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January 18, 2010 / Katie

Forbiddenness and Overindulgence

At church yesterday there was an insert in the bulletin called “Faith & Facts: Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs.” It is a publication of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. I want to talk with you a little bit about what was included, and perhaps more importantly what was left out, of the handout.

The very first section was entitled, “What Does the Bible Say?” and the scriptures included were (emphasis in original)”

Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them

Proverbs 23:20-21 and 29-32*: “Do not be among winebibbers or among gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe them in rags … Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger late over wine, those who keep trying mixed wines. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder.”

John 10:10: “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.

I wholeheartedly agree with the verses that bookend this triad; that we are created in the image of God and that God wants us to live abundant lives. The juxtaposition of these two verses with the proverbs verse seems to imply, however, that using alcohol is necessarily a detriment to these things; that it defiles the sacred body and prohibits living life abundantly. But I noticed something here—they left out some verse of that Proverbs passage. Whenever I notice this, I am pretty much compelled to go find out what they actually say. They say this:

Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old. Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding. The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice; he who begets a wise son will be glad in him. Let your father and mother be glad; let her who bore you rejoice. My child, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways. For a prostitute is a deep pit; an adulteress is a narrow well. She lies in wait like a robber and increases the number of the faithless.

Rather than addressing the contextual issues around adultery (for that would be an entirely different post) let me point out how the first half of that—the focus on wisdom—sheds new light on the verses that were quoted, as is usually the case when some have been omitted. The focus on wisdom here implies that this passage is not simply about how bad drinking is, but rather it is an illustration of making unwise choices, an example of the consequences of using alcohol unwisely.

Not only do I ask why they left out part of that passage, I also ask why did they choose this one at all? There are others in the Bible that discuss the use of alcohol. Here’s a really interesting one, again from the book of Proverbs, Chapter 31:4-9:

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

In this passage we consider the different functions that alcohol serves in different folks’ lives. For rulers and kings, drinking wine can be a problem because it can lead to them acting unjustly. Not just because “it’s bad” but because it’s bad for the people over whom they rule. On the other hand, those who are ill or experiencing oppression, and want to use alcohol every once in a while to “drown their sorrows”? The writer of this psalm says, “more power to ya!”

Again we have a more nuanced message; it is not the alcohol itself that is bad, but rather its misuse or overuse and the negative consequences that can have on others.

The last one I want to point out here (though we could go on all day) is the one that always comes to my mind, and I’m surprised it was left out. That is, Jesus’ first miracle, as recorded by John, was to turn water into wine at a wedding. And not only did he turn water into wine, he turned it into good wine. It was common at these weddings for the best wine to be brought out first, when everyone was sober and could enjoy it, and then the poorer quality wine would be brought out after everyone was good and sloshed. Jesus, to everyone’s surprise, turned water into good wine when they had run out. So basically, Jesus’ first miracle involved giving drunk people more wine. Doubt my interpretation? Read it for yourself.

Does this make Jesus unwise; a fool? Does it make him a drunkard? No. Because, again, we consider the context. It’s a wedding. It’s a party. So, Jesus and this scripture tell us, alcohol is great for use in celebrations. Add that to the list of times when drinking—even quite a bit—of alcohol is a-okay.

But the crux of this publication from the General Board of Church and Society doesn’t look at nuance, and I suppose in a double-sided half sheet of paper you don’t have much room to do so, especially if you’re looking at tobacco and other drugs as well. But I am nevertheless concerned by the stridency with which the GBCS approaches this issue. Not only is a strident “no alcohol” approach extra- (arguably anti-) Biblical, it’s just not psychologically healthful.

Here’s where this ties into issues of Fat Acceptance: forbiddenness, whatever is being forbidden, leads to overindulgence. We all know that forbidding children from something is the one way to guarantee they’ll want it. This is true for adults too. Hell, most of you have probably heard the phrase, “what do you think of when I tell you not to think of an elephant?”

And the statistics also show that just because the US has the most restricted laws when it comes to underage drinking doesn’t mean we don’t have our problems with alcohol. Americans drink 8.51 liters of alcohol per person per year, and we have a rate of 40.9 deaths from alcoholic liver disease per 1 million people.

Compare this with Canada, which has a very similar rate of alcohol consumption (8.26 liters per person, compared to our 8.51). But their rate of death from alcoholic liver disease is notably lower—33.4. If we head east to the UK, we get an even bigger discrepancy. While they drink more alcohol than we do (10.39 liters per person) they have a mortality rate from alcoholic liver disease—14.328 deaths per million—that is less than half our own!

Now of course there are other countries, like Germany, where they do drink more (12.89 liters per person) and have more deaths (a whopping 126.9 per million!) but my point is that this isn’t simple. Restriction based on laws and social mores just doesn’t work, and in our case it seems to be hurting. While we have the highest legal drinking age in the world, and our per capita alcohol consumption rate is pretty average, we obviously have a major problem with alcoholism as evidenced by the amount of deaths we have from alcoholic liver disease.

Restriction isn’t working for us. In fact, it looks an awful lot like it’s leading to bingeing.

Sound familiar?

This is also what we do with food. When we try to restrict something completely, whether it’s cookies, white bread, you name it, all we often do is exacerbate cravings for it. We think we are so “good” because we haven’t eaten that thing we love for a whole month and then… boom. We’ve just eaten a whole box of Thin Mints, or a whole loaf of Wonderbread, or whatever.

This is because there is nothing healthy about complete restriction, when you’re an otherwise healthy person. The caveat, here, of course, is for folks who have allergies, intolerances, or other medical conditions (such as diabetes) that require certain diets; or folks with chemical dependency on alcohol who are choosing to remain sober. But these decisions need to be made by fully informed people, with the help and guidance of friends, family members, and health care professionals. Outside of that, there’s just no good reason to restrict ourselves so much that we end up over-indulging.

So let’s go back to those great words in Proverbs about wisdom. How can we eat and drink wisely, in ways that honor our bodies, our souls, and our relationships with others? Rather than making rules, let’s make decisions based on respect for ourselves and love for our neighbors.

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One Comment

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  1. living400lbs / Jan 18 2010 10:53 pm

    Good points all…but something I thought interesting about this observation: “For rulers and kings, drinking wine can be a problem because it can lead to them acting unjustly. Not just because “it’s bad” but because it’s bad for the people over whom they rule.” Sort of like how drinking and driving has become a huge prohibition in the US because it’s bad for society?

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