The kind folks up at Back to the Bible Canada, and particularly Isaac Dagneau of the indoubt podcast (a ministry to Millennials) had me up for a recent event in Surrey, B.C., to speak on the cultural changes surrounding the acceptance of recreational marijuana. I was invited because of my little co-authored book, Can I Smoke Pot? Marijuana in Light of Scripture. This was my talk (some of which, at the very end, got left out in the real talk).
I’m 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. Broadly speaking, recreational marijuana use is growing in popularity 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 all 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. That’s the heading under which I’d like to look at marijuana and culture, because I connect every question ultimately to the rule of Christ and the glory of God.
Our job as Christians is always to obey that rule by applying the unchanging Word to our changing world—and that means reading our Bibles in one hand and our newspapers in the other. Dr. Neufelt looked at the one; let’s look at the other. So please turn 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 in its talk about marijuana. Let’s talk about those two things and then go over some brief counsel on how Christians might be salt and light as Christ our King commanded given our current cultural situation.
1. What Western Culture Is Saying
I think what Western culture is saying is we want freedom. And this, of course isn’t new. Psalm 2 has the kings of the nations saying, “Let us cast away their cords from us!”
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:2–3 ESV)
The nations have always wanted to get out from under Christ’s rule. They want freedom. Freedom is one of the major gods of Western culture. So much so that I feel compelled to say right away that I’m not against freedom myself—when defined by the Bible. But the very idea of “defining” and therefore limiting freedom is offensive to our culture. The French Revolution made “Liberté” one of its three watchwords. The U.S. calls itself “The land of the free.” “Freedom” is on my country’s postage stamps; “freedom…for all” is part of the pledge to the flag that every U.S. schoolchild 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 that I myself ever stopped to ask, “Freedom from what? And freedom for what?” Edmund Burke, a British politician active during key years in the history of both the United States and Canada, 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 which may be soon turned into complaints.
If the movement in Western culture for a long time has been toward greater and greater freedom, the only principles standing in the way are, and here I borrow from non-Christian moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt, “harm” and “fairness.” As long as an action brings no harm as defined by reigning cultural norms, and as long as it is no apparent threat to equality, Westerners think it ought to be permitted.
And during this era of history in which God permits his creatures to permit things he doesn’t permit, I think it’s fair to say that the West is overall giving more liberty to people to live against God’s will. But you can’t throw off the yoke of Christian truth all at once; by God’s common grace, he restrains sin in given cultures. Think of Abimelech in the Old Testament, to whom God says, “I kept you from touching Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” There are many non-Christian Canadians who have supported morally good policies and sustained moral good in their culture because God has restrained the effects of the fall in their minds and hearts. And by God’s special grace, there have been and are many Christian Canadians who have acted as moral roots in the soil. At least that’s the way we’re supposed to act! Western culture is saying it wants freedom; we Christians need to be moral voices warning, graciously, of the slavery that comes with any freedom not granted by Christ. You either get Christ’s easy yoke or the world’s hard and deadly one.
2. What Western Culture Is Revealing: Moral Thinness in the Public Square
The West is saying it wants freedom; but it’s revealing something, I think: namely that its moral language is thin if not 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 subsequent regulation. It’s proper for the mayor of Edmonton to give attention, as he did recently to the question of “policing, enforcement, and inspection costs” under the new dispensation.
But in my searches through Canadian news about this topic, I was struck by how difficult it was for me to find someone talking about marijuana from a moral perspective. I am certain that the topic has been discussed from this angle in Canada, because all people are moral beings (Paul said so in Romans 2), and Canada has a Christian cultural heritage; but searching your major news outlets, I didn’t see much if any moral talk. I found a MacLean’s article which dismissed the “moral panic” which led to marijuana’s criminalization in Canada in 1923. The lengthy article went on to say this:
The case for legalizing personal use of cannabis hangs on addressing two key questions. What is the cost and social impact of marijuana prohibition? And what are the risks to public health, to social order and personal safety of unleashing on Canada a vice that has been prohibited for some 90 years?
I was hopeful when I saw “social impact,” because I thought maybe we’d get some moral analysis, some question about the kind of society Canadians want to have, the kind of values they want their children to live out. But instead I got a lot of talk about the high financial costs of enforcing existing marijuana restrictions, and the projected impact on traffic safety and public health, conceived merely physically, not morally or spiritually. The secularizing West doesn’t 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 can’t live this way: we can’t 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. Public discourse is supposed to be an iron cage letting no contested moral viewpoints in; only secular reasons are allowed. But we get them in anyway. An immoral vision of what life should be, one which maximizes freedom, has ended up winning much ground in our culture.
U.S. culture 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 two people I know who get to do this are the New York Times op-ed columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks.
It was refreshing to me to read Brooks saying this not very long ago while discussing marijuana:
Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor 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.
3. What Christians Need to Say in Public
And that brings me to what Christians need to say to our culture. I think we need to listen to its talk of freedom and offer a better one. I think we need to expose the absence of a moral vision and offer one.
We need to be very careful here, because preaching can be self-righteous and selfish. In America in my growing up years we had a movement called the “Moral Majority.” It was largely made up of Christians, and entirely made up of Republicans rather than Democrats. Implicit in that name “Moral Majority” was a boast: we’re the moral ones, and our political enemies are the immoral ones. That did not help matters, because it wasn’t true: there is morality and immorality on both sides of every political aisle. We need to bring humility and love to all our speech in the public square, even and especially social media, the only public square where most of us will get to speak.
I think I can motivate you 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 is not a believer, and after his amazing athletic triumph in 2008, eight gold medals, he got spotted smoking marijuana. He admitted that his actions were “regrettable,” and he made a touching comment. 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.”
I don’t scoff at that. My heart goes out to him. Even while riding a wave to the top of the world, he had problems that he couldn’t fix. He turned to marijuana.
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 we look to them for salvation, as Phelps did. Because we are embodied souls in a created order, it is not wrong to seek medical treatment; medicines are a good gift of God and something humans should seek to make from his creation. But it is a sign that we are worshiping the creation rather than the Creator when we look to that creation to do what only he can do for us. This, I think, is the most common problem with marijuana. I have no complaint against medical treatments when properly vetted; but Jesus is jealous to be the solution to your anxiety, to your troubles. We should be able to find rest in his arms, not in mind-altering drugs. No, let me correct that: we can find rest only in his arms.
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 their problems worse. But we, we have hope; we have Christ. We don’t need to run from our problems; we can run to our 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 to do, so many ways to love our God and serve our neighbor. 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.
I also think that if we are really loving neighbors God has put in our lives who are running from their troubles, we’ll have an unexpected angle in our speech in public. When a restaurant close to my church wanted to start selling alcohol in violation of local laws about selling booze within certain areas, they knew that they could probably get permission to bend the rules if they asked nicely. But our church was asked to testify. Our assistant pastor, one of the wisest and most godly and gracious men I have ever known, told the government panel, “The tax revenues are appealing, we know that. But we pastors deal with people on the other side of alcohol abuse.” He could have leaned on the law; he could have preached. Instead he expressed empathy for the problems of people without Christ and warned gently that self-medicating with alcohol, in this case, wasn’t going to help.
One of my favorite theologians, Andy Crouch, said,
In our North American context, what is the function of pot? It is associated with superficially pleasant disengagement from the world. It connotes a kind of indolence and “tuning out” that is not an option for people who want to become agents of compassion and neighbor love.
And we, if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will put down moral roots in the soil and insist on them. And if we truly love them, that love will come out. It will become apparent that we’re not for one political party vs. another or one tax bracket vs. another. If we truly love God, we will be salt and light in a culture full of people who do have his law written on their hearts according to Romans 2:14–15. I think they know at some level, even if they suppress it, that recreational marijuana use is immoral. We must lovingly, for their good, call them to submit to Christ’s rule in every area of their lives.