Ep. 114: Culture’s Words and Actions on Recreational Marijuana Use
What is culture saying when it comes to recreational marijuana us? “We want freedom.” In February we hosted “Let’s Talk:Marijuana,” a live event that featured a Bible scholar, an author, and a doctor who talked primarily about the Christian perspective on recreational marijuana use. This week on indoubt we hear the live recording from author Mark Ward as he gives his 15-minute presentation on the culture’s view of recreational marijuana.
I am a Bible teacher before I’m a culture watcher, so even though I’ve been asked to talk about marijuana from a cultural angle, I have to start with a theological one. I also will appeal to 1 Corinthians. In chapter 15, Paul says that Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. This is the end of all history when Christ has all his enemies put under his feet and delivers up the Kingdom to God the Father so that, as this passage says, God may be all in all. I want to connect this issue of recreational marijuana use directly to Christ’s rule and ultimately, giving another verse that Dr. John just used, God’s glory.
Recreational marijuana use is growing in popularity, I’m going to argue, because the one true God has not chosen to rule Western culture as directly as he used to. The overall plan of God is to put the nations under Christ’s feet, but he is permitting a large amount of rebellion against his rule until the day when Christ will put down all rule and authority, as this passage also predicts. That’s the heading under which I’d like to look at marijuana and culture.
Our job as Christians is always to obey the rule of Christ, to apply his unchanging Word to a changing situation and that means we need to read the Bible in our one hand and read the newspaper in the other. Dr. Neufeld looked at the Bible. Let’s now look at the newspaper. Please turn, if you would, in your Vancouver Sun or your Globe and Mail to page A1, and let’s try to read up on what the broader culture around us is saying and revealing about marijuana.
I think Western culture is saying one thing and revealing another thing in its talk about marijuana. We’re going to talk about those two things and go on to some brief counsel on how Christians might be salt and light as Christ our King commanded given our current cultural situation.
Let’s talk about what Western culture is saying. I think what Western culture is saying is “We want freedom.” And this, of course, is not new. Psalm 2 has the kings of the nations saying, “Let us cast away their cords from us!” Here’s the verse, Psalm 2:2-3, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed,” that’s Christ, “saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
The nations have always wanted to get out from under Christ’s rule. They want freedom. Freedom is one of the major gods, lower case G, of Western culture. So much so that I feel compelled to say right away, because I’m part of Western culture, that I’m not against freedom itself when defined by the Bible. But the very idea of defining and therefore limiting our freedom is offensive in our culture, is it not?
The French Revolution made “Liberté” one of its three watchwords. The US calls itself “The land of the free.” “Freedom” is on the postage stamps in the drawer in my desk. “Freedom for all” is part of the pledge to the flag that every US child makes every day. You here in Canada have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom is a powerful god. It is another mark of the reach of this god, that it wasn’t until I was about 30 years old that I myself ever stopped to ask the question: Freedom from what and freedom for what?
Edmund Burke, a British politician, he was active during key years in the history of both of our nations, said, “The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.”
It didn’t occur to me until I was 30 to ask them: what does it please them to do? If the movement in Western culture for a long time has been toward greater and greater freedom, the only principles standing in the way have tended to be, and here I borrow from a culture watcher, moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, not a Christian, those principles have tended to be harm and fairness. As long as an action doesn’t bring harm as defined by prevailing cultural norms, and as long as it has no apparent threat to equality, Westerners tend to think it ought to be permitted.
We’re in an era of history in which God permits his creatures to permit things he doesn’t permit. Does that make sense? I think it’s fair to say that the West overall is giving more liberty to people to live against God’s rule. But you cannot throw off the yoke of Christian truth all at once. By God’s grace, he restrains sin even in a culture. Think of Abimelech in the Old Testament, to whom God says, “Yes, I kept you from touching Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” There are many non-Christian Canadians who have supported morally good policies. They sustained moral good in your culture because God has restrained the effects of the fall in their mind and heart. By God’s special grace, there are many Christian Canadians who have acted as moral roots in the soil. At least that’s the way we’re supposed to act, right? Western culture is saying it wants freedom; we Christians need to be moral voices warning, graciously, lovingly, of the slavery that comes with any freedom that has not been granted by Christ. You either get Christ’s easy yoke or the world’s hard and deadly one. Those are the only two options out there.
Western culture is saying, “We want freedom.” Now, I want to talk about what I think Western culture is revealing in its to talk about marijuana. The West says it wants more freedom. I think it’s revealing that its moral language is thin, if not entirely bankrupt. I say this because in my judgment marijuana is discussed almost solely in utilitarian terms. To be clear, it’s not wrong to consider the financial impact of marijuana legalization and the subsequent regulation. I’ve watched the mayor of Edmonton, which I’ve visited and taught in before, in a video and he talked about the policing, the enforcement, the inspection costs they’re going to come up this year, sometime probably. Totally appropriate for him.
But in my searches through Canadian news about this topic, and maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong later, I was struck by how difficult it was for me to find anyone talking about marijuana from a moral perspective. I’m certain that the topic has been discussed from this angle in Canada, because all people are moral beings, Paul says so in Romans 2, and Canada has a Christian cultural heritage, not wholly unlike the US. But I searched your major news outlets, and it’s the same in America just about, and I didn’t see any moral talk. About the closest I came was a MacLean’s article which dismissed the “moral panic” which led to the criminalization of marijuana in Canada, 1923.
The article went on to say this: “The case for legalizing personal use of cannabis hangs on addressing two key questions.” I’m asking, “Okay. What are the key questions? Are any of them going to be moral?” The author said, “What is the cost and social impact of marijuana prohibition? And what are the risks to public health, social order and personal safety of unleashing this on Canada?”
I was hopeful when I saw “social impact.” I thought, “Okay. Maybe we’re going to get to moral analysis, some kind of question about what kind of society do Canadians want to have, what kind of values do we want our children to live out?” But instead I got more utilitarian talk about the high financial costs of enforcing existing marijuana restrictions, about the projected impact on traffic safety and public health, conceived in a merely physical way, not moral or spiritual. The secularizing West does not know how to talk about morality, because the public square is supposed to be not only free but equal, not picking one worldview or one vision of the good life over another.
But humans cannot live this way. We cannot keep our moral visions out of the public square. So, we smuggle in our visions of the good life under guises we ourselves don’t always see. Immoral vision of what life should be, one which maximizes freedom conceived by prevailing norms today has ended up winning lots of the ground, especially elite ground in our culture.
Now, US culture, which of course I’m more familiar with, does permit a very few people to occupy positions in which they get to preach a more or less Christian morality to the public. The main ones that I know are two New York Times op-ed opinion writers who are conservatives, one of whom is professing Christian, the other not and that one is David Brooks. Listen to what he said. “Laws profoundly mould culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviours do our governments want to encourage?” He says, “In healthy societies, government wants to subtly tip the scale to favour temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”
It’s a Christian and our culture’s job to say a little “amen” to that when we hear somebody using moral language in the public square. Let’s talk then about what Christians need to say in public. What do we need to say to our culture? I think we need to listen to its talk of freedom and offer a better freedom. I think we need to expose the absence of a moral vision and offer one.
Now, we need to be very careful here, because preaching can be self-righteous and politically selfish. In America in my growing up years we had a movement called the Moral Majority. It was largely made up of Christians, and it was entirely made up of Republicans rather than Democrats. I’m embarrassed to say yet again it didn’t occur to me until I was quite into my adult years that implicit in that name, Moral Majority, was something of a boast, that is, “We’re the moral ones, and our political enemies are the immoral ones.” That usually doesn’t help in political discussion and it’s not true. There is morality and there is immorality on both sides of every political aisle. All the Democrats in the United States of America I can generalize are made in the image of God. They do have God’s law written on their hearts and all the Republicans, just like all the Democrats, are twisted by the fall of mankind.
“The line between good and evil,” as Solzhenitsyn said, “does not run between political parties but through every human heart.” That’s a teaching of the Bible as well. We need to bring humility and love to all our speech in the public square, even, and especially in social media, which is the only public square that most of us will ever get to speak in. Dr. John, maybe Dr. McQuarrie being some of the only exceptions.
I think I can motivate you a little bit to speak with love and grace, if you’re a Christian, by quoting my country’s most celebrated Olympian ever – the swimmer Michael Phelps. He’s not a believer as far as I know, and after his amazing athletic triumph back in 2008 where he won eight gold medals, he got spotted smoking marijuana. He admitted that his actions were “regrettable,” good for him, and he made a touching comment, truly touching. He said the drug was his method of, “Self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was that I was trying to run from.” When I heard that I did not scoff. My heart goes out to him. Even while riding a wave to the top of the world, he had problems that he could not fix, and he turned to marijuana.
The novelist Flannery O’Connor has said that our culture is still to this day “Christ- haunted.” But Christ is clearly not the king of North American culture. We worship other gods now and Michael Phelps turned to a different one when he had troubles. Phelps looked to that god for salvation and what did he find? He only found slavery because we are embodied souls in a created order, it’s not wrong to seek medical treatment. Medicines are a good gift of God, something humans should seek to make from his good creation. But it’s a sign that we’re worshiping the creation rather than the Creator when we look to that creation to do what only the Creator can do.
This, I think, is the most common problem personally with marijuana: I look at the culture out there, and though I have no complaints about medical treatments when properly vetted, I think Jesus is jealous to be the solution to your anxiety. We should be able to find rest in his arms, not in mind-altering drugs. No, let me correct that. We should find rest only in his arms ultimately speaking.
The effect of giving people freedom to self-medicate is that they will do it and we know that checking out with pharmacological assistance will only make people’s problems worse. But we have hope, we have Christ. We don’t need to run from our problems, we can run to a strong tower and be safe. This is something we need to say to our culture. People don’t turn to marijuana to make life more abundant but to make it more mellow, or worse. We have so many exciting things we’re called to do, so many ways to love God and serve our neighbour. Why would we want to check out? We have a moral vision to offer, a description provided by our Creator of what the good life really looks like.
If we really love our neighbours that God has put in our lives, we’ll have an unexpected angle in public. We can show love to them. Let me finish with one quick story. A little restaurant close to my church where I used to live in South Carolina wanted a liquor license, which is actually against local zoning laws, and this is one sentence so it’s going to last a little while: The assistant pastor there who’s one of the wisest people I know was asked to come and testify, “Should this be allowed?” And instead of leaning hard on the law, which he could have done, he could have said, “Look, right here, it says they can’t do this,” he said, “The tax revenues are appealing, sure. But we pastors deal with people on the other side of alcohol abuse.” We should be coming with that kind of love and grace and compassion and humility toward a culture that is self- medicating, instead of running, to the only true solution to their problems, slavery to Christ.