I remember years ago when John Ashcroft was installed as the head of the Department of Justice. In his speech, he quoted the passage which many say is at the heart of the social justice movement, Micah 6:8¾“What does the Lord require of you. . .” I cannot help but remember how strange I thought it was that he would use that verse in the way he did. As I heard it, which may or may not be as he intended, the message was to be humble as you exercised the heavy hand of justice.
Biblically speaking, justice, especially in the New Testament, is something restorative, rather than punitive. This is an important distinction, because it shapes and makes us question what is just and what is not. The political version of justice asks, “Does the time fit the crime?” But that is kind of problematic, because it is often otherwise said that justice is not about making things right, it is about punishing or detouring actions.
Nowhere is that more evident than when looking at drug-related crimes. This was one of the many social justice issues we looked at during the General Assembly this year. Drugs are bad, there is no question about that. However, our relationship to drugs and the associated punishments is wholly out of whack. With the current state of the jail system in California, we have seen the impact of overly punitive and often racially biased measures towards low-level drug offenses.
When it comes to drugs, I have a very different perspective, because I have never met a drug addict that did not have something underlying their abuse of drugs. This may be overly simplified, but in my experience, I identify three causes for drug addiction. First is the easy one, and what I think is mostly a red herring, and that is the social environment. I call it a red herring because I think that a very small percentage of drug users actually use based solely on their social environment. But I mention it first, because it is by no doubt a contributing factor to use, and yes, there are people who follow the pressures of their peers and find addiction.
However, most people I have worked with either start because of a low self-perception, abuse (physical and/or psychological), or some underlying psychological problem. You can probably easily see how an unhealthy environment can drive someone with low self-esteem or in an abusive situation to drug abuse. But what is really interesting is how many people find their way to drug abuse because of some underlying psychological problem.
This was something that was eye-opening to me as I once had to call for help with a member who was so high, they were being abusive toward their kids. This person was bi-polar and was self-medicating. I raised the question with a psychologist about how often this happens. He just rolled his eyes and said, “More than you would like to know!” In fact, he went on to talk about how the fear of repudiation, coupled with the fear of being labeled “crazy,” or the lack of resources or connection to proper psychological treatment, or some combination thereof, often leads people to start using drugs, which then leads to the addiction.
So we get to the justice part. The failed war on drugs really did nothing more than criminalize drug use, not taking into account the underlying reason for the use. Often, instead of treatment and working through the underlying cause of the addiction, people were given stiff sentences as punishment. In doing so, our government was successful at incarcerating people, but did we really make a difference? Moreover, is it justice to lock someone up at a huge financial expense to the general population and devastating cost to the individual personally? The change in our church policy is to rethink the war on drugs and place more emphasis on how we are helping people. In other words, we are looking for how we create a just policy looking towards restoration, not punishment.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen