I am 30, I am an evangelical Christian, and I don't drink. Not because I have a problem with alcohol abuse, although I enjoy a good sobriety story as much as the next person. My narrative is a bit more jarring, coming across to fellow liberated evangelicals as a throwback to our not-too-distant conservative past. In a culture that encourages us to celebrate the good things of life—Instagramming an artfully arranged salad, tweeting about Pinot Noir, posting Facebook albums full of vacations—choosing not to drink carries a stigma of pietism, a whiff of refusing to party with Jesus. A faith built on meaningless acts of righteousness, of disdaining the world and its evil values.
In the pastor's home I grew up in, alcohol was a nonissue: not a drop in our house, only grape juice in the Communion cups. Save for my mother's relatives—who served as a warning, since most of them abused substances at some point—nobody I knew drank alcohol. I believed we were teetotalers, just like all other Christians. Then, when I was 17, I discovered a stash of wine coolers in a broken dryer in our garage. As it turns out, my parents liked to indulge now and then, but had kept it a secret from my siblings and me. I suddenly had to mentally rearrange everything I believed about alcohol. Wasn't it inherently evil? Didn't it lead to only bad things—sour breath, ruined relationships, cars full of teenagers careening out of control on the way to prom?
After I found them out, my parents began keeping a bottle of wine in the cupboard and some coconut rum on top of the fridge. And I began to see that having an occasional drink was a grown-up way of enjoying yourself. It became a signpost of the wider cultural appreciation our family was developing as we eschewed our fundamentalist past. When I was of age, my older sister bought me my first drink: a White Russian, à la The Big Lebowski. "Welcome to the club," she told me, and we clinked glasses. It was the perfect amount of naughty, the perfect amount of sweet.
Since then, I have weaved in and out of various Christian circles, from conservative Pentecostal churches (no drinking) to Baptist seminaries (wine and craft beer okay) to ecumenical mission organizations (endlessly varied). All along I have been an occasional drinker, a social imbiber, free to live my life in a way that glorifies God. I have enjoyed the camaraderie that bars can create, the solidarity of good Christian kids enjoying a beer together, and the way it finally felt like we were starting to fit in, loosen up.
No Longer Fun
In the past few years, though, my beliefs have changed—or been changed. My husband and I joined a Christian order among the poor, inspired by the likes of Shane Claiborne, who seek the face of Christ among the most marginalized of society. Our first shock when we moved into our low-income apartment in a Midwestern inner city was the amount of substance abuse that surrounded us. I heard the sounds every day: the Patsy Cline blaring next door, the off-key singing, the shouting matches, the cackling, the doors banging, the bodies crashing to the floor in a stupor. I would go to get my mail and find a man blocking the stairs, passed out and unresponsive at 11 in the morning.
We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn.
And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable. It makes me question my faith in God, struggling to find hope for those who are addicted. There are other neighbors here too, people who are in various stages of recovery, and they help me. They drink their coffee black and smoke in the parking lots. They shake their heads and tell me they don't touch the stuff anymore. They find that every sober day is a gift.
After a year of living among them, I gradually just . . . stopped. I dreaded going to the liquor store, imagining the faces I would see there. I saw my neighbors get off the bus with a 12-pack in each hand, and I was less likely to get a beer the next time I was out. Eventually, I realized I could abstain from alcohol entirely, that it could even be a spiritual discipline for me—a way to pray and identify with my literal neighbors, who could not stop.
The apostle Paul writes in Romans 14:17 that "the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit," meaning that refusing any created good doesn't secure a right standing before God—and enjoying a created good doesn't hinder it either. And yet I was starting to take very seriously what Paul wrote a few short verses later: "It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble" (v. 21, esv). In my neighborhood, it was becoming clear: righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit were tied to breaking the chains of my neighbors' addictions. Since so many were caught in the cycle of stumbling and picking themselves up again, it became good for me to not drink, as a way to stand with the brothers and sisters I was learning to love.
Bulldogs for Jesus
As surprising as my gradual newfound abstention was, it began to seem like a concrete way to identify with the victims of alcohol I was seeing every day. As it turns out, I was walking a path well worn by Christians of previous centuries (particularly the past two) who also wanted to stand against alcohol's deleterious and systemic effects. Temperance movements, often founded and organized by women, were a direct reaction to the perceived social evils of alcohol in the 1800s and 1900s. As historian Ruth Bordin writes in her biography of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the 19th century saw the heaviest period of drinking in American history (partially because both water and milk were relatively unsafe for consumption). Bordin notes that in the year 1900, Americans spent five times as much on alcoholic drinks than they did on public education. At the end of the 19th century, there were as many saloons in Chicago as there were grocery stores.
Women especially discerned the connections between alcohol abuse and the people who most suffered from it: namely, other women and children. As Bordin writes in Woman and Temperance, "The nineteenth-century drunkard's reputation as a wife beater, child abuser, and sodden, irresponsible nonprovider was not undeserved." One prominent temperance advocate was Carrie Nation, a spitfire who believed she had divine orders to smash up bars with an axe (literally). Nation, whose first husband died of alcoholism the year after their daughter was born, called herself "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn't like." Between 1900 and 1920, she was arrested 30 times for vandalizing saloons.
At this point in American history, women had little to no rights in regards to property and possession. The men of the families could legally drink their own wages and those of their wives as well. Women, especially Christian women, started to organize and lobby against alcohol, starting from within their homes and gradually moving into the political sphere. Temperance became associated with a host of other women's rights, most notably suffrage—women's right to vote and run for office. So too did the temperance movement stem from the belief that alcohol disproportionately affected the poor and marginalized, usually in concentrated, urban areas. Many times the women involved in the temperance movement would gather inside saloons, singing hymns, prostrating themselves on the floor, and praying, begging the owners to close their doors.
The larger church culture, too, fueled by the spiritual revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, began to denounce alcohol altogether. Protestant preachers such as Lyman Beecher and later Billy Sunday emphasized personal salvation and moral piety in preparation for the Second Coming. Nearly all of the largest Protestant denominations began to denounce alcohol hand in hand with what they saw as the other evils of the age: slavery, prostitution, and gambling. As early as 1820, denominations such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Congregationalists began to require abstention for membership, causing a shift in mainstream teetotalism.
While the effects of the temperance movement were not all positive (e.g., Prohibition), Christians' willingness to advocate for social and civic change on behalf of suffering friends and neighbors is a powerful model for us today. Just as we currently have no problem denouncing slavery, prostitution, and, to a lesser extent, gambling—all for the ways they harm persons and communities—we'd be wise to reconsider the valid and pressing reasons why so many Christians before us chose to give up alcohol completely.
Swung Back Too Far
If temperance has a historical context based in social justice, why do I find myself feeling so alone in drinking my sparkling water with cranberry juice? It seems as though the church—and our wider culture—has swung back on the pendulum in regards to alcohol. Young people and women in particular seem to be embracing alcohol as a sign of liberation (as well as a way to cope with increasing pressures at work and home). As journalist Gabrielle Glaser writes in Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—and How They Can Regain Control, recent studies on drinking in America point to a broader cultural shift where all people are encouraged to celebrate rather than hide their drinking, to view it as a meaningful rite of passage. For many Christians, that rite of passage includes eschewing the perceived fundamentalism of our past.
I see this evidenced in my own life. My peers, most of them traveling along upwardly mobile career paths, constantly reference alcohol, especially on social media. Posting pictures of a frothy, dark Guinness. Tweeting about needing a glass of wine after a long day with a toddler. Hosting a birthday party in a hipster whiskey bar. Churches are hosting small groups like "Think and Drinks," talking theology over craft beer. And with every picture, tweet, and event that centers on alcohol, I wonder: Isn't anyone friends with alcoholics?
Perhaps my peers are unaware of any neighbors, friends, or brothers and sisters who struggle in this way. But the reality is they likely do know someone who struggles with alcoholism. The New York Times reports that about 1 in 6 Americans has a drinking problem (defined as excessive drinking or alcoholism). About 80 percent of college-age people drink, and half of them binge drink on a regular basis.
There are other, less visible, problems. Health risks stemming from alcohol use—cirrhosis and other liver diseases, for example—disproportionately affect minorities in the United States. Alcohol is a driving factor in assault and sexual assault cases reported by people ages 18 to 24. One in ten children in America grows up with a parent who abuses alcohol. And 70 percent of children in the foster-care system are affected by some type of prenatal alcohol exposure.
I absorb these statistics, and I also see them played out in front of me. Alcohol starts to become an integral part of the brokenness I witness every day: violence, mental health issues, sickness, and premature death. I see how it becomes a form of oppression in marginalized communities. I see how easy it is for someone like me to proclaim Christian liberty and freely drink in moderation, in celebration. And I see how that reality is not the reality of many of my brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors. "Do not get drunk with wine," the Scriptures say. For many, the disease with which they are afflicted makes them unable to drink without getting drunk. So what is a Christian supposed to do?
Liberty Amid Diversity
The church down through the centuries has engaged in drinking alcohol—the early church assumes wine for Communion, weddings, and medicinal purposes. But it also cautioned against drunkenness and understood that some Christians would need to abstain from wine (and meat) as a matter of conscience.
Today Romans 14 is often held up as an example of engaging in cautious Christian liberty. All things are sanctioned by God. But if your choices actively cause someone to sin, it's your duty to think first of them. Neighborly love, we call it. Paul is quick to caution believers not to judge one another—either those who seem too "permissive" or those who don't want to or simply can't engage in the good gifts of the Lord.
Christians also tend to apply 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul writes concerning eating meat offered to idols, to the alcohol question. Ever the pragmatist, Paul writes, "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do" (v. 8, esv). He then acknowledges that some believers won't eat meat offered to idols and that for others it may even prove to be a roadblock in experiencing the transforming work of Christ. In these cases, Paul makes it clear that there is no wiggle room: "Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble" (v. 13, esv).
Perhaps no substance fits the definition of "causing some to stumble but not others" quite like alcohol does. As our contemporary understanding of alcohol abuse grows, so too should our understanding of Christian liberty. We know that some just can't drink in a responsible way that doesn't end up harming themselves and others. This, at the least, should give pause to those of us who do not struggle in the same way, and lead us to pray for empathy. If we are in relationship with people for whom alcohol is a gateway to addictive and destructive behaviors, the Christian obligation to love compels us to think before we drink—or to not drink at all.
But perhaps there is another way for the modern reader to interpret this passage. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is assuming that his recipients are doing life with people from an array of backgrounds: those who are fine with eating meat offered to idols, and those who are extremely uncomfortable with it. He is addressing a first-century world in which believers and pagan meat sellers interact in a civic society, a world where Christian beliefs directly inform how followers of Christ eat, dress, and drink. Paul is telling the early churches how to conduct themselves in a world where people are coming from very different places. And, as always, Paul asks them to land in the place of love, to think of their neighbors' needs before their own.
The problem arises when our neighbors and peers are people who are just like us. Churches in a consumerist, Western landscape can easily cater to specific demographics, ethnicities, and theologies. Social media allow us to curate our friends and acquaintances and influencers based on how similar they are to us. We gravitate toward people who look like us, think like us, and drink like us. And when we think about enjoying alcohol as Christians, this might be the real sin.
If you wear an "I heart bacon" T-shirt, I will have to assume you don't have many Muslim or Jewish friends. Likewise, if you are posting about how "Mommy needs her wine," I will assume you don't know anyone struggling with alcoholism. At best, the progressive Christian social media world appears tone-deaf to many realities at the margins of society. At its worst, it speaks to a relational divide that is much more problematic than the question of whether or not Christians should drink alcohol.
I didn't give up alcohol because I wanted to flee the evils of the world. I gave up alcohol as a way of engaging the evils of the world. Substance abuse and addictions affect every corner of our society. They keep people from relationships with God and one another. Have we swung so far on the swing of Christian liberty that we have lost sight of the greater purposes of looking out for the least of these, which includes many who struggle with alcohol abuse? Christian liberty is an important theological concept—it helps us remember and celebrate the grace and love of a very good God. But only in a context of diverse relationships do liberty and license makes sense. Casting wide our nets to include people of different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultures will naturally cause us to consider how our actions affect those not like us.
I have been changed by my neighborhood. I think carefully about how I portray my life and my liberties on social media, conscious that my reality is not the reality of everyone. When we throw parties, they are now delightfully awkward, people staring into sober cups. When we take Communion with our friends and neighbors, we use grape-flavored Kool-Aid as a symbol of Christ's blood, shed for us. My clothes, food, language, and—yes—drink have been altered as I try to align my liberty in Christ with the realities of my admittedly unique context.
I am not calling on everyone to become teetotalers. But I am asking us to consider temperance as a valid and thoughtful option—as it has been for many Christians throughout the centuries. As my mentor, a 20-year veteran of working and living among the poor, often says, "we are free not to drink" because of our relationships with those who struggle.
We are free indeed—when love naturally tempers our actions.
D. L. Mayfield and her family serve with InnerCHANGE, a Christian order among the poor. She has written for McSweeney's, Geez, The Curator, Conspire!, Christ and Pop Culture, and The Other Journal, among others. She writes at dlmayfield.wordpress.com and tweets at @d_l_mayfield.
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