by i.burgess on October 24, 2014
I have experienced so many things since landing here in Annapolis that I have no idea where to begin. So instead maybe you might enjoy some of the things I’ve seen.
Flying, Moving downtown, moving chairs (ministry) and some of the cool places I’ve seen so far. I’m sure I’ll figure out something to write. Eventually.
by i.burgess on July 16, 2014
There is a time for everything under the sun, and I’ve spent a lot of it in the shade of a restaurant waiting on tables and pulling pints. I have been disappointed, despondent and defeated. I’ve felt frustrated and furious. I’ve wrestled with the fact of this time of waiting and I’ve felt jealous of those who have found success when I have experienced failure.
This has been the time after my ministry training.
This time is coming to a close.
On the 29th of September I am going to get on a plane and I shall arrive in Washington DC seven hours later.
I am finally going to fulfil the purpose I was called to over two years ago.
I am grateful.
I am grateful to the friends who have prayed for me, supported me, and believed in God for me. These have been the people who have helped me open the door through form-filling and filing and petitioning, through pleading with God and sitting with me whilst I try to figure out why God has asked me to wait here so long.
I am grateful too for the time I have spent working at The Young Pretender. I’ve felt like a pretender, an impostor with nothing to offer and no claim to do anything remarkable at all. There were times when even I didn’t believe I’d ever make it back and I became thoroughly bitter. My colleagues have born with me through this, allowing me to be part of their life and business despite whatever personal flaws I struggle to reconcile. In turn I have been overjoyed to be included in their struggles and triumphs, their highs and lows. They have given me the gift of knowing that I can be myself.
I am grateful.
Whatever else this between-time signifies, it has meant that I have had no choice but to be myself. The demands of a physically exhausting job means that whatever professional pretence I could maintain quickly dissolves until people experience me without my defences. That they could experience this and not hate me, this has been a blessing. This time of waiting has demolished the fears I held on to and has liberated me from my own self-pity.
It seems that the biggest obstacle to God fulfilling the ministry he has given me, was myself all along.
Thank you, all you who have read my letters and checked up on me. You have believed in me and in God for me when I doubted him and hated myself. Thank you.
Last month I took a trip to the US embassy in London. After queuing for half an hour to be checked in, and another 40 minutes to have my bags searched, and another hour in a hot waiting room, I spoke to a mild-mannered American man for two minutes and he told me he was going to give me a visa. Quite the circus if you ask me but it is what it is.
The embassy authorised me for a 12 month visitors visa. I think this is time enough to fulfil the ministry to which I have been called: enabling christians to form authentic friendships with the marginalised community where they live.
I cannot deny that my time working in a pub has made me more ready to do this than my time in theological college or working for a church.
It is true that my research into scripture and church tradition has given me the imagination to see a new way of being with the marginalised and disenfranchised, but it is equally the case that working in a pub has put me quite literally next to these people in such a way that being with them comes more naturally than it did two years ago.
What has changed is not the vision, but myself. I did not expect that. I could not have preached this message on Job were it not for what I have experienced in disappointment and frustration.
I am grateful.
So as this short season draws to its close I’d really like to find ways to connect, be it in writing or over the phone or coffee somewhere.
Please pray for me and the inevitable melancholy of the many farewells over the next few weeks. Check up on me if you’re in my neighbourhood. I know I’m going to need to lean on friends in this time.
Also pray that the financial support will be enough for me to accomplish all that I envision.
If you would like to contribute to my costs with a one-off gift or with regular giving you can do so through stewardship.org.uk (create a giving account and search my name) or leave a comment asking me to email a mail-off Direct Debit form. If you’re in America you can give through the church by clicking here.
Thank you for waiting with me. I am looking forward to sharing this next year with you as we discover something new together! I shall be writing regular reflections and reports of what I am discovering and I am considering a few opportunities for more formal academic writing and research and in this way I hope to be of service not only in Annapolis but also to churches in a wide range of locations and contexts.
by i.burgess on May 2, 2014
I had gathered with Christians from all over the local area to celebrate Easter Monday at a big event. The Cathedral was full to bursting with Pilgrims who had walked for miles just to be there. The seats had been removed and a modest communion table was set in the middle of the nave. Gone was the finery of Easter Sunday. No shimmering robes, no bleach-white choir, no ladies in fine hats. This day was stripped of pretence as it was merely the gathering of those who wanted to celebrate the resurrection with their friends.
Hymns, readings and reflections led our thoughts as we prepared to share bread and wine. The story of forgiveness, of barriers brought down and hearts humbled became a real experience as we crowded into the church, smelling from our long walks and shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and acquaintances alike. It was glorious.
Indeed it was a testimony to the reality that Christ’s resurrection inaugurated. Christ called people to himself and overcame death, demonstrating that there is no end to his reign and that all who follow him have nothing truly to fear. This is the foundation of Christian community.
One thing only threw me that day. I could cope with the authority exorcised by the Bishops, the fact that this event was steeped in Anglicanism and even that the Diocese of St. Alban’s has endured its own share of strife, disagreement and controversial opinions.
What threw me was that one line in one song had been altered.
Stuart Townend’s hymn “In Christ Alone” had been revised such that the line which was intended to say:
“Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied”
Had been altered to read:
“Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The love of God was satisfied”
Why did I find this hard to deal with?
This line is typically altered because the implication behind it is that Jesus came to save us from God’s rage. Therefore God cannot be loving, cannot be trusted and certainly ought not be worshipped. An angry God is not a good God and only a good God should be praised.
Now, the first thing to notice about such a decision is that it takes any objective content out of God and places him in the realm of subjectivity. Appropriately, the language of God can be altered to suit the mood of society and God has no response. It is also telling of the theology of those who would advocate such a change:
Imagine if you will that some researcher notices that a drug problem is intrinsically linked to sex-work in a deprived area. The fact of this research would keenly imply that the reduction of sex-work and the crime which surrounds it would be achieved by eliminating the cruel dependence the community has on drugs. But say for example that this is too hard. Why not just arrest every prostitute on a street corner. It’s easier and looks better to the Middle Class voter.
This would be philosophically bankrupt: The researching body knows what should be done, yet has chosen to do something easier. In the same way, those who jettison ideas of God on the grounds of expedience or comfort for the hearer are demonstrating their ideological bankruptcy because they have decided that Christian doctrine is a matter of opinion, or worse–marketing.
In order to appeal to the nice white middle-class churchgoers the notion that these people could be in any way worthy of God’s wrath must be not only diminished, but denied. It is a crude suggestion and I dislike the very notion that church leaders would indulge in this sort of crass revisionism, yet there is little else to justify such a transformation. Steve Chalke in his book “The Lost Message of Jesus” fiercely denies the teaching of preachers like Johnathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ on precisely these grounds. He speaks for a great many Christians, as his popularity testifies.
Yet the songs of the faith have not always been thus tamed. In days of trial, or suffering and persecution the songs uttered from the lips of the believer have been very different.
Oppressed black people in America sang their spirituals, calling for judgement, for mercy and looking forward to the day of justice.
He delivered Daniel from de lion’s den
Jonah from de belly of de whale
An’ de Hebrew chillun from de fiery furnace
An’ why not every man
De moon run down in a purple stream
De sun forbear to shine
An’ every star disappear
King Jesus shall-a be mine
De win’ blows eas’ an’ de win’ blows wes’
It blows like a judgement day
An’ every po’ sinner dat never did pray’ll
Be glad o pray dat day
From one sufferer, to another the Scriptures sing the same songs:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
It is the groan issued forth from the lips of those under the burden of slavery, genocide, poverty and oppression.
This is the song wealthy, secure Christians no longer want to sing.
Stanley Hauerwas speaks of Black slavery as a “wrong that is so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right.” There is only judgement in store for those who participate in this ongoing exploitation. The abuse of women is a wrong that is so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right. The neglect of the disabled is a wrong. The disenfranchisement of the poor is wrong. The manipulation of global economies by businesses for their own ends is wrong. These are so wrong there is nothing you can do to make them right. There is no way for a person’s actions to justify them to the people they have wronged.
I think this is why God’s wrath is kindled against humanity. Not that people have failed some abstract set of rules but that their actions trample on the lives of others. The Christian tradition, especially what it inherits from the Hebrew scriptures, testifies to a God who is moved by the suffering of humanity. In compassion? Yes. But what is God’s care for the suffering if not accompanied by wrath for those who cause it?
Hauerwas taught me that the ability to confess to sin is a theological achievement. This is to say that it takes time and effort and reflection to really grasp the fact of one’s own sin and indeed the sin of the world. That God should be angry at this sin is then a clear conclusion. Short-circuting this journey to get God off the hook, to apologise for the harsh language surrounding him, thus displays a lack of reflection on the part of the church and also a perverse denial of the wrongdoing with which it has participated.
Standing amongst the multitude who gather to share the body and blood of the one crucified by the Romans confronts secure western Christians like me with the truth: That I participate in this same oppressive violence every day. How can God not be consumed with wrath on account of the misery my life, my culture, my empire inflicts on the downtrodden? How can I stand there and take the sacrament after this wrong that is so wrong there is nothing I can do to make it right?
It must be because the suffering and death of Jesus is God’s choice to identify not only with the victims of this world’s sin. In his resurrection he confronts those who abandoned him, who caused his suffering, inviting them to be reconciled through him to his Heavenly Father.
In this way the wrath of God was satisfied: Jesus died because of sinners, but in his resurrection that death becomes *for* the sinner.
Standing in a cathedral in a wealthy city in suburban south-east England, it is plain to see why we don’t want the wrath of God to be satisfied. This impinges far too heavily on our life now. Yet I could not but sing and celebrate that the wrath of God was satisfied. There is no way for what I have done and participated in to be made right but by forgiveness and no way for me to participate in the life of God in faith and through the sacrament without his sacrifice on my behalf.
Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.
by i.burgess on April 24, 2014
If Christmas is a time of promise, I suppose the week of Easter is a time for realisation. I last wrote to you to share my frustration that things had been held up, that I couldn’t be where I knew I was called and I had no idea why. I was angry that the door hadn’t yet opened, that I was languishing in my position and felt altogether useless. It was more than a little embarrassing.
In those hard days I spoke with friends, the praying and wise sort, and they wondered with me whether this delay was some sort of plan. I don’t think God expects anyone who he calls to be perfect, but for some reason each time my ticket over seemed to be in reach, it would be delayed in some way. To my mind, there is only so many times this can happen before one wonders whether there is a reason. Not that I’m the superstitious sort, I hope you know me better than that.
The time I’ve spent working in a bar has been trying. It has shaped me. When I first began I was the image of a perfect servant. This is to say, efficient, silent and cool. I was there to do a job and walk away. I discovered that this sort of facade can only be kept up for so long, especially after relentless weeks of 10-hour days, finishing after 11 each night. There comes a point where the presumption of the professional becomes too much effort to bother with. It crumbled away, yet much to my surprise everyone preferred the cantankerous, cynical, funny, oddball, real person beneath. In fact I was given more responsibility and more shifts.
I learned that I don’t have to be anyone else to love others, to serve the world and participate in God’s work. I’m allowed to be myself.
This was such a relief, because I assumed that I had to become some sort of empty vessel for God to ‘fill’ before I could do what he had called me to. It was pure grace to realise that God had already made me the person he wanted me to be.
So I re-evaluated what I was supposed to do with my time in America, accepting that the person I am could be what the church wants. You know what? Suddenly all those awkward moments where I asked the wrong question, or said things which made leaders uncomfortable, or made everyone have to go back and re-think the plan weren’t embarrassing. They were a testimony to the person God made me.
I’m a question-asker, a listener and a reader. I like to learn and help others learn. I like to see people bring what they have learned to their experience and practice. I like to see Christians transformed by the renewing of their minds. I want to see churches serve their cities and towns with wisdom and care.
And after I shared this with Pastor Joey and a few mentors, their response was an overwhelming ‘Of course!’
And the real surprise was that after I figured out what it is that I can give, then it dawned on us that there is a way for me to join in the work of the church in Annapolis despite visa trouble.
I will be applying for a 12-month visitor’s visa. Though the length is not what I envisioned, this is the door which has opened for me. On reflection it seems that 12 months would be more appropriate if this is indeed the purpose I’ve been called to.
That is, to share in ministry, to ask questions and to study the church in it’s mission.
I want to respond to this realisation for the benefit of not only myself and my ministry, not only Downtown Hope and their ministry, but to share those insights with others who are asking the important questions of mission and ministry in the contemporary world. I might be able to build a bridge into the community of Clarences, but surely it is better that every church learns how to do it for themselves? Maybe that’s the gift my ministry can give. I hope you’ll continue to walk with me as I flesh this out.
I’m excited to share this with you, and look forward to preparing over the coming weeks. The usual process for getting a 12-month visa usually takes a couple of months, so at the moment I’d estimate that I will be in Annapolis in September.
Thank you for your prayer, encouragement and support. Thank you for holding me when I thought I was useless and deluded. Thank you for showing me that this was never true at all.
by i.burgess on December 11, 2013
After the brutal murder of a British serviceman near his barracks the most normal response is horror. Horror gives way to anger, anger at the perpetrators and anger at the systems which created them. The anger of the English Defence League was directed against the Islamic Extremists who had manufactured the young terrorists who hacked Lee Rigby to death. They staged a march in the town, rallying support for the British army and demonstrating that such acts would not be tolerated.
Such people would not be tolerated.
In a display of tolerance, the local Mosque made tea for those furious protestors who had come to tell them to stop murdering the favourite sons. Like a spoon of sugar in a hot brew, the tension dissolved and all were with all.
The Islamic community appeased their critics by demonstrating that they are with Us, not with Them. Tea, Football, all things British to show commonality. What can a British person do but accept these gestures, these tokens of solidarity? They become One Of Us.
The feeling of inclusion here is dependent upon a prior ideal of society. The extent to which a person or a community can conform to this highly held standard will determine the form of their fellowship with others.
Would the picture have been quite so perfect if they had passed a shisha pipe?
Though Britain’s colonialism is hastily a forgotten footnote in her autobiography, its lessons have echoed through the generations. The presumptuous imposition of one ideal upon the ‘lesser’ other’s, the posturing of one people as benevolent host of another, that one people are ahead of another; this is the radical reshaping of a society which Imperialism engenders. Remember that the language of intellect, of politics and religion was Latin for centuries after the Empire ceased dictating from Rome.
It is assumed that Western style liberal democracy is the ideal for which all should strive and which the few have achieved. Thus we Brits are in the end times, the eschaton, the end of history. There’s nowhere to go from here. Since we sit at the end, we reach back to those at the beginning as angels from the heavens, enlightening the darkness of the world.
We did, after all, call our African colonies the ‘dark continent’.
Today we cannot mediate our contact with these Others through trade, military and religious mission. Their faces are beamed to our televisions. They are our doctors, neighbours, friends. In such immediacy our bigoted presumptions are shown in their entire ugliness. Yet like the Islamic Extremist, the Bigot is always ‘my dad’ or ‘that bloke at the pub’, always an Other who is hastily disowned.
Unless of course one proves that they really are One Of Us: Tea and biscuits.
Assent to the idealised society is then the foundation of community. What is said, believed or done in private doesn’t need to interfere with this. One can be racist in private but still buy cigarettes from the Indian shop keeper on the corner. This maintains a certain form of peace yet is riddled with contradictions and presumptions. The extent to which these can be manipulated or conformed to are the essence of our modern tolerance.
What cannot be tolerated is a deviation from the ideal. Liberals have been quick to wave the flag of gay marriage without asking the broader question of the substance or justification of the institution. So long as the gays can conform to, or indeed manipulate, the prevailing discourse then their acceptance can be assured. Not that they, or any other group, can be accepted on their own terms.
That bigots can’t be tolerated speaks to the limits of our tolerance. It is a tolerance of taste, not of the substance of a human person.
Ian Watkins was convicted of horrendous crimes against vulnerable children. He is a paedophile and a rapist. He is a human being. The response of the haughty social media pundits was to scream for his head.
I don't generally believe in the death penalty – but in Ian Watkins' case, I'd make an exception.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) November 26, 2013
This kind of deviation is the vile, unwelcome intrusion of the private reality into the facade created by public speech.
By exorcising the murderer, paedophile and bigot the majority maintain the hegemony of unadmitted presumptions. It is an offence to include such people in the category of ‘human’. Yet to be offended by such people is to contradict the essential truth of our own common being, and common weakness, with fellow human beings. To claim a kind of being-together which transcends tea and biscuits is then a tolerance grounded in a reality more substantial than Great Britain.
by i.burgess on November 16, 2013
The door opened and 30 small faces turned to the guests. Some of the older children had ben sent around the school with a collection tin and a blue tray. In this tray were dozens of small, red poppies. Each 7-year-old reached a sticky hand into their pocket and fumbled with the golden coin they had been entrusted with. The rattle of pounds in the box was overwhelmed by the voices of excited children pinning on a small, paper, poppy.
A squad of tiny soldiers with our badges proudly on our chests. Or raw wounds, bleeding.
Overpraised, overpaid, overeducated. My generation found itself in university and profoundly loses itself each weekend as vodka stains the piss-soaked streets. We were promised the world and our parents were the generation capable of providing it. It’s a world of infinite possibility, at every turn a choice or an opportunity for personal freedom. Taught one thing but Google already rendered the lesson irrelevant.
Marched for peace and camped for justice and now our boys march for injustice in a far-land. It is clear that the authorities have no ear for this generation, only a thirst for their wealth. Yet Generation Y makes a difference by purchasing fairtrade, organic products which regrow the rain forests and their bosses ask them how their weekend was. It’s a culture of authenticity and mutuality plastic wrapped in a redemptive experience. No, this generation is not like the one before.
A world of environmental abuse and “yes, boss” and “you have my vote” and hiding our money and asking no questions. Paedo-Priests and Pervert-Presenters, lying politicians and greedy corporates. This baby has boomed and our baby is bust.
My generation lives in the shadow of the Boomers. We were raised by the children of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies. The boomers, rooted as they are in the events of their youth, embody so much of the truth of their age. Namely, the truth of two global conflicts and the collapse of socialism. Their parents overcame the end of the world, the collapse of Western civilisation and the Boomers bore witness to the great cost. Traumatised men who lived as the waking dead. Widows who raised a family alone. Children displaced. Bombs. Nukes. The boomers saw the cost of their own future.
So it is with the contradictions of tragedy and victory, survival and death, that these people pin a red poppy to their chests each year.
Yet my contemporaries were raised in the paradise forged by the Boomers. We were presented with poppies year in and out and told that people “gave their lives for our freedom.”
Well, who were they? Why were they fighting? What did they lose? What did that mean?
These are the questions left unasked. Since they are unasked, we summon the answers from the aether. The vague notion of being saved from some unknowable evil is reenforced by the zeal of the remembrance–as if the gravity of the Wars can be captured in a solemn march, or a poem, or the testimony of a veteran.
Remembrance for my generation is rooted in saving face. It would be a disgrace to disagree or to question, and so every justification is paraded every year unopposed while we weep the great cost of war. In being so removed from the conflicts, the rituals surrounding the remembrance of them become increasingly elaborate. It is our yearly sacrifice to the scarcely remembered death of a generation.
I do not think awareness diminishes the fact of the Wars, nor their lasting impact on the world. Rather it is this rootless ritual which has become an untruth. As the last living witnesses pass on, the stories told about the war become myths to justify our basest notion of “freedom.” Any opposition to that myth is tantamount to treason.
It is a betrayal of our common humanity that we remember one telling of the War at the exclusion of the others. When I was a boy, I was taken on a trip to Belgium to see some of the sites of the great wars. We visited that Allies cemetery. It was a great hillside full of proud white stones, all upright in neat rows.
We visited the German war grave in the same region. It looked something like this.
by i.burgess on November 4, 2013
I wrote down and made public every fleeting fanciful thought which I believed to be insightful, self aware or important.
I once believed I had something to say.
As a reader I opened myself to the thinking and impulses of others through their writing. The sense of communion was intoxicating. Like children stumbling through the wardrobe into Narnia, I found my feet on strange ground meeting people I’d never dreamed. I loved it. The sensation of allowing an idea to shape one’s outlook is truly exhilarating.
It is also brief. The sense of transcendence–that one is encountering and participating with a world beyond the mundane–is easily maintained in an academic environment, yet exposure to harsher realities causes these novel, pure-hearted ideals to whither. Waxy feathers under relentless heat.
As the deep blue rushes to embrace my frail bones, I wonder what I thought I was striving for after all. Was not the point to carry me safely over?
I once believed I had something to say.
I now disbelieve I ever had anything to say.
Is this a unique experience?
Remembrance day approaches. It is a British holiday which is devoted to the lives of women and men who have been injured or killed in the service of this country’s military. I find such expressions of nation-cult to be incongruent with my expression of Christian faith. I am called to be a peacemaker who remembers particularly the weakest people in the world. As such I wear a white peace poppy which contributes to a fund to end wars and help noncombatants.
A colleague at work gave an exasperated expression and, with a pained voice, asked me why I was still wearing “that gay poppy”. I forgave his pejorative use of the word but I could not forgive his withering dismissal of a contrarian thought.
Now, England is a great nation. It has a long history of impact and significance in the world–arguably surer grounds than America for a claim to be the ‘greatest country on earth’–which can be spun as a consistent narrative. This story is marked and re-told by traditions and rituals like royal weddings, state events and remembrance day. Any challenge to these rituals and traditions is thus a challenge to the sweeping narrative which underpins British culture and lifestyle.
We deserve to be successful because we beat the evil Nazis.
The assumptions this idea relies upon to gain legitimacy are so vast and vastly illegitimate that it is almost unnecessary to challenge them. Or is my inability to meaningfully respond to the “gay poppy” merely my surrender to the baseless assumptions which I am too cowardly to challenge?
The fear of rejection for holding contrarian opinions suffocates me. I do not want to be misunderstood, so I do not speak at all.
I once believed I had something to say.
I now do not want to say anything at all.
by i.burgess on October 23, 2013
I couldn’t be more grateful for the community of people, many of whom I barely know, who are committed to getting me back to Annapolis. I was tempted to despair over this summer and lose all hope in this vision, but for the fact that a group of people have been writing letters, making phone calls and continuing to contribute to the costs of this mission through monthly support.
It is you, the reader, who has been faithful to the calling which I doubted. Your patience, understanding, friendship and faithfulness has blessed me beyond words. Thank you.
I expected to be in America by now but for whatever reason The Lord has arranged things in such a way that I shall have to wait a while longer. I’m not disappointed, though I’ve yet to understand why. A dear friend in my church who spent her career as a missionary insists that this is not wasted time, that I am here for a purpose.
All I feel I’ve accomplished in my time working at a restaurant is learning Polish swear words. I’m glad for the work but more so I’m glad to meet a community of people who have the most tenuous connection to any form of Christianity. From the regulars to my colleagues, I get to spend each day in the high-pressure environment of the hospitality industry where, despite my inadequate witness, people won’t stop asking about my faith.
I try my hardest not to be Ned Flanders or Dot Cotton but I apparently can’t help being noticed as a Christian.
Is that something I’ll take away from this waiting time?
Despite the situation I’m in I’ve found ways to serve Downtown Hope and the community of Annapolis by managing their web presence and online resources. I’ve also enjoyed entering in more fully into the life of my local church, serving the young people and spending time with the wiser members as well as speaking engagements.
And most of all I’ve enjoyed your fellowship through the blessings of instant communication and the petrol engine.
Thanks for staying with me this past few months.
Please continue to remember me in your prayers in this trying time and keep reminding me to hope in the Lord.
by i.burgess on September 20, 2013
A living room decorated in the neutral tones of creme and beige – Nobody choses such decor. It is always chosen for you by the landlord. Sitting on a second-hand couch in a rented room I sat sipping coffee with an old friend. He and his companions shared the rent in their first accommodation away from the parental home.
We sipped coffee and caught up. Usually there’s not much of ourselves to catch up on since we live close enough to share most of the significant events anyway. We catch up on our reading habits and what we think of various current news stories before hastily finding something to disagree over.
Today, however, I notice something different. Every now and then my usually sharp-tongued and quick-witted sparring partner is drifting off. Mid sentence, he stops and stares at the coffee in his cup.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, I dropped acid four hours ago”
I learned that LSD makes everything very interesting.
It heightens sensual experience making it difficult to resist novelty, all the while making everything you experience somehow more real than it was before. It does not, as popular fiction would suggest, cause one to have visions or hallucinations as such.
I have learned rather a lot about drugs over the past few years through the well-insulated lives of my white, middle-class friends who use these substances as a replacement for tobacco or to fuel an energetic night out and everything in between. From mundane to occasional, banned substances permeate the lives of many of my good friends.
I’ve become used to the sight of someone rolling a joint and I don’t even notice the smell.
No one of this group are, to my knowledge, addicted to any substance (besides tobacco, but apparently we’re all ok with that).
They use these illegal, mind-altering substances in much the same way other people use legal mind-altering substances like alcohol.
When this is the case, it becomes rather difficult to maintain the shrill moral outrage against the evils of drug abuse without beginning to look pretty hypocritical. Sure, they might smoke pot in the evenings and take MDMA when they go to a night club but they’re not starting fights in bars or driving intoxicated, which is where most of the harm from mind-altering substances comes from.
There is a great difficulty in maintaining a moral outrage at people with whom you have shared history and great affection.
Tolkien once spun a mythical yarn of swords, betrayal and legions of darkness. The black tower under the shadow of Mount Doom was the perfect abode for evil in this fantasy world. Frodo and Sam engage in their inevitably successful quest to overthrow this blight on the land. Such is the plot of a fairy-tale.
Frodo’s fellowship with this darkness is his shameful secret and his deepest pain, a world he is abandoned to when he wears the ring.
This is a comforting metaphor for the battles we face and the trials we overcome yet it is fatally bound to the ideal of a harmonious relationship between The Good and personal morality as mediated by the rule of law.
Christians adore this myth.
We are sent into the world to be “salt and light” in the power of the Sprit and to be witnesses to the resurrected Christ to the unbelieving world. We must fight the darkness, struggling up the mountain to cast away our own sins and the sins of the world.
What sins? The easiest thing is to adopt the laws of the land as Divine Command. Therefore to enforce the rule of popular piety becomes the means by which the salt is spread. If all people obey the rule of law, then they might as well be Christian, thus we believers have fulfilled our calling.
My brave crusade against the evils of drugs came to a shuddering halt when my disapproval was not the perfect instrument of God’s will to end their pot-smoking habits.
Their well-reasoned (though slowly stated) response to the righteous indignation of my furrowed brow was to point out that there are plenty of legally available substances, sourced from poorer nations, which negatively impact the health of our society–Fast food, alcohol and tobacco being the most common. In their philosophy the only reasonable response to recreational, yet dangerous, substances is moderation. I think they are right to point out the mere fact of the illegality of a thing is not sufficient justification for a moral objection.
The legality of a thing ought to follow from reasonable objections, not the other way around.
Jesus was indignant at the politicians of his day for maintaining a law for its own sake, forgetting the people for whom the law was introduced. After being challenged for picking grain for food he declared: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).
If this is to be my hermeneutic for understanding legality and personal morality, then whatever opposition I have to drugs must have a broader grounding in all recreational substances. This has been the subject of much contention in Christian history.
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon invited D.L. Moody to speak at an event he hosted.
Moody accepted and preached the entire time about the evils of tobacco, and why the Lord doesn’t want Christians to smoke.
Spurgeon, a cigar smoker, was surprised at what seemed to be a cheap shot levelled by Moody, using the pulpit to condemn a fellow minister.
When Moody finished preaching, Spurgeon walked up to the podium and said, “Mr. Moody, I’ll put down my cigars when you put down your fork.”
Moody was overweight.
Both of these men are right in seeking to expose the sinfulness of harming the body. It is, after all, a temple to the Spirit of God. Yet such an ideal cannot claim direct correlation with the banning of any one substance.
It is not simply “I am harming my body with alcohol, therefore sinning, so abstaining is the will of the Lord.”
Add to this the complexity of relating the non-believer to ethical decisions which hang, largely, on a faith confession. I might understand my body in a certain way, resulting then in the choice not to intoxicate myself, but that understanding relies on faith and not reason.
My friends would all agree that it is a bad thing to be addicted to heroin. Yet the grounding for this moral declaration is in the damage such addiction does to the body, to human life and to society. My objection to taking heroin in the first place is to do with the way intoxicates a person, impairing judgement and subduing the senses.
This is rooted in the characteristics expected of those in Church leadership which I take to be a template for all of Christian discipleship:
“An overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.”
1 Tim 3:2-3.
Since these who are my friends are not, nor claim to be, members of any church, such an ethical expectation is completely inappropriate. It’s like expecting a German to speak perfect French when he has no desire to ever visit France.
So if an objection to drugs ought not inhibit my friendship with this community, then neither can the substance of such a relationship be my quest to convince these people to stop intoxicating themselves.
After all, Christ’s purpose in befriending me is not to stop me from sinning. Christ calls humans to be his friends for the sake of participating in his loving fellowship with God (John 15:15). This friendship opens us to the possibility of other friendships “by freeing us of our preoccupation with ourselves” (Hauerwas).
In reality, it is such preoccupation with myself which causes the violent reaction of my will to overthrow the ‘evil’ of drugs. The outrage I feel is a violent impulse toward the stranger, the Other, and is totally inappropriate for the Christian. If Hauerwas is right in defining love as the “non-violent apprehension of the other as other” then my encounter and continued relationship with people who take drugs must–if it is to be characterised by love–not be hindered by these acts which form part of their being in the world.
To do any other would be to react violently toward a part of their personhood.
Or is this just a longwinded way of letting people get away with breaking the law for the sake of the inconvenience of making a fuss?
The risk of a friendship is that it creates a community of over-lapping people. This is to say that the identity of the individual is shared and has an impact on the other, yet that individual is too impacted and changed by their encounter with the other.
For the Christian in their encounter with those whose lives and personal moralities conflict with the Christian ideal this can become complicated, as they inevitably find their lives woven into the fabric of a larger cloth which may not look like they expected.
Yet perhaps this can be more accurately described as the substance of Christian life in the world, far more than middle-class moral performance and enforcement which has tragically become the caricature of Christian witness today.
To be a friend in a community where banned, mind-altering substances are a normal part of life means firstly sharing a bond of mutual affection and love. With this established, the difficult conversations and substantive sharing-of-self may follow without violence being done to either person. Here, it becomes possible for disagreement to exist not only in the realm of ideas, but in the existential space of actual-life-lived.
You might not be spreading Christian values, but you’ll be following the example of Jesus and that’s probably more important.