A recent Mississippi Matters piece ends with, “It's time for our law to reflect the present reality of the marketplace.”
I minister weekly in a prison facility and my church is home to quite a few struggling through the challenges of a post-incarceration lifestyle. No one talks much about that marketplace. Alcohol for me cannot be a matter of “marketplace” without addressing the reality of many who took a drink when they were young and found they couldn’t stop. For the record, that is about one in eight of Americans. In addition to that stat are non-alcoholics who nonetheless end up doing crazy things when they have more than a beer or two—like beat their wife and kids, drive a car while texting, looking for crack.
When I arrived in Jackson thirty years ago as a young seminary professor, I soon found my way to an inner-city church where I became associate pastor. Its one of the best things I ever did for all the life perspective it gave me. There were many wonderful things about that place, but one of the most interesting was the overarching sensitivity to the seemingly majority of members who were there because of the church’s sensitivity to alcoholics. In a denomination with a growing liberality towards drink, this church took a stand of solidarity – we don’t drink and we encourage everyone here to abstain because there are some of us that flat don’t need to be around it, or talking about it.
Alcoholics have their work cut out for them if sobriety is the goal. In American culture, the number of tee-totallers is falling while high-risk drinking and alcoholism rose sharply – 49 percent - during the most recent 11-year period studied. Well, to each his own, many of us respond. But at the end of the alcoholics fist may be a woman, children, some harsher drug, or the wheel of a car. A lot of other people are getting hurt, in other words, and that is to say nothing of the devastating effects that I observe every week in the prison; the vast majority of cases have a drinking tale attached to tragic consequences. By the way, anybody recently checked out what drunk driving, jails and prisons, and abused women and children cost the Mississippi taxpayer lately?
Any effort or law or antiquated rule that slows down that trajectory is fine by me. Goodness knows, something similar has happened with tobacco in this country. I suggest, when we all wake up from our collective alcohol hangover, that we consider shaming drinking in the same way. Cigarette use has become inconvenient and virtually dishonorable in our culture. Where once smokers could light up anywhere – hospitals, schools, restaurants, public transport – they are now prohibited. Secondhand smoke seemed to be the wedge issue detrimental to the whole, primarily the glad result of public shaming through laws and government reportage, advertising bans, pack warnings, mass media campaigns, and higher taxes.
It is a bit hard to discern when all of the gradual influence of tobacco nay-sayers turned into a cultural landslide. But it happened and, I predict, that alcohol consumption will eventually experience a similar fate some decade in the future. It will happen in large measure because of the small group experience whose membership far exceeds Sunday school attendance in this nation—namely, Alcoholics Anonymous and its church cousin, Celebrate Recovery. Eventually they, along with others of us who have wept for years over the innocent victims of alcohol abuse (be they women, children, the abused or the dead via someone’s DUI) will rise up and say, “We are the marketplace and enough is enough.”
Years ago Christianity Today reported on a Pastor James Meeks in Chicago. Meeks had read Charles Sheldon's In His Steps where the now-famous query "What Would Jesus Do?" was popularized. In this modern classic Sheldon’s fictitious characters tried to get the bars in town closed, but failed. But the idea got Meeks observing as he drove down his own neighborhood streets. There he found, much to his chagrin, 26 liquor stores in 19 blocks.
No problem like that in the suburbs, he thought. After a bit of research he found that you could, in that city, vote a whole precinct dry. So he preached on the vision of clearing the vicinity of liquor. Sermon title: "The Real Truth Behind the Liquor Industry." It was, he said, destroying our community and, as long as we are talking about it, why don’t wealthier communities have four liquor stores to each block thereby keeping the impoverished in lack and economic development in check?
Ten percent of the registered voters needed to sign a petition, and with pages in hand the congregation was released after that sermon. The issue was soon on the ballot. Then another sermon: "Let's Get Ready To Rumble" about Jehoshaphat going out to battle with choir in tow. Meek’s people took to the streets again, this time with a choir and a band on the back of a truck with music blaring. They talked to people and reminded everyone that this was the week when their community was going dry.
It worked. All those stores were history. Jobs, of course, were also temporarily lost, so the church offered to send the now-unemployed through job training and pay their salary until they got another job. And then, this – “We put a Christian bookstore in the building where the largest liquor store used to be.”
Let the church be the church, and let the marketplace decide. Amen.