Andrew Sullivan’s mid-February piece in New York Magazine, “The Poison We Pick” is an absolute must read. Like most of Sullivan’s work, there are quibbles I could pick, some of them even significant, but the major thrust of the article is what makes it so worthwhile.
Through its length the piece makes plain that the opioid crisis this nation faces is far more than simply a confluence of events in medical misunderstandings, new technology aiding both the production and distribution of the drugs, and other factors. The opioid epidemic in this nation represents a deep spiritual crisis.
Sullivan begins his argument with the action of these drugs themselves – pointing out that they are pain killers and that they kill far more than physical pain. He rightly asserts that they kill emotional and spiritual pain as well.
It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it. It is a story of how the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy.
Sullivan points to multiple sources for this pain – the retreat of religion, the disintegration of the family, the dislocation created by the death of manufacturing and the rise of big tech and much more, not all of which I would agree with. He even sees parallels to the early years of industrialization and the dislocation it gave rise to, as do I. But the point remains; this epidemic is born of an existential pain that inflicts a large portion of the nation.
The question is what to do?
Sullivan’s biggest suggestion is to offer controlled places for people to consume their drugs; a response which I find most unsatisfactory. Such may be about the best a government can do, for no government can deal with existential pain like this. Such may get a handle on the skyrocketing overdose death rate. But such does nothing to address the bottom line which is the pain that drives the epidemic.
As established, this is a spiritual crisis, and it is there that the problem must be attacked. Government can, perhaps, contain the crisis but only the church can solve it. It should be to the church’s eternal shame that things have gotten as bad as they have. Too many times I have seen the shrug and heard someone mutter, “What can we do” and move forward with planning another short-term mission trip to somewhere tropical. I do not wish to deny the suffering and injustice in the places where STM’s do go, but I will loudly decry a church that does not see the injustice and pain in its own midst that this opioid crisis represents. A shrug and a mutter simply do not cut it.
So what can we do? I would suggest we start with Arthur C. Brooks correct assertion that the “secret” to human happiness is earned success. So focused has the modern Protestant and Evangelical church become on grace that the predominant faith expressions in this nation no longer provide opportunities to earn any success of any sort. So focused are we on unconditional love that we deny people the opportunity to earn anything. No, they do not have to earn our or God’s love, but they do have to earn something. We have turned church into something to be consumed instead of something to participate in.
Sullivan sees it when he says this:
What has happened in the past few decades is an accelerated waning of all these traditional American supports for a meaningful, collective life, and their replacement with various forms of cheap distraction. Addiction — … to food, to phones, to TV, to video games, to porn, to news, and to drugs — is all around us. The core habit of bourgeois life — deferred gratification — has lost its grip on the American soul. We seek the instant, easy highs,….
The church has followed this trend. The church must provide opportunities for earning. Money is not necessarily what has to be earned, as Brooks says, “It’s not the money per se, which is merely a measure–not a source–of this earned success.” And our theology correctly tells us it is not their salvation that they earn, but earn they must. They can earn participation in short term missions. They can earn offices in our institutions. Mostly, they can earn Christian maturity if we would but call them to it.
Want something a bit more practical? During the last two decades of his life my father developed and operated a ministry in his church specifically for those that had lost their jobs. This was in the rust belt and as tech took over, this was no small ministry. The group certainly offered support and networking opportunities. It offered counseling for those that lost their jobs unjustly and for those that lost their jobs justly it helped them see and overcome their mistakes. Certainly the ministry served as a conduit to the financial resources of the church when it was necessary. But through all of it there was one drumbeat. If you are out-of-work, getting work IS your job. Every application filled, every resume presented, every interview taken was earned success – the completion of a necessary task. If you have to go back to school and get trained in something new – more opportunity for earned success. This attitude made the unemployed happier which in turn increased their chances of finding work.
Maybe you can think of a better approach. Maybe you disagree with Brooks altogether. Right now I don’t care. What I care about is that we see this epidemic for what it is – a failure on the part of those of us that call Jesus Lord. This epidemic is symptomatic of the great hole in the soul of our nation – a hole that only God can fill. Whatever you think is the best way to serve as God’s hands and feet in filling that hole — Do it! Do not wait for someone else. Do not wait for the government or for the so-called “experts.” Just confess, pray and act. People are dying.