Amethyst Church

An Opening Editorial

Author Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso
Author Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso

There is crystal meth, and there is a crystal against meth and all its intoxicating cousins: the amethyst. In Greek and Roman mythology, the god Dionysus or Bacchus repents of an act of intemperate anger that killed and then transformed a young woman to white stone by pouring out wine upon her form, staining it purple. Ever since, forms of rose quartz have been used as amulets and symbols intended to protect from drink and drunkenness.

What can this symbol say to Christians facing the drug wars of today? What are key questions that face us as we think seriously and theologically about drug laws and their consequences?

This editorial focuses on those questions as they face both church and society at large and specifically as they are examined by a Presbyterian study task force, which Gordon Edwards and John Lindsay-Poland have introduced. In some ways, perhaps, the task force is seeking to reinterpret a tradition of abstinence that some have regarded as too harshly anti-pleasure. At the same time, we are also looking for alternatives – alternatives to criminalization, to drug war, and to addiction itself – that respect the spiritual thirst for joy and transcendence that we all share.

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How much theology is needed to oppose a racially-distorted drug war that endangers public health and safety and economic well-being?
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Fr. Richard Rohr celebrates the freedom of the ‘true self’, not bound in the addiction to self that he sees as the root of all abusive relationships—to substances and systems. How essential is the bottoming out of the false self (as in AA) to genuine recovery?  How helpful is it to broaden addiction language beyond physical/chemical/psychological dependency? How much theology is needed to oppose a racially-distorted drug war that endangers public health and safety and economic well-being?

Amethyst Public DomainThe Amethyst was the name of the official temperance publication of the Presbyterian Church from 1908-1920. Once the 18th Amendment legislating prohibition was approved—a church-led fight that began before the Civil War—Presbyterians concerned for justice changed the name of the journal to Moral Welfare. Moral Welfare, in turn, became Social Progress, and Social Progress (in 1970) became Church & Society (until 2006) – the print precursor of this online journal. So an echo of that earlier fight lives in the pixels you are reading, a struggle that they believed addressed a root cause of poverty and family break-up. The “amethyst church” of the early 20th century was one that combined both personal and social transformation.

The prohibitionists wanted what John Wesley’s abstaining Methodism was said to have done in helping build-up the English working class: “Where Jesus turned water into wine, Wesley turned beer into furniture.” When workers stopped drinking, they spent more time and money on their loved ones. The Prohibitionists saw the effects of alcohol on families, beaten wives, and abandoned children and focused on what they saw was a predatory industry, preying on human weakness and weakening other reform movements. Right after Prohibition, in fact, the Board of Temperance and Moral Welfare went after child labor, going all out for a 20th Amendment to outlaw that form of exploitation. An “Amethyst Church” understands and addresses the interlock of cultural and economic factors.

When first naming their periodical The Amethyst, an initial editorial by Rev. John F. Hill did not dwell on the Greco-Roman myth, but rather presented the vision from the end of the book of Revelation, the vision of the New Jerusalem:

In this vision was shown to John [purported author of Revelation] the ideal community, whence sin and all its baleful fruitage of pollution, pain and sorrow have been banished. A city, this, needing neither prison nor police, for law reigns supreme. The Lamb that was slain in the midst of the throne, His presence was the sunshine of the citizens. He himself shall feed them, and lead them to living fountains, to rivers of satisfying pleasures.

The encircling walls of this model city rise from foundation consisting of twelve courses, each composed of a different variety of precious stones. To each of theses stones was perhaps originally some emblematic significance which would be known to John’s contemporaries…[now lost for most of the stones].

Of one of these twelve stones, however, there is preserved, in the etymology of the Greek name a key to its symbolism—“The twelfth was an amethyst” (anti-drunken) the name being based upon a prevalent tradition among the ancients that wearing of the gem was an antidote, or as an amulet, would secure immunity from alcoholism…
-Quoted in Church & Society at 80, Sept/Oct 1989, p. 6—available on-line through American Theological Library Association (ATLA)

This editorial is not going to re-argue Prohibition, which arguably succeeds in reducing alcohol use in America to this day. Prohibition was not supposed to be about stopping pleasure per se, but about stopping the wrong kind of pleasure. The biblical vision that includes the amethyst verse (Revelation 21:9-27) contains, in John Hill’s words, “rivers of satisfying pleasures.” The key word there, of course, was ‘satisfying’. Alcohol was seen to be unsatisfying, however urgent and constant the urge to drink might be. The church—in theory at least!—was to be a community of more satisfying pleasures. An Amethyst Church today might be able to come up with a bit better theology of pleasure: “You can’t beat something with nothing,” which might mean more ecstasy in worship and fewer of those party pills…

confession_of_1967_banner_web
Banner for The Confession of 1967

Fast forward past the end of Prohibition in 1933, the gradual acceptance (or re-acceptance) of alcohol in home and bar, and to the age of “Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-Roll.” This trinity has been pretty popular since the late 1960’s. It is said that the mainline churches by and large tried to ignore the sexual revolution generally, focusing with more conservative churches on homosexuality. For Presbyterians, the section in the Confession of 1967 opposing “anarchy in sexual relationships” was a response to the rise of divorce as well as premarital sex, but neither drugs nor rock music were assigned particular blame. Society was continuing to move away from puritanical, depression-era, and wartime thinking. The churches would not generally make a case for pleasure, but many did endorse ‘self-actualization’ and fulfilling one’s potential—and did not want to sound moralistic.

On drugs, however, the churches generally went along with society, trying to ignore or deny the pervasiveness of drug use and addiction, and not protesting enough the mass incarceration of poor and disproportionately black or Hispanic men. The demonization of drugs picked up the “no” of prohibition and applied it to all drugs, yielding to a climate of fear. Everyone watched ambitious prosecutors and prison-builders create an enormously punitive industry, stigmatizing millions of people, militarizing police forces, engendering drug cartels (just like old Prohibition), and so on.

Yet this culture-wide scared-straight program failed to reduce the substances available in a ‘drug abundant’ society. And the churches—with one area of exception—often failed to help their children navigate that world of easy access to alcohol and drugs.

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Perhaps the final symbolism of the amethyst church is to suggest that the dream of an addiction-free community continues.
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That one exception was the recovery community that did develop a Narcotics Anonymous to go with AA. Twelve-step devotions of many kinds emerged, by-product of the basic meetings and mentoring (‘sponsorship’) that occur in many church basements.

In the case of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an impressive report on alcohol use was adopted in 1986 and accompanied the production of alcohol and drug resources by the (then) Health Ministries office. The report addresses addiction, and moderation if not outright avoidance is the basic framework. Some of the articles in this issue of Unbound will address addiction, but it is not the only concern of the study of drug policy reform authorized by the 2014 General Assembly.

1986 policyIn 1993 a short report on “Freedom and Substance Abuse” was adopted, reflecting some of the thinking in a very strong 1992 issue of Church & Society, “A Body Broken: Substance Abuse and the Church” (May/June 1992). The phrase “substance abuse” recognizes alcohol as a drug and indirectly suggests that more substances than alcohol can have reasonable (temperate) use. A psychologist familiar with treatment options and psychological theory (Robin Crawford) co-authored a long preparatory article, at one point applying ‘just war’ theory to the drug war already then underway for 20 years. Would that we had done more with their analysis! So many innocent non-combatants!

So, now that states are legalizing more than medical marijuana and there is increased awareness of the terrible waste of young lives behind bars for non-violent drug possession and sale, is it not time to put drug use into the public health system? If marijuana components are relatively OK—and studies are still too limited—what does that mean for crystal meth or heroin? Should it still be the AA way or the highway? Or are there methods of ‘harm-reduction’ that acknowledge that many will continue to use, but not necessarily abuse, drugs? We invite you to read the range of articles, send us your views or links, and pray with us to understand this wide range of substances that give us so much bliss and bane.

The metaphor of the amethyst has been used here to lift up some past characteristics of the church and in some cases to suggest new approaches. Certainly the health effects of abusing some drugs go beyond what many prohibitionists could imagine, and the nature of the drug war itself seems far more militarized than earlier prohibition enforcement. But perhaps the final symbolism of the amethyst church is to suggest that the dream of an addiction-free community continues. Universal protection may be impossible, but with humility and honesty (as Rohr says), healing may follow.

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Unbound and the task force welcome your comments or reflections and encourage you to participate in the following brief questionnaire.

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