I have tears in my eyes as I write this. My heart is beating fast as I reluctantly let my mind wander to moments of painful and wretched confrontations of broken humanity. I love my neighbours and I love my community, but I loathe the power they are resigning over to a poison that is tearing our beautiful families apart.
As a social worker in Mangere, one of the poorest socio-economic areas in our country, I come face to face with the painfully shameful impacts of alcohol on a weekly basis. I try to hold in my own tears, as bruised and despairing women sit in my office weeping from indescribable pain, regret and abandonment.
While we seem to live in a society without any concern for censorship, the harms done to women and children because of intoxicated men are still largely kept from our view and our consciousness. I wish not to expose you to the darkness of my reality as a social worker and neighbour in Mangere. I do, however, seek to create a safe space where you can open your mind and heart to viewing temperance as a valid act of responding to God’s aching heart and desire for incarnational justice and love.
What this article is not about!
Before I go any further, I believe this is the place to state three things that this article is NOT about:
Yuck, I just absolutely despise all three of those things and they have no place in this discussion.
Whether you call yourself a follower of Christ or not, you can indeed choose to delight in his smothering of grace, freedom, forgiveness and inclusiveness. The views I present in this article does not change the fact that love always has been, and always will be the greatest fulfilment of the law.
Now, back to that strange sentiment of incarnational justice. What I simply mean is that thing that happens when we take literally the idea of “word becoming flesh”. Living, not just speaking, the good news of Christ. Getting up close and personal with the poor, the homeless, the forgotten, the oppressed and the addicts. Moving out of our comfort bubbles and taking that fearful step into the suffering, gut-wrenching, raw humanity of others. You know, the whole Matthew 25 thing for those bible readers among us. God the incarnate, God with us, us with them.
It is for this very reason; my deeply rooted desire to love my neighbours and live out justice, that I have chosen to stop drinking alcohol. I have chosen to stop consuming, and to stop investing my money into something that contributes to incredible brokenness and pain in my community. I am not using alcohol as an excuse for inexcusable behaviour, nor am I saying that it is impossible for people to consume alcohol without causing harm. I have never had an alcohol addiction, none of my friends would ever describe me as religious or conservative, and I am not against having fun. I have been an occasional drinker my whole life, I enjoyed the social solidarity that came with sharing a drink or two with my fellow Christian comrades, believing, as I still do, that one can enjoy their craft beer while discussing theology and glorifying God.
Pleading with God
Over the last few years, and even more so over the last 6 months, my beliefs have changed. Actually, they have been changed. It started when I lived in the midst of an undocumented migrant community in a small town on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. My neighbours were poor, oppressed, and addicted. Addicted to alcohol to numb the pain of their gruelling pasts and the hopelessness of their futures. I will never forget my last night there. Two women were banging on my door asking for help. One of our neighbours had been hit over the head with an axe by her drunken husband. Blood gushing from her head, I rushed her to the migrant clinic while pleading with God.
Since that night, I have continued to plead with God. But God has also pleaded with me. Her calling me to the poor, to the abused, to the addicted, has changed me. No longer can I ignore the fact that while I have the freedom to enjoy a harmless sip of wine with my liberal, God-fearing, justice loving buddies, I have neighbours and friends who cannot escape the heightened fear and pain that alcohol brings into their lives.
Alcohol has made me question my faith in God to bring healing into broken lives, freedom for the addicted, and ultimately, her Kingdom love on earth. But I have found abstinence from alcohol as a practical and life-giving way of identifying with the victims of alcohol whom I see almost daily.
Pioneers for change
The temperance movement of the 19th and 20th centuries leave a bad taste in the mouth of many young evangelical Christians wishing to rebel against the ideas of separatism and conservatism. They have some valid reasons for this, if it is indeed motivated by the fears of becoming blindsided by religion and self-righteousness.
It is important to note however that the temperance movement was rooted in a pursuit for social justice rather than a prohibition of freedoms and liberties. It was the Women’s Temperance Christian Union (WTCU) who were a central voice in advocating restrictive laws around sale and consumption of alcohol. The WTCU themselves strongly asserted that they perceived alcohol use not as a personal weakness, but as an undeniable contributor to the many social ills of that time. They were particularly concerned for the poor, who were impacted heavily by addiction, and women and children whose lives were being threatened by alcohol related violence and neglect.
I feel a sense of privilege to be walking a path paved selflessly by courageous women who have gone before me. Now, as it was then, it is the path less travelled.
A worthy social justice pursuit
Many of my liberal Christian friends are happy to take a stand on justice issues such as fair trade, non-violence and exploitative capitalism. This is good and it is important. They understand that while it isn’t inherently bad to trade, to defend oneself, or to gain wealth, they are taking a stand against the ways in which this is done, the way it is impacting upon the most vulnerable in our society.
I respect people’s freedom and choice to drink, but I have chosen to take a stand against the injustices that ensue from alcohol misuse in my community. I am taking a stand against an industry which feeds off addiction, poverty and vulnerability.
You will never hear me proclaim that alcohol is inherently evil. Biblically, we are told that drinking alcohol is permissible so long as we do not become intoxicated or cause any one of our brothers or sisters to stumble. But what I realised, was that my social drinking was actually having an impact on my community around me without me knowing. Not only because I was helping to fund, through my demand, an industry that does not care about the damage it is causing, but because I was exposing friends and neighbours to a drug they were desperately trying to rid their lives of. In our broken world, it is impossible for us to scan our fancy list of Facebook friends and find no trace of alcohol-related addiction, damage or regret.
I pray that we can open minds to the idea that just like fair trade and non-violence, temperance is also a worthy social justice pursuit, especially for those of us who are passionate about incarnational living and ministry among the poor and vulnerable.
Our freedom for theirs
I am in no way expecting anyone who reads this article to suddenly hang up their drinking days and join me in my vision for Kingdom change. I only ask that a resistance to the normalisation of alcohol, and the effects it has in our community, can be considered as a valid opportunity for loving our neighbours in the flesh. That we can see sobriety as a selfless reflection of God’s love and desire for healing and reconciliation. In Christ we are free indeed, but let us use that grace bestowed upon us to set others free from suffering and addiction.
Substance abuse is found within every corner of our society, particularly if you live in a place like Mangere. While we can rejoice that the modern western church has learnt how to celebrate the gift of grace and liberty, let us not lose sight of the greater purpose God set in looking after the least of these – even if that means casting our nets to include the victims of alcohol which may come at a cost to such liberty.
Bex Rillstone lives in Mangere, New Zealand with her husband Sam. Bex has a Masters in International Development and is now undergoing further training to become a Social Worker. She works as a family worker assisting those facing homelessness. Bex is also passionate about building relationships with former refugees in her community, and advocating for justice through her writing.
See all previous articles by Bex Rillstone