I work with people struggling with addiction. I am a person who struggled with addiction. Helping others is my passion, and my debt to those who helped me.
So why do I write about politics? Because politics and addiction are related. Decisions made in the political arena directly affect not only those who now struggle, but whether or not people who have not become addicted will do so in the future.
The Criminal Justice System
The criminal justice system is one of the biggest influences. It’s a system that not only fails to promote recovery, but often makes recovery more difficult. First, we should know that the rate of recovery among prisoners released after serving time for drug offenses is approximately zero. A 1974 study noted, “[w]ith few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have no appreciable effect on recidivism.” Based on that observation, decades of inattention to rehabilitation followed.
Not only that, but even for those who desire to get clean it’s often difficult to recover with the realities placed on them by the system. For example, it’s hard to get a decent paying job or even rent an apartment with a felony on your record. Here in Harrisonburg, where James Madison University’s huge enrollment strains the availability of rentals, often the only option for those coming out of prison is a room in one of the “drug den” hotels downtown. When I took one man down to look at a place, in the 20 minutes we spent there he saw five people he knew from his substance abuse years. That’s hardly an environment conducive to recovery!
In rural Utah, released prisoners are not allowed to get their drivers licenses back until they’ve paid their fines. Yet they may live 20-30 miles from where work is available. If they don’t work, they can’t pay their fines and they go back to jail. If they drive to work without a license and get caught, they go back to jail. It’s a Catch 22. Many of them do go back to jail because they can’t find a solution to the conundrum.
The Fallacy of Prohibition
Our drug policies not only fail to prevent and treat addiction, they actually promote addiction. A 1992 study showed that despite increasing negative consequences, illicit drug use actually rose in some communities, while the use of legal substances like alcohol dropped.
How is it possible that prohibition promotes addiction? The Cato Institute cites Richard Cowan’s “Iron Law of Prohibition”:
[T]he more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes. When drugs or alcoholic beverages are prohibited, they will become more potent, will have greater variability in potency, will be adulterated with unknown or dangerous substances, and will not be produced and consumed under normal market constraints.
The 1972 book, Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Brecher found a similar link. The stronger the prohibition, the more potent the form of the drug and the more rapid the ingestion method (i.e. smoking or injecting as opposed to swallowing or snorting).
This is not only economics. It’s common sense. As Creedence Clearwater Revival noted in their 1969 song, “Bootleg,”
Take you a glass of water
Make it against the law.
See how good the water tastes
When you can’t have any at all.
The basic laws of economics say that something becomes more valuable as it becomes scarce. Prohibition makes the prohibited substance not only more expensive, but also more desired. We can try to blame that on immorality, but the truth is, it’s basic capitalism. Prohibition is an anti-capitalist approach.
We lament the rise of addiction and overdoses in this country, but our legal system isn’t designed to reduce the problem. Instead, it makes it worse for those who are already in addiction. Whether it prevents people from becoming addicts should also be obvious– if our legal system worked as a preventive measure, the problem wouldn’t be increasing.
There are some basic changes we could make to move us in the direction of positive change. Decriminalization is one. And I say this as a recovering addict who knows first-hand the danger and damage of the substances involved. But the fact is, criminalization is a failure. It has made the drug problem worse. And, as we say in recovery, “If you kleep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.” If we want something different, we have to do something different. And that is a political problem, not a moral one.
In the aftermath of the election, we are no less divided. But Bible tells us that God is love, and that our love for others is a representation of God’s love for us and our love for God (1 John 4:7-21). Jesus calls us to see the other person as an actual human being (Luke 7:36-50). Using stories of people with different backgrounds, this sermon shows how different experiences and realities move us to different, even opposing, political opinions. We’re challenged to move beyond the slogans to really understand the people who use them.
After the 1992 riots, the slogan “Love sees no color” became popular. And it’s a nice sentiment. “I love you disregarding what color you may be.” But there’s a dark underside to this approach. It says, “I love you but I don’t recognize your differences.” Put another way, it says, “I love you, and I expect you to be the same as I am.” A better slogan might be, “Love celebrates all colors.”
It’s All About Me
The root of this fallacy is an American philosophy that teaches us that the purpose of life is “me.” Our lives revolve around the acquisition of wealth and comfort. As I pointed out previously, our economic policy depends on us spending more than we have. We’re taught to be selfish; our national wellbeing depends on it.
Ayn Rand, the patron saint of conservative capitalism, went so far as to argue that morality is defined by what is good for the self. And while many of us may reject the directness with which she states her position, the self has become the center of the American reality, if not always its morality. So, for example, while conservatives may ague that no one has a right to more than they have earned (and thus the poor must earn their way out of poverty), liberals might argue that everyone has the right to a helping hand to become part of the middle class.
That middle class image likely includes a home in the suburbs with two cars in the driveway in front of a garage. Sure, in our minds we may easily be able change the color of the kids playing in the yard without too much difficulty. Maybe we can even allow for a quaint variation on holiday themes to include Hanukkah or Kwanza. But in our image, aside from skin color, the family looks a lot like us. They dress like us, act like us, and want what we want.
If you visit the home or place of worship of someone from South or East Asia, you remove your shoes– and you don’t touch the food with your left hand. You don’t serve beef to a Hindu, or pork to a Muslim or a Jew. If you’ve had contact with these cultures and religions, you know this.
But do we stop and ask the person why they don’t eat beef? Do we listen to the stories of where they come from? And do we ask what their life goal is, and how that is the same or different from their parents’ life goal?
Most of us don’t. We accept surface differences. But we take it for granted that everyone wants what we want– because what we want has been programmed into us by years or even decades of brilliantly-evangelical marketing. By extension, we subconsciously assume that everyone’s story is similar to ours. But we never actually hear the other person’s story. We don’t have time. We live in a world in which we’re bombarded with 10-second sound bites and slogans. So whether it’s “Abortion stills a beating heart” or “My body, my choice,” whether it’s “My country right or wrong” or “Not in our name,” we assess the slogan by our own experience, never questioning what it might mean to the person promoting the slogan.
A Nationwide Problem
I’m not claiming that this is a liberal problem, nor is it a conservative problem. It affects us all. And we rarely see the impact personally because in general we tend to only really get to know those people with backgrounds somewhat similar to ours. This is partly because of geographic separation. You don’t meet many farmers when you live in the city, nor do you meet many stockbrokers in rural America.
But having lived in both kinds of places, I’ve developed an appreciation for the differences between us– and the different narratives– of people who live in urban and liberal locales. I knew a conservative farrier who grew up struggling to survive and became successful through hard work and skill– and no doubt a little bit of luck. If you don’t know what a farrier is, it’s someone who shoes horses. Yes, people still make a living at that. Part of his business is training people to be farriers! Not surprisingly, this man is a Trump supporter. He doesn’t understand urban problems, and doesn’t care to go to the city to learn about them. He also wants America safe, and supports both the police and a border wall. He sees low wages and a shortage of jobs in his community– where even law enforcement officers get paid so little, some of them are on food stamps. The idea of immigrants coming in and taking more jobs doesn’t sit well with him, to say the least.
Then there’s an urban accountant who spends her weekends helping to adopt out rescued dogs. She came to this country as a refugee and is grateful for the help she received after she got here. And she wants others to receive the same help. She’s horrified by our nation’s immigration policy, and by the police brutality she sees in her city.
You can see how a different narrative leads to different political opinions. But if we don’t listen to the narrative, all we can see are caricatures of a gun-toting redneck who just might be a racist, and a bleeding-heart liberal who wants to give to immigrants everything America has. The slogans “Keep America safe” and “Give me your tired, your poor…” become not points of concern in a single national vision, but incompatible opposites.
Keeping It Human
The more we think our opponents can’t be reasoned with, the more likely our nation will split– literally. Already I have heard both liberals and conservatives say that we’d be better off dividing the country. But think about what that would mean! Aside from the inevitable messiness (and violence) of such a separation, there are economic impossibilities. Remember, 82% of Americans live in just 2% of the nation’s land area. Urban areas would lose their food, energy, and natural resource production. Rural areas, which typically get more federal aid per capita, would lose the benefit of having an urban economy to support them– not to mention the advanced medical care and other important services available in urban areas to which rural residents need access.
There is a better way. We need to start seeing the “other” as human beings with their own narrative that differs from ours. We need to start asking people we disagree with not just to explain their position, but to tell us who they are and where they come from! Only then can we begin to understand why they believe as they do. Only then can we begin to find ground on which to compromise. And only then can we start to realize that on some issues there may not be a one-size-fits-all national solution. Some issues may need to be decided at a local level.
Where We Begin
How does this happen? It won’t be in the political arena. Our politicians get elected by stirring us to passionate fear about those people we disagree with. Vote for us because if “they” get elected, you’re going to lose. Whether it’s your guns or your right to choose, most politicians promise not what they’ll do for you, but who they’ll protect you from. And if you need protection, those other folks must be dangerous enemies!
And it won’t be the mainstream media. Conflict sells. Would you pay to see a movie where everyone got along well and nothing happened? Of course not! Media is motivated to ensure that we are in conflict with someone, otherwise you won’t care what they have to say.
And it won’t be social media. A conversation of memes cannot reach the depth we need to understand where someone else is coming from. And social media encourages us to hide who we really are.
Somehow we have got to start sitting down with those who are different from us and listening to their stories. Somehow, we have got to start humanizing them.
We can point fingers at who isn’t doing this, but that’s hardly constructive. Both sides are guilty. But this divide began when this country became a majority-urban nation. Liberal politicians no longer needed rural America to get elected. Liberal media outlets could make more money catering to urban America. They stopped the conversation. A new crop of conservative pundits stepped into the void unchallenged, steering their side of the conversation in a new direction unintelligible to liberals. Joe Bageant, a liberal himself, does an excellent job of documenting how this happened.
It may be that only a liberal transformation can save this nation. But I don’t see one on the horizon. At this writing, it looks like Biden will win the election. But Biden promises nothing new. There is little in his platform to generate interest from, much less reconciliation with, rural America.
Let me close this series this way. We need action on climate change. But we’re not going to get it until we seriously address the economic impact this will have on rural America.
We need national health care. But we’re not going to get it so long as the issue is tied to the rest of the liberal agenda– and until we admit that ACA has been a disaster for many in rural America, especially the self-employed.
We need help for the poor. But we’re not going to get it until we acknowledge publicly that the largest group living in poverty is white, and that many of our economic policies (supported by both parties) have made the problem worse.
We need a lot of things. But our nation cannot be healthy so long as a significant minority, which just happens to occupy the vast majority of the land, is barred from the table.
When that happens, we get Donald Trump as President. And if you think that’s the worst that can happen, you lack imagination.
We need to stop spouting slogans and invite someone we disagree with over to dinner. It just might save the nation.
“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them…” Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll,which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:3-5, 9-10)
With 3% of the population and some of the best medical technology in the world, the U.S. has 27% of the world’s Coronavirus cases and 23% of the world’s Coronavirus deaths. Something is dreadfully wrong. When will we ask what it is?
During these times of crisis, the EU and its member states are working together and helping each other. (ECCEU Report)
The answer is relatively simple, and can be summed up in one word: greed. Greed is good, right? Gordon Gekko said so. So did Ayn Rand.
This may explain why our nation took the steps it did: downplaying the risk, being slow to close and quick to reopen, dragging its feet on testing, refusing to implement contact tracing, and even refusing to wear masks. Our own convenience has become an idol, more important than saving the lives of people we don’t know. Our own optimism has become an idol, outweighing the risk of sickness and death to those we do know and love. Our money has become more important than even our own lives.
Robber: Your money or your life!
Victim: Take my life, please. I’ll need my money for my old age!
The Bible says something different. While our churches argue about homosexuality, a topic that is arguably mentioned four times in the Bible, there are literally hundreds of instructions about the evils of not sharing our wealth. These range from Genesis (4:9-11) and the books of the law (Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus have too many to list here) to the prophets (again too many to list), the Gospel (ditto), and even Proverbs (e.g. 14:31; 19:17; 31:8-9) and the Psalms (e.g. 41:1, 82:3). We are to share our food and clothing (Prov 22:9; Is 58:6-7; Lk 14:13-14), even with immigrants (Dt 27:129), and even those whom we may believe are from a criminal class (Lk 10:25-37). Accumulation of wealth is an idol condemned (Is 5:8, Lk 12:16-21; 1 Tim 6:9-11).
Did God send the Coronavirus as a plague to punish an unjust nation? It’s possible (Dt 28:21, Lam 3:37). But in truth, the punishment we now receive we created ourselves. Cornonavirus showcases the fallacy of our “greed is good” culture. We wrote this future, God didn’t.
But will we listen to God now? God told us mortals what is good (Micah 6:8). We are called to put the good of the whole first, not our haircuts (buy a set of clippers here) or our gyms (try walking, or split your neighbor’s firewood). We’re called to wear a freaking mask–even if it’s only a little effective, every case we prevent avoids another potential death! We’re called to support widespread testing and, much as it rankles my libertarian conservatism, contact tracing. (Come on, folks– the government already knows where you’ve been because they have access to your cell phone location, and they can listen to your conversations anytime they want! The intelligence agencies already know who we’re in contact with, they just don’t tell the health agencies.)
And we’re called to go out less. Yes, I’m going crazy with the kids home all the time. Yes, I occasionally have to substitute an ingredient or rethink a meal plan because I’m out of something and don’t run to the store every day anymore. Yes, I hate Zoom meetings and miss seeing people in person.
But the longer we avoid doing these things, the longer this will go on and the worse it will get.
Will we listen, or will we continue to be a rebellious nation?
The Bundy Ranch standoff that occurred in Bunkerville, NV, in April, 2014  offers a clear view into two very different Americas: the urban liberal reality now experienced by a majority of Americans, and the reality of rural America which has little in common. I offer this case study in the hope that we as a nation can begin to understand that our experience, whether rural or urban, is not the experience of many other people, each of whom makes decisions– including political decisions– based on their own experience of reality. Only when we begin to acknowledge that difference can we possibly bridge the divide that has polarized the nation and brought us to the political state in which we find ourselves.
Rancher Cliven Bundy had been grazing cattle on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for many years, but had not paid his grazing fees. The fees and related fines eventually totaled over a million dollars. After a series of legal battles, heavily-armed BLM agents were dispatched to impound hundreds of Bundy’s cattle. When videos circulated of Bundy family members being physically assaulted by BLM agents, hundreds of supporters streamed to the ranch. These included a few dozen militia members from Idaho, and hundreds of ranchers and other supporters from Nevada, Utah, and other western states.
Ranchers, farmers, and other interested parties supported Bundy because of ongoing, widespread problems with federal land management. It is little recognized outside the West that 81% of the land in Nevada, 67% of Utah, and 62% of Idaho are owned by the federal government—the majority of it managed by the BLM. While these federally-owned lands are seen by many Americans as wilderness to be protected, they are also an important source of livelihood for the people who live in those states. Land use issues affect livelihoods, and therefore survival and identity.
On the final day of the standoff, according to eyewitness Symbria Patterson, 40 unarmed men and women on horseback gathered under a freeway bridge and approached the BLM command post southwest of I-15. “They stopped and said a prayer, and talked about whether they would survive this. Some of them discussed who they wanted their horses to go to if they died,” she told me. As they exited the cover of the bridge, hundreds of protesters on foot streamed across the freeway in support. The BLM sent an agent to negotiate, and the protesters demanded that jurisdiction be turned over to the Clark County Sheriff, where (according to the protesters) it belonged. Sheriff’s deputies took control, the cattle were released from their pens, and the standoff ended. Supporters also documented the BLM’s abusive handling of the impounded cattle.
None of this was reported in the mainstream media, and the narrative of violent uprising continued in coverage of the legal aftermath. Associated Press quoted the prosecutor in the criminal case as saying, “[The Bundys] got what they wanted that day. They got it at the end of a gun.” Meg Dalton writes that Bundy “and an armed militia held off the feds from rounding up his cattle.” To the mainstream media, this incident represented a bizarre confrontation contributing to the belief that rural, white Americans are irrational and violent. The most noteworthy image is that of a militia sniper on a bridge with his rifle aimed at federal agents. (The photo of a BLM sniper posted outside the Bundy ranch before supporters arrived, which inflamed many people in the West, was never seen in the mainstream media.) The land was portrayed as pristine wilderness, the habitat of the desert tortoise. The narrative, for much of the country, was that a racist, domestic terrorist was defying federal jurisdiction—and his supporters were just like him. Yet we can also hear a narrative of structural violence as described by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers: “Criminals or rebels using guns are wrong, but officers or soldiers using the same guns are justified, even heroic.”
The local narrative was much different. A local editorial contrasted this, stating,
Since 9/11, we’ve seen our federal government intensify its focus on national security to the point where it is actively eliminating our freedoms… Whether boarding a plane or purchasing a firearm, the federal government views every citizen as a potential criminal or terrorist until they have submitted to its screening. Its agencies are arming themselves at an unprecedented rate.
Dalton acknowledges that the national media failed to cover this issue well. She quotes Ryan Haas: “To just dismiss [the Bundys] because their trial is over is sticking our heads in the sand about something that is really important to Western people.” And indeed, government officials are quoted as saying, before the standoff, “Mr. Bundy believes the BLM’s actions have nothing to do with cattle or the desert tortoise, but rather that it is an attempt by the federal government to take land from the state and the citizens who live there. This sentiment is held by almost every individual who was interviewed.” Symbria Patterson adds, “You should have heard the stories being told around the campfire at night. So many people, especially older people, thought they had a right to land their grandparents had homesteaded. Then the government took it away. One man in his 70s said he’d been fighting for his land since 1946.”
Two distinct narratives are evident. Outside the intermountain West, the incident at the Bundy ranch was seen as irrational lawlessness or rebellion against federal jurisdiction. The presence of militia members bolstered this perception; the fact that these represented a minority of the participants was not reported. Even the need expressed by the ranchers was in some circles dismissed as unimportant. One man in Los Angeles commented to me, “No one makes a living ranching anymore.”
Those involved saw it quite differently, particularly in Utah where cultural memory includes the so-called Utah War of 1857 between settlers and federal troops. The memory of the intermountain West also includes the Downwinders, tens of thousands of residents in Utah and other western states who were intentionally exposed to radiation from nuclear tests beginning in 1951 to assess the impact of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, and the later Divine Strake bomb test proposed in 2007. Combined with massive federal land ownership and lingering resentment over lost homestead claims, the belief that the federal government stands ready to do violence against them is not difficult to understand.
This narrative informs other social issues as well. For example, ranchers regularly use guns as tools of their trade, protecting livestock from predators. With a narrative of federal animosity, along with incidents like the recorded video of BLM’s manhandling of Bundy’s 57-year-old sister, it should not surprise us that some westerners actually do believe that guns might be necessary to protect themselves against the government. Typically living in states with high gun ownership and low gun violence, the narrative of gun control threatens not only their livelihood but their perception of safety from an institution that appears adversarial to their way of life and even their existence.
It’s easy to paint Cliven Bundy as a fanatic. It is less easy to explain away the broad support he received from across the rural intermountain West, unless we believe that the majority of rural residents are irrational fanatics. It’s not uncommon to see this as an underlying assumption by urban liberals. However, as this analysis shows, there is another side to the story, as there always is. Human beings are, at the root, rational creatures; there is nearly always a reason for our actions, however invisible that reason may seem. Some of us may not want to hear about the historically-adversarial relationship between government and the rural West. We may not understand how people can cling to what to urban people is an outdated way of life, even dismissed as “cowboy culture.” We may not realize that thousands of Americans still make their living ranching.
We dismiss these realities as fiction at our peril. When we dismiss the experience of a minority– any minority– we drive a wedge that cannot easily be removed. A person whose lament goes unheard may seek to be heard by any means, even destructive means. That their actions may also be self-destructive becomes irrelevant.
Conversely, one of the most radical actions we can take is to listen to the narratives of those who disagree with us. This doesn;t mean to take their sound bites at face value, any more than they take ours at face value. It means, rather, to listen deeply to life experiences, generational histories, and most importantly woundings.
This is not an easy thing to do. It means risking the notion that we may have had some part in those woundings. It means risking our pride and our self-image of righteousness. Yet that is the risk required for healing. And without healing, we face a dark national future.
 This analysis is less interested in rancher Cliven Bundy and his interactions with the legal system, and the government’s failure to heed internal advice that might have avoided the standoff, but rather with the standoff itself and the hundreds of supporters who became involved.
 When I visited the site of the standoff on April 11, 2014, a participant who identified himself as a rancher from Utah told me, “They [the militia members] keep to themselves… They’re a little scary; we don’t mind that they stay away from us.”
 On outside attitudes toward these lands, see for example, Cassidy Randall, “Trump condemned over plans to allow drilling near national parks,” Guardian, Sep 14, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/14/conservatives-democrats-trump-drilling-national-parks, accessed October 31, 2019). Note that these leases are not in the national parks; there are surely issues to be confronted here, but I would venture to suggest that the majority of Americans who unilaterally oppose commercial use of these lands have never been to them.
 Symbria Patterson and Sara Patterson, personal interview, April 17, 2014, documented by D. J. Mitchell, “Portrait of a Protester: Not What You’d Expect,” Notes from D.J., Apr 18, 2014 (http://djmitchellauthor.com/portait-of-a-protester-not-what-youd-expect/, accessed November 3, 2019). Patterson and her daughter, Sara, then age 19, are organic farmers in Cedar City, UT.
 According to Sara Patterson, who was also present, agents had destroyed waterholes in the desert to encourage cows into corrals. “The conditions in the corrals were disgusting. There was no water. There were dozens of dogie calves separated from their mothers. The cows were all full of milk because they had been separated from the calves. Two cows had died, and two more had been crippled and had to be killed.” Bulls had been shot rather than impounded. Patterson.
 Bundy himself alludes to it in Sotille. No other report I have seen mentions the conclusion of the standoff.
 Ibid.: “The majority of Bundy supporters aren’t ranchers or farmers or cowboys, but militiamen, anti-government agitators, and white supremacists—the kind of people who flocked to Charlottesville last summer.”
 To be fair, Cliven Bundy has been in the spotlight for making remarks considered racist. Brett LoGuirato, “Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy Makes Ridiculously Racist Comments, Says Blacks Might Have Been ‘Better Off’ As Slaves,” Business Insider, Apr 24, 2014 (https://www.businessinsider.com/cliven-bundy-racist-comments-slaves-ranch-2014-4, accessed November 1, 2019). The standoff had nothing to do with racial issues, and to extend Bundy’s personal belief on an unrelated issue to all those who supported his protest against federal land use policies represents a guilt-by-association fallacy. While most ranchers are white—and indeed the majority of non-reservation residents of the rural, intermountain West are white—there are many exceptions, including my former neighbor, cattle rancher Reyes Carballo who, like his neighbors, grazes his cattle on federal lands each summer. But compare Bundy’s criticism of the effect of the Welfare State on Blacks, though worded inappropriately, to comments made by Haitian farmers with respect to subsidized rice imports from the U.S. that were supposed to help their economy but instead put local farmers out of work. Michael Matheson Miller, “Poverty Inc.,” Acton Institute, (2014).
 Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation: Diverse Christian Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking Vol II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 8.
 This comment was made on a FaceBook post in 2014. I am unable to locate it. But note the statistics on small cattle producers cited above—many people do make a living ranching, though most of the beef we eat does come from large, factory “farms.”
 History.net describes this intervention as “a collision of territorial self-determination against [the] federal government…” The primary issue appears to have been the Mormon practice of polygamy in violation of federal law. Donna G. Ramos, “Utah War: U.S. Government Versus Mormon Settlers,” History.net (https://www.historynet.com/utah-war-us-government-versus-mormon-settlers.htm, accessed November 3, 2019).
 The issue of rates of gun ownership versus gun violence has been clouded recently by a tendency to include suicide in gun “crime” rates. German Lopez notes, “Most gun deaths are suicides,” and states with lower gun ownership rates tend to have lower gun suicide rates. German Lopez, “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts,” Vox, Aug 13, 2019 (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/2/16399418/us-gun-violence-statistics-maps-charts, accessed November 3, 2019). However, according to FBI statistics CO, ID, MT, ND, SD, WY, and UT all rank in the lowest 20 states for rate of gun murder; UT ranks 5th lowest in the nation. “Table 20: Murder by State, Types of Weapons,” Federal Bureau of Investigation (https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/tables/table-20, accessed November 3, 2019). These states do rank higher in suicide rates. For comparison, CA, which ranks 34th lowest in gun murder, ranks 7th lowest in overall gun mortality when suicides are included. But note that nationally only 51% of suicides are committed with a firearm, and there are also questions of contributing factors such as the generally-higher rates of poverty in the intermountain west and other rural states, suggesting that combining suicide with gun crime obscures the causes of divergent problems in favor of a symptom-oriented approach, namely regulating guns.
It’s no secret that addiction is a problem in our society. It’s also no secret that, despite some advances in science, it’s not easy to treat. This is because the nature of addiction remains elusive. We can see this in the argument between those who insist it’s a disease, and those who insist it’s a choice. Some psychologists now argue that it’s both.
I don’t disagree. There are biological factors. And addicts make bad choices. I contend that, while addiction displays characteristics of both disease and choice, neither category is sufficient to explain the phenomenon.
Let me be clear that I’m referring here not to the occasional, risky user, nor to the person who becomes physically dependent on a substance but is able to abstain once separated from it. Addiction refers to those seemingly bizarre cases, now numbering in the millions, in which people return to the substance over and over, even after physical dependence has ceased.
Here’s the issue: if a person is miserable enough to want to quit, and if they have been separated from the biological need to use the substance, it makes absolutely no sense for them to return to the drug that made them miserable– unless there’s something else going on.
Enter Kent Dunnington. In his book, Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice, he argues that addiction is a habit in the classic sense expressed by Aristotle and Augustine. The behaviors of an addict are preconscious decisions habituated (programmed) by past reward/punishment experiences. I find flaws in Dunnington’s case for addiction as only a habit. But this introduces a third category to consider, and offers another dimension of options for understanding and treatment of addiction. The Twelve Steps, for example, can be described as a method of rehabituation.
Yet Dunnington goes further. We are habituated to our behaviors based on our view of the purpose of life. If, for example, we believe that the goal is to be wealthy, we’ll work hard and accumulate money. If it’s to seek thrills, all our efforts will point toward that goal. If it’s to follow Jesus, we’ll put our efforts into the behaviors that the Gospel describes (none of which include accumulating wealth). Indeed, James K. A. Smith argues that we can tell what we love much more reliably by what we do than by what we say we love.
Dunnington describes how addiction fills a need for transcendental experience, moral certainty, and purpose for life that are lacking in our secular society. In other words, it plays the role of a religion. Dunnington, a Christian, describes addiction as false worship. Yet he recognizes the diligence with which addicts undertake this worship, arguing that the Church could learn something about commitment from the “prophetic challenge” addicts present. Anyone who knows an addicted person can attest that we will sacrifice anything for our god, even our lives. The god may be false, but it’s the one to which we have willingly or unwillingly devoted ourselves.
If addiction is a religion adopted in response to the unsatisfying “spirituality” of secular materialism, this has implications for addiction treatment. To put it simply, the goal of treatment is not to get people off drugs– it is to replace one religion and way of life with another. This is where the disease model fails: medicine is not equipped to address the spiritual and moral nature of addiction.
Obviously, if addiction can play the role of a religion, a replacement is not limited to the Big Five: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. For example, in the same ways that addiction serves as a religion, the Twelve Step programs do also. But, with thousands of years of practice and tradition, the established religions do have much to recommend them. I’ve found the healing power of Christ to be unique among them, but I do recognize that adherence is a choice.
From an objective perspective, my point is that it’s not enough to get a person off drugs and tell him or her to go get a job. The question that has to be answered in order for an addict to stay clean is this: “What’s the point?” Only when we can provide an answer for that question do we begin to offer hope to those mired in substance addiction.
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?
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%.  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.
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets warned of idolatry. In the New Testament, Jesus too warned of worshipping the wrong things. Yet many Christians today who invoke the name of Christ show by their actions that they worship something else.
When we place money, safety, or security ahead of serving God, we are idolaters. Jesus is clear on this. From Matthew 6:19-21 to Mark 10:17-27, from Luke 12:13-21 to John 13:34-35, Jesus tells us that we are called to focus on God and on helping others, not on material wellbeing. Yet our supposedly Christian society tells us otherwise. And many of us have bought the message. In a 2018 poll of Christians, Lifeway Research reports:
Churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs (75 percent) are more likely to agree God wants them to prosper than those without evangelical beliefs (63 percent)… One in 4 (26 percent) agree with the statement: “To receive material blessings from God, I have to do something for God.”
Two-thirds of Christians polled believe God wants them wealthy! And nearly a third think they can earn God’s favor in the form of wealth. Apparently, the point of becoming a follower of Jesus is to get rich. Yet if one follows where Jesus went, one is likely to get (from the world at least) what Jesus got: not wealth, but execution.
I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.” But have you ever noticed that you can’t do both at the same time? Our allegiance is to be to God’s Kingdom, not any power or principality. Yet many Christians see the United States as somehow chosen by God and thuis beyond criticism– and worthy of support and protection. And not just from heathen in other places. We don’t welcome our fellow Christians seeking refuge from Latin America, Palestine, or Africa as fellow members of the Body of Christ. In fact, we pay billions of dollars to help Israel repress Palestinians–including Palestinian Christians. (Israel makes no distinction among Palestinians based on religion; they are all non-Jews.)
Perhaps this is not unexpected. Alan Kreider, in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, documents from original sources the shift in focus of Christianity from radical behavior change in its first three centuries, to cultural compromise and a focus on belonging by the 8th century. This shift largely began with Augustine, who saw baptism as more important than a change in behavior. Perhaps this was because, by his own admission, his church was filled with people who wouldn’t behave in a biblically-Christian manner.
The shift was helped along by Constantine and his successors, who not only legalized Christianity but made it mandatory. Obviously many pagans became Christians because they had to. And rulers and aristocrats likewise became Christian in name, but could not as rulers take seriously the injunctions to “love your enemies” or “feed the hungry.” (Can we even imagine a leader who embodies Isaiah 11:2-4?)
In Christendom there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between church and state… a symbiotic relationship.” (95)
In addition, because it assumed that there is no choice but to be Christian, religious training and practice become “perfunctory,” and standards of behavior are coerced rather than taught (96-97).
In our own context, this symbiosis emphasizes a national concern with wealth and cheap energy. Eventually, we have today what too often passes for Christianity: militarism, individualism, greed, and selfishness. We idolize the free market and the individual. Politicians from both parties have proclaimed that “Greed is good”– a slogan that is not only unbiblical, but was coined as a satirical reflection of our society.
We point to our enemies. Iraq, Iran, ISIS, North Korea– Name any enemy of the United States, and read the history of that enemy. You’ll find, with few exceptions, that we created that enemy ourselves through military or covert action.
Too often we are satisfied with the assurance that we are saved by grace. We are! But that’s not the end of the story.
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. (Ephesians 2:10)
As a society, we idolize wealth and security. Church father Cyprian, who was raised as an aristocrat before his conversion, called these “gilded torments.” They distract us from God, and from the Kingdom. And yet they are accepted as legitimate parts of Christian walk in many churches today.
What if we started naming things as Jesus did? What if we called greed idolatry? Or militarism an ungodly use of force that should be reserved to God? What if, in the face of those who resist refugees, we quoted 1 John 4:20?
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.
I suspect I know the answer. What would happen would be that we would follow where Jesus led: to the Cross, indicted by society’s religious and political authorities. Jesus commanded us to “pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), and we would be doing just that.
Preaching the Gospel is dangerous. But should that stop us?