Saturday, March 21, 2009

More Theology: Drinking and Debt

In writing a day or so ago about fellowship, my mental wheels began to spin on some of the different applications of scripture by folks who all believe the same Bible is true. One of the ones that popped to mind was on the issue of drinking alcohol. Mormons, as I alluded to earlier, are teetotalers. Most evangelicals (including my own Church of Christ) frown on drinking. Most mainline protestants imbibe, or at least have no problem with those who do. And Catholics have traditionally been known as drinkers (remember the old line from the 1920 election that Democrats were the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion?"). Of course, these are denominational stances, and within those denominations are individuals of all sorts, including wet Baptists and dry Catholics and everything in between. (insert old joke here: Jews don't recognize Jesus as messiah. Protestants don't recognize the Pope as head of the church. And Southern Baptists don't recognize each other at the liquor store.)

My intention here is not to rehash the well-worn arguments on either side of this issue, nor to cause any friction. To summarize, when it comes to alcohol, we know that drinking is not condemned as sin scripturally (and Jesus famously made wine in His first miracle), but drunkenness is. And those who frown on the use of alcohol say, "better safe than sorry." One of my dearest friends who is a serious teetotaler puts it this way: "I just don't see how any good comes of it (meaning drinking)."

But here's a new wrinkle. Why don't we do the same darned thing with debt? The scripture is almost identical in tone. Debt is never condemned outright as sin, but it is called a snare, a punishment, folly--almost the exact same language that is used to describe drunkenness. Indeed, there is not a single reference to debt as a blessing in all of the Bible; it's always associated with bad results (perhaps the one counter-example is the Parable of the Talents, where the poor steward is told that he should have deposited his talent with the bankers and earned interest... but even then he is the lender, not the borrower). You could even plausibly argue that drinking is treated better scripturally than debt, as there are zero examples of Jesus ever borrowing, nor a single positive reference to the practice.

There was a time when Christendom did frown on debt. The medieval church called usury (charging interest) a sin. This led to a large number of Jews (who themselves would not borrow from each other) getting into the business of lending to Christians as capitalism began to develop (and contributed to some of our long-standing stereotypes of Jewish bankers). But society's views gradually changed, and we hammered our theology into shape to match the culture. The same thing happened in reverse with drinking--in Jesus' day, wine was common on every table. But our pilgrim/puritan forebears had other options and saw drunkenness as something to be fought. It is their theological heirs who carry the banner of the old prohibitionists, most of them unaware of the history that informs their conviction. (As an aside, this is one of my favorite observations about the Restoration movement churches: we decided back in the 1830's to unify around sola scriptura and not the "traditions of men," yet didn't notice that most of those who were unifying were coming out of Calvinist backgrounds, with all those hundreds of years of intellectual baggage informing their interpretation of scripture. No wonder we look like Baptists without an organ!)

But I digress. It just makes me think--which is potentially more harmful? Lives and families are destroyed at the extreme ends of both practices. But if you compare what our society would call "reponsible" use of both alcohol and debt, I'm not sure that I wouldn't trade a hangover that fades for a credit card balance that lingers for years. (And of course, there is the other, milder, end of the equation as well, where having a single glass of wine with dinner probably compares to a conventional home mortgage or a beer while watching a ball game is like paying off your balance in full every month). Wouldn't it be neat if in this present economy, Christians were to begin a new "temperance" movement, this time focused on consumer debt. The same teetotaler friend I quoted earlier had an opportunity to spend some time at an all-inclusive island resort recently, and he and his wife befriended another evangelical couple there. They know the couple had similar values because they were the only ones not availing themselves of the "free" drinks. I'd love to see a day when we'll be equally conspicuous for not swiping the VISA card.

Official old-school CofC disclaimer: Obviously, if I had a big problem with my church's views on drinking, I would find another church. I'm not suggesting that we become Episcopalians on the issue, I'm just thinking out loud. So if your first inclination on reading this post is to attack the "alcohol question," relax.


Pete said...

I'll drink to that!

bekster said...

That is so funny that you brought this up (comparing drinking and debt) because I had some of the same thoughts the other day, except I was thinking more on the opposite side of the mirror. If we can have freedom with one, we should be able to have freedom with the other. (Now, obviously, the freedom must be tempered with moderation and good judgement.) Anyway, I have been thinking lately about how much freedom we have in Christ, and--although we don't want to "sin more so that grace may abound"--my thought was that if I feel free about certain things, how dare I frown on others for being free with other things that are not specifically called "sin" in scripture (even though I may not choose to do those things myself)? (Again... moderation and good judgement, etc.)

I see what you are saying too, though. Basically, whichever way we look at it, we ought to be consistent, at least in how we look at others, if not in what we do.

Pete said...

but one thing i've discovered about people (even christians)... the only way we are consistent is in how inconsistent we are.