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Today’s reading is one of the more baffling ones in the gospels. Jesus, who has spent his ministry healing the blind and the lame is here suggesting that we should pluck out our eyes and chop off our hands and feet. He says that if our eye causes us to sin or stumble, we should pluck it out. Better to live with just one eye than to end up in Gehenna, his name for hell. Gehenna was a valley south of Jerusalem where pagans once sacrificed children in bonfires. So, Jesus is saying, better to be maimed than to die and end up in Gehenna, a fire that is unquenchable and where the worm never stops eating the dead.
This is the kind of imagery that gives many of us the creeps. Jesus is supposed to be the prince of peace, the bringer of love and forgiveness. But here he is talking about maiming and hell fire. What possible wisdom can there be in this?
Let’s step back for a moment. We know that the Bible presents Jesus as a healer, and the people who wrote this text believed every one of those healings actually happened. However, the same disciples who believed in literal healings also were willing to die for Jesus. Some were stoned to death, others crucified. So, they were willing to put their entire lives and bodies on the line. But not one of them ever plucked out an eye when they had sinful thoughts or chopped off their hand if they wanted to grab something sinful. If Christians believed these maiming instructions were meant literally, then our depictions of the Apostles would look like this:  Jeremiah 7:31–32  https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/whatever-happened-to-the-twelve-apostles-11629558.html
Christians would be known for wearing eye patches, like pirates. That did not happen. That’s our clue that even back then they knew when Jesus was speaking metaphorically.
The clue to what Jesus means is in his description of Gehenna. It is a place of unquenchable fire and worms that never stop eating you. He is suggesting that if you are suffering from a compulsion that is all consuming, you are already burning in Gehenna. Unquenchable desires can make it feel like our eye, our hand or our feet are in charge of our lives. Our eyes demand to see more porn on the internet, not a little every once in a while, but all the time. Our hand keeps reaching for the bottle, the pills, the syringe. We wake up in the middle of the night desperate for another fix. Our desires, which are never satisfied, seem to be in charge. If that happens to you, Christ says, you would be better cutting out that compulsion than to allow it to destroy your life. Because we have all known people who have lost it all, family, friends, houses, jobs, to addictions that got out of control. Addictions that threw our life into the fire long before death came. It happens. Christ is saying, if you are in that situation, you need to make a choice, and make it now.
So how do we fix ourselves? For the past century or so our answer has been to criminalize the supply of what is addictive, and to morally condemn those who get addicted. It is as though we misread the Bible and heard Christ say if you see someone sinning with their eye, pluck out their eye. That’s not what He said, but that’s what we have been doing. Heroin and marijuana were outlawed in 1923. In the 1920s the same approach was applied to alcohol in the United States during Prohibition. Sales of booze were prohibited to end alcoholism. In the 1960s, new drugs like LSD were outlawed, followed by laws in the 1970s against new drugs like ecstasy. And, all along the way, the people who used the illegal drugs were stigmatized as morally inferior, people with weak will power  Opium in 1908, heroin and marijuana in 1923: https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/marijuana-was-criminalized-in-1923-but-why-1.2630436  1962 for LSD: https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/lsd  Ecstasy outlawed in 1976: https://www.asyr.ca/resources/drugs-alcohol-gambling/ecstasy/
But a strange thing happened as drugs were banned. They got stronger. When the Americans banned the sale of beer and wine in the 1920s, Canadian smugglers saw an opportunity to make a fortune by bringing booze over the border. But since it was risky, they decided to bring over hard liquor since it was more potent than beer and wine, and easier to carry. The potency of alcohol increased by 150% during Prohibition.  When Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs in the 1980s, marijuana growers moved their crops indoor to escape detection by planes and satellites. But inside, pot plants needed to be smaller and more potent.
So, new varieties were bred. Between 1990 and 2007, marijuana’s potency increased by 161%.  This is called the Iron Law of Prohibition – banning a substance just makes it stronger.
During the pandemic we have seen this process repeat itself with heroin. When the border closed, the illegal supply of heroin was reduced. The drug trade did not give up, however. It simply supplemented the limited heroin supply with fentanyl, a much stronger synthetic opioid. As a result, a few grams of heroin now is much more potent than before. This has had absolutely tragic consequences. Here’s a graph that was released this month showing the rate of overdoses in Ontario before and during the pandemic.
As you can see, as soon as the lockdown in March of 2020 began, overdose deaths started to rise. In Toronto, overdose deaths rose by a whopping 78% in the first year of the pandemic. 520 people died of overdoses in 2020.
Banning drugs to prevent addiction has not worked. Prohibition did not end alcoholism, and the war on drugs did not end marijuana use or the consumption of heroin. Approximately one in five Canadians will be addicted to drugs or alcohol at some point in their lifetime. Criminalizing users and their supply has not changed demand, and it has only made addictive drugs more potent. And the price of this failed strategy has been paid in lives lost to alcoholism and drug overdoses.  Overdose, p.55.  Overdose, p.54.  Overdose, p.55.  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955395920304266  Source: Ontario Science Table, “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Opioid-Related Harm in Ontario,” Sept 8, 2021: https://covid19-sciencetable.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/The-Impact-of-the-COVID-19-Pandemic-on-Opioid-Related-Harm-in-Ontario_published_20210908.pdf.  https://www.toronto.ca/news/toronto-public-health-reports-record-high-number-of-confirmed-opioid-overdose-deaths-in-2020/  https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-624-x/2013001/article/tbl/tbl1-eng.htm
When Jesus spoke about desires which feel unquenchable, he did not suggest that someone else pluck out your eye or chop off your hand or foot. Instead, He said, we need to make that choice for ourselves. If it feels like our lives are out of control with desires that seem to have a mind of their own, then we need to make a choice. We need to discard that part of ourselves before it destroys our entire life.
But note how Jesus phrases this. He says if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. Pluck out one eye. Not both. Chop off one hand, one foot. Not both. These words are well chosen. Jesus is not condemning the entire person. Instead, he is saying that within you there is always another path, one that can lead you back to normalcy, and away from that hell you were living in. Jesus is not giving up on the person who gets addicted to drugs, or porn, or gambling. You can regain your balance, even if it means chopping off that part of you that has you addicted.
We may object to this imagery since it is so graphic, but I think it is well chosen. Anyone who has gone into withdrawal knows this is not an idea, but a visceral experience. A physical one that feels not that much different from hacking off a hand or plucking out an eye. Withdrawal hurts, and we don’t want to hurt. It is very hard to cut out a part of you that feels like your whole self now, that yearning for another fix. The hurt is real, the pain is real, and it will always seem easier to relent, to stop sawing off that addiction and relapse. This is a path of pain, and Christ captures that in this graphic imagery.  Source: Ontario Science Table, “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Opioid-Related Harm in Ontario,” Sept 8, 2021: https://covid19-sciencetable.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/The-Impact-of-the-COVID-19-Pandemic-on-Opioid-Related-Harm-in-Ontario_published_20210908.pdf.  https://www.toronto.ca/news/toronto-public-health-reports-record-high-number-of-confirmed-opioid-overdose-deaths-in-2020/  https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-624-x/2013001/article/tbl/tbl1-eng.htm  https://s.tphsurvey.chkmkt.com/?e=239638&h=70CC258973219E5&l=en
We’ve come a long way in the last two thousand years, and we know much more about the scientific basis of addiction. It is an imbalance in the brain’s chemicals, an excess of pleasure and reward inducing neurotransmitters. Telling people to stop doesn’t work against this kind of yearning, not does cutting off their supply. That simply drives the whole enterprise underground, where profits are even higher, and the supply more dangerous.
So, what should be done? Recently, the Toronto Public Board of Health sent around a survey asking Torontonians how they would feel if the city asked for all recreational drugs to be decriminalized. The city’s Health experts have reached the conclusion that addiction is a medical issue, not a criminal or moral one. They are hoping to ask the federal government to decriminalize drugs for personal use, since the war on drugs has failed, and too many people are getting addicted, and dying.
This approach is controversial. Many fear that it will lead to an explosion of drug use, addiction, and death. However, this approach has been tried in other countries with extraordinary success. In the 1990s, Portugal had a serious heroin problem. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin. Their answer was to decriminalize heroin and divert money towards public health and recovery resources to help people end their addiction. The result was a dramatic drop in addiction rates and overdose deaths.  https://s.tphsurvey.chkmkt.com/?e=239638&h=70CC258973219E5&l=en  https://time.com/longform/portugal-drug-use-decriminalization/  Overdose, p.210-5. See also: https://transformdrugs.org/blog/drug-decriminalisation-in-portugal-setting-the-record-straight
Here in Toronto, there are nine safe injections sites, where drug users can inject their opioids in the presence of a public health nurse. If the individual has an overdose, the nurse has the right medications on hand to save their lives. These clinics are few and far between because they require a suspension of federal law to operate. It may seem that this sort of clinic just perpetuates the problem by allowing drug addicts to continue injecting. But in fact, what happens in practice is that regular clients develop a relationship with the nurses at the clinics. Discussions happen about pathways to give up their addictions. Literature and information can be provided by someone who wants to save your life. Trust, not fear, becomes associated with the idea of giving up drugs. Study after study has shown that this kind of sympathetic relationship becomes the on ramp to effective treatment. Trust and help is more effective than fear and prohibition.
It is a very difficult decision to give up an addiction. These dependencies can seem as critical to your being as your eye or hand. No one can force you to make that decision – no one can pluck your addiction out for you. You have to make that decision for yourself. But succeeding is easier if you have help.
At the end of today’s reading, Jesus mentions that his disciples should be like salt. Once again, Jesus is speaking in metaphors, one that doesn’t make much sense to us. Why should he ask his followers to be spicy like salt? Earlier I mentioned Portugal had a solution to the drug addiction problem. Well, Portugal can help us with this salt metaphor too. On Christmas eve in Portugal the traditional dish is to serve salted cod. When you buy it in the market, it looks like this:
The cod is caught, flayed, and then covered in salt to dry out. This way of storing fish was common before refrigeration was invented. In Christ’s time, people salted fish, beef, anything that might rot.
So, when Jesus asks people like us to be like salt, he is saying: don’t let people fall into corruption and rot. Be like salt, preserve what is good. We are not called to pluck out their eyes, to force them to change. That won’t work. Instead, when they have decided to make a change in their lives, to leave behind the behaviours that have endangered them, we should be there to help. When we condemn and judge, we become like salt that has lost its flavour. Let us choose to be good salt, preservers of what is good. For every soul on this earth is a child of God, and none should suffer in the fires of addiction. Let us help them discard what hurts them so they can live whole, thriving lives. That is the path of love.
 Nine: https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/health-wellness-care/health-programs-advice/supervised-injection-services/  These services lead to signing up for getting off drugs: “Attendance at Supervised Injecting Facilities and Use of Detoxification Services,” New England Journal of Medicine, 2006; 354:2512-2514; Overdose, p.149.