Getting out of it

30 August 2004 | Faith & Society

Getting "out of it" is so endemic in our culture, that this reflection could have been placed at more or less any point in the year. Here at the end of August it could connect with bank holiday raves, clubbing in the Mediterranean or, coming after the previous piece, getting smashed after examinations.


Christianity's relationship with intoxication is not straightforward. Consider its sibling, Islam. Intoxication, and the production of and trade in intoxicants, is forbidden in Islam. The massive loss of lives and parts of lives which widespread "substance" use and abuse causes in us and around us makes stacking up the evidence for such a stance easy.

Even the making of containers (such as brandy glasses) for intoxicants is forbidden in Islam. How different in Christianity to use wine sacramentally. How different for Jesus to teach 'I am the vine and you are the branches.'

Jesus did not have in mind making grape jam. The Bible's view is that intoxication has been a feature of human culture at least since the Flood. Noah is the first planter of vineyards and within the next verse he is drunk (Genesis 9: 20-21).The early version of the Atk4is diet adopted by John the Baptist, who neither ace bread nor drank wine, is not copied by Jesus (Luke 7: 33-34). Quite the reverse.jesus chooses bread and wine together to be carriers of divinity in the Eucharist.

Of course even at its most innocuous drunkenness makes one drowsy, self-absorbed and inattentive, and the Gospels warn against that many times. But stand that against the first miracle of Jesus recorded in John's Gospel: the ,turning of 120-180 gallons of water into wine for the wedding-feast whose supplies had run out (john 2: 1-11). Size matters: the problem at Cana was not that guests would receive nothing to drink, and so be excluded from an important ceremonial. Rather, that the guests had already drunk dry the cellars of a host who could afford many servants - but wanted to drink some more.

Those of us who have heard this passage read so many times by people who appear to be the epitome of sober niceness may miss quite a large point. Try the wedding-feast again with a difference: had Jesus lived in a society where the use of ecstasy was accepted, would he have made more ecstasy when initial supplies had run out? (Anyone who is sure they know the answer, should consider why they are so sure.)

In perverse circumstances, intoxication could be healthier than its opposite. During the Vietnam war, American authorities became concerned at the proportion of their soldiers who used heroin, fearing for society on their return; but mostly, when the war ended so did the heroin use. Would it have been healthier, or morallybetter, for them to do what they did unintoxicated? The key to removing the heroin was to remove the napalm.

Of course the life-and-death question which this begs is whether those soldiers should have done, or been expected to do, what they did. And perhaps it is the same, equally life-and-death, question which is begged about our own society which medicates itself so heavily with such destructive effect. Perhaps we should fixate less on the supply of and demand for intoxicants as if these were subjects unconnected to any other, and ask more pointedly why the capacity of our rational, accountable, independent selves to find bliss with others has so atrophied as to require floating on such a vast chemical sea. Should we search less for the heroin in our society and more for the napalm? If"getting out of it" is the pandemic response, might building a society honeycombed through and through with isolation cells for the soul be the pandemic cause?

Almighty God

We pray for the millions of adults and children who suffer, directly or through those to whom they are close, from alcoholism, drug abuse or any other addiction.
Help them through this day.
For us and for them, be strength and inspiration for new life. Lead us to question our own part in making of our own lives, a place where so many of us prefer not to be.
In Jesus' name we ask.

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