class. Mass shooters come primarily from the white working class. According to Ann Case and Angus Deaton, “deaths of despair,” which include overdose, alcoholism, and suicide, are rising fastest in the white working class. To understand any of these these problems, we have to ask ourselves what’s happening in the white working class.

Case and Deaton have done significant research on this. Focusing on deaths of despair, they note that only in the white working class have deaths of despair risen in proportion to the drop in income. In this demographic group, there is a direct correlation (or, technically, an inverse correlation) between income and morbidity (death). Why this correlation does not exist in other demographic groups is an interesting question, but beyond the scope of this post. I suspect minorities, because of a history of being left out of American prosperity, are less invested in the “American Dream,” and thus less despairing as the American Dream slips away, but I have no proof of that.

Statistically, whites are more likely to sink into despair over economic factors. And economic factors have not been kind to the working class over the past few decades. This has resulted in decreased life expectancy. Since 1979, opioid overdoses among whites have increased more than twice as much as opioid overdoses among blacks, from a slightly lower rate to a rate twice as high. The suicide rate among whites is more than twice as high as any other demographic group, with the exception of Native Americans who have a higher rate.

We can speculate about the cause of this despair. Unlike other economically excluded groups, the white working class used to believe they could attain the American Dream. It’s increasingly clear that they can’t. They have lost a reason for being, or telos–the main telos put forward by our economically-motivated society.

Moreover, whites are more likely to adopt Evangelical religious beliefs. Some 76% of evangelical Protestants are white. It’s difficult to generalize about this group because there is significant diversity, but there are some typical commonalities. At an Evangelical church I once attended, the pastor was fond of saying, “Any conversation about the Gospel begins with one question: Are you sure you’re going to Heaven?” This focus on afterlife was accompanied by attention to grace to the exclusion of works. They had us memorize Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” But never did I hear anyone read the next verse: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

What does this have to do with morbidity? Consider a person who finds himself or herself in despair. That person looks for solace at church. The church’s answer is, “It will be better in Heaven.” Is that not incentive to hurry the process along? Add to this a persistent link to the prosperity Gospel–if God has blessed you, you will prosper–and the religious outlook for the white working class isn’t exactly stellar.

Okay, you say. Perhaps this explains the rise in deaths of despair. But what does any of this have to do with the alt-right?

I’m glad you asked. Patrick Forcher and Nour Kteilly at the University of Arkansas have compiled a psychological profile of the alt-right. In their summary, the researchers noted that alt-right supporters:

  • Were more likely to be white
  • Were less likely to have more than a high school education
  • Were not optimistic about the current state of the economy.

These characteristics were shared by non-alt-right Trump supporters as well. Thus, the alt-right is, as expected, a subset of the white working class that has been negatively affected by the upward redistribution of wealth.

One big difference between the two was that alt-right supporters were more optimistic about the future of the economy. Their alt-right beliefs gave them hope for the future, much more so than their non-alt-right peers. This suggests that the rise of alt-right is a response to their deteriorating economic status.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Fascism grew in Germany during the Great Depression that devastated the German economy. Forscher and Kteilly note similarities between the rise of the alt-right and the rise of the British National Party among the depressed working class.

What this does tell us is that a broad spectrum of American problems, including suicide, alcoholism, drug overdoses, alt-right activity, and, I maintain, mass shootings, are directly related to the economic decline of the white working class.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Clearly there are factors that drive this demographic’s symptoms, especially compared with other demographic groups that are even more economically excluded. For one view of these causes, I recommend Joe Bagaent’s Deer Hunting with Jesus, which documents the decline in influence of rural America. The losses of the white working class are not just economic, they are political as well.

Liberals may not like that this formerly-privileged group is taking up more of our attention than other groups that have never been privileged. But it is historically true that those who are losing privilege are a greater threat than those who ever had it. This is an issue we need to address.

But more than that, we live in a society that values our existence in dollars. Under this philosophy, economic loss can only lead to despair. There is no other source of hope.

As a Christian, I look to the Gospel. We are not judged by how much wealth we have. The purpose of life is not to accumulate. Nor is it to survive until we die and go to Heaven. “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). It is here, though it is (quite obviously) not fulfilled.

Christians have the Kingdom to offer those in despair. Are we showing it to them?

 

July 29

Addiction: The Crisis We Can’t Handle

You’ve read the news. Drug use has become an epidemic and a crisis. The statistics are staggering: Since 1979, drug overdoses are up 1,460%, and opiod overdoses among whites are up 2,627%. [1] According to the government agency SAMHSA, some 30 million Americans over the age of 12 use illicit drugs, and 83 million more abuse alcohol.

Yet our answers to this crisis are most often misdirected: we restrict access to drugs, and we incarcerate the abusers, compounding their problems by giving them a criminal record that prevents meaningful employment. Almost half of all federal prisoners (45%) are locked up for drug offenses.

The irony is, we claim to be a capitalist nation. The law of supply and demand, we insist, will regulate the market. Yet none of our solutions addresses the basic problem: people want to escape their reality. Demand exists. But I’ll deal with that in another post. What’s important for this post is that the War on Drugs is economically ridiculous. Any economist will tell you that reducing supply does not reduce demand, it just raises the price.

The second irony is that most of those who want to quit can’t get help. According to SAMHSA’s report, 20 million Americans sought treatment in 2017. Of these, 89% did not receive it.

That’s right. Only about 1 in 9 of those who needed treatment received it.

The same report details the reason they didn’t get it. The most common reason? Lack of insurance coverage. They either didn’t have insurance, or their plan didn’t cover treatment. (And just try to find a treatment facility that will take you if you don’t have cash!)

We’ve spent over a trillion dollars of taxpayer money– $31 billion in 2017 alone– in a doomed “war” to eliminate the supply of drugs. It hasn’t worked because the laws of economics can’t be repealed. Supply will seek to meet demand. We have to eliminate demand.

Yet those trying to get off drugs can’t get help.

It costs around $30,000 per year for each person we incarcerate for drug crimes. The average prison sentence for drug possession is 3 years. For the cost of one year of incarceration, these people could instead get a 30-day inpatient rehab and 90 days outpatient rehab. Not all will be successful at kicking their addiction. But some will. And these are people who (1) won’t be buying more drugs, and (2) won’t be costing the taxpayers money for prisons and emergency medical care.

Instead, they’ll be getting jobs, contributing to society, and above all, telling others about the nightmare they survived. Recovering addicts and their stories could be the best advertisement for staying off drugs!

Isn’t that a better way to spend a trillion dollars?

For those who think such an approach is impractical, check out this evaluation of the Gloucester Initiative, in which police refer addicts seeking help to treatment instead of arresting them. According to the police chief, “It costs the program $55 per individual treatment, whereas it costs $220 to send a low-level drug user through court.” In the first year, 90% of those who sought treatment received it. The followup evaluation showed that, yes, 40% of those surveyed did return to drugs after completing the program. But do the math: 60% didn’t.

Our current national drug policy is flawed. It has been from the start. It doesn’t help, and it may actually make things worse.

But there are alternatives.

As more and more families struggle with addiction, perhaps the stigma will begin to disappear. Perhaps we can talk about addiction logically, rather than emotionally. And perhaps we can find real solutions for those who suffer.

 

NOTES:

[1] Statistics drawn from Jeanine M. Buchanic, et. al., “Exponential Growth of the USA overdose epidemic,” Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg, 2017, 2 (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2017/05/09/134403.full.pdf, accessed September 22, 2018). “Drug Overdoses,” National Safety Council (https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/home-and-community/safety-topics/drugoverdoses/data-details/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIxryIk-DO3QIVDK_ICh1c7gZVEAAYAiAAEgLHnvD_BwE, accessed September 22, 2018). Monica J. Alexander et. al., “Trends in Black and White Opioid Mortality in the United States 1979-2015,” Epidemiology 29:5, September 2018 (https://journals.lww.com/epidem/Fulltext/2018/09000/Trends_in_Black_and_White_Opioid_Mortality_in_the.16.aspx, accessed September 22, 2018).

July 22

Another Look at the National Debt

Here are some interesting facts about the national debt.

    1. Today, the national debt is just over $22 trillion dollars, up from $5.8 trillion when George W. Bush took office.
    2. There are 83 million households in the U.S., so the national debt comes to  $578,947 per household.
    3. Think we should all write a check? The median household wealth (the number at which half the population has more and half has less) is $78,100. That’s right: most Americans don’t have anywhere near as much as their share of the debt.
    4. Over that same period in which the national debt more than tripled, median household wealth went down 22%.

Here are two questions to think about:

Where is all that money going? Not into the pockets of most Americans!

And…

Are you scared yet?

January 29

Against the Wall

I realized today that I am not happy with the arguments I’ve heard against the border wall. Don’t get me wrong: I oppose the wall, and I oppose the fear of immigrants. But it’s not because Leviticus tells me to welcome the stranger, or at least not only because of that. It’s not because my heart breaks for those who live in fear and squalor, though it does. And it’s certainly not because I hate America, because I don’t. My ancestors founded this country on a dream, and I believe in that dream.

The reason I oppose the wall is simple: God reigns.

This is the message of the Gospel. Satan is defeated, though given a chance he will still make his mischief. Death has been defeated. Fear has been defeated. God’s Kingdom has been established, and we get to choose whether or not to be part of it.

I choose God as my sovereign. Jesus is my Lord. That means I do not give in to the fear pandered by people seeking political power in this world. They are not in charge. God is.

That means I will not bow before powers and principalities, though they may have certain powers over my life (and I accept that). It means I rebuke the demonic powers of fear, nationalism, and narcissism that infect so much of our culture.

I choose Jesus as my model. This same Jesus healed not only his own people, but a Roman centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5ff) and a Gentile’s daughter (Mk 7:24ff), offered the water of life to Samaritans (Jn 4:1ff), and held up a hated enemy as an exemplar (Lk 10:25ff). His disciples went not only to their own people, but to the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Admittedly, Jewish Christians were afraid of what might happen when these outsiders came into the Church, but James (the brother of Jesus) wisely made cultural accommodations (Acts 15:1ff). Clearly the Church would not have been the same otherwise. Its early theologians were almost exclusively Gentiles, hailing from such places as Rome, Antioch, Smyrna, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Augustine was a pagan in North Africa before becoming one of the Church’s most important theologians.

We are a nation of immigrants. (Just ask any Native American.) No one stood on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and told my ancestors, “You can’t come in without the right paperwork.” On another side of my family, my grandfather came from Ireland on a visa, but he overstayed it by 50 years before he finally got right with the law.

Some will argue, “But that’s England and Ireland. They’re different.” I could reply that when my grandfather came, NINA (No Irish Need Apply) was a common sign in American businesses, and people debated whether or not the Irish were really white. They were characterized as criminals and drunks. They were supposed to be a bad influence on American society. But yesterday’s enemy has become part of the fabric of our nation.

I think it’s more important to appeal to Paul:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).

And John:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (1 Jn 4:20).

John tells us that God is love. Paul says that if I do not have love, I am nothing. Jesus says that if I only love those who love me, that’s no credit to me. I am called to love my fellow Christians, wherever they may be from. But beyond that, I am called to love each and every one of the people God made in his image.

And I am called to do it without fear, because God reigns.

I am the child of immigrants, some more recent than others. That suggests compassion.

I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. That demands more.

Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same (Lk 3:11).

This country will do as it wills. But as for me, I refuse to deny the Lord who lifted me from darkness. Jesus is Lord. God reigns. I submit.