Harm Reduction: What Would Jesus Do?

I was doing some political web surfing, and came across a website called Christ and Pop Culture. One of the blog owners posed a question about needle exchange programs and harm reduction, which I think is interesting:

There has been a resurgence of interest in the harm reduction program of Needle Exchange. The basic philosophy behind the program is that if drug users will swap out their used needles for clean ones then there may be a decrease in the spread of both HIV and Hepatatis C. The problem with the program is that it does turn a blind eye toward drug abuse and even enables abuse and addiction. So as a Christian what do you think is the right response to such a program? Do you think Christians should support it or reject it?

I think this is interesting because it’s a huge, messy question. It makes my brain explode with more questions, but I didn’t ask there, because the question was addressed to Christians, and  don’t qualify. Here are some of the questions that came to mind:

Do Christians think that addiction is a condition of willful moral or spiritual degeneracy? Is there a Christian position on the nature of addiction? How did they arrive at this position? Biblically? If it is a condition of willful moral or spiritual degeneracy, then is it consistent with Christian values to turn a blind eye to addicts in general, to let them follow their path to destruction? If so, wouldn’t that be turning a blind eye to the innocents who may be infected by the diseases spread by dirty needles, like people who receive tainted blood transfusions or the unwitting sexual partners of addicts (last I heard, black men have the highest rate of HIV infection)? Is it Christian to allow people to, say, infect a fetus with HIV, because giving a clean needle to the carrier would be condoning their behavior? How is this consistent with an pro-life position which supports and encourages intervening in the destruction of a fetus?

Or, do Christians believe that addiction is a serious mental/behavioral/physical condition that some people need help and therapy to overcome, if they overcome it at all? If so, then wouldn’t keeping people alive be more important than worrying about the appearance of impropriety in doing so? (I’m thinking of Jesus washing the feet of prostitutes. Never happened! Sorry…) And if addiction is an overwhelming condition, then how would the appearance of condoning addiction be relevant – who cares what it looks like? Is the appearance of righteousness more important than actual righteousness? What if we’re talking about smoking cigarettes: Would it be less of a conundrum to bring the same principles of harm reduction to smokers, by, say, offering nicotine replacement options or supporting anti-smoking legislation so that others are not on the receiving end of their second-hand smoke?

If Christians do not support harm reduction programs because they do not want to mitigate the consequences of addiction, should they, then, take their ministry into the trenches? I mean, if you believe that addiction is a willful moral or spiritual degeneracy, and therefore deny addicts the life-saving help provided by social workers who work in the trenches with addicts, shouldn’t you replace this help with something? Maybe, “No you can’t have a clean needle, but I’ll give you some lunch and you can listen to The Word.”? Could you be in the trenches with an addict and deny him a clean needle, knowing that he has a wife?

Those are a few of the questions that question inspired.

I’d like to ask Pastor Dunham to do a little research on the subject of harm reduction. Instead of seeing harm reduction in terms of its most controversial incarnation, perhaps he could look at needle exchange as part of a whole philosophy of addiction treatment – as a logical part of a continuum. If you move down the scale of controversy, you’ll find that harm reduction is about a couple of things. 1. Giving options to addicts, who – by the very nature of addiction – feel they have no options. The recognition of options is the gateway to recovery. 2. Protecting people who are harmed by someone else’s addiction.

Suppose, for instance, that – in the spirit of harm reduction – an alcoholic decides that he’s not going to quit drinking, but he won’t drive when he’s been drinking. Would a Christian refuse to give the guy a ride home or refuse to call a cab for him? How is this different from refusing to give a heroin addict a clean needle?

I’m not Christian. I was raised in Christian schools and studied the Bible in great detail, but… he wasn’t asking me. I know that we have some Christians here, and  I wonder how you would answer the pastor’s question. I guess he’s wondering, too.

I hope that Kenneth Anderson from HAMS and Steven Slate from The Clean Slate Addiction will offer their insight.


  • AnnaZed

    I doesn’t make my brain explode with questions at all. Needle exchange is basic human decency. The citizens at risk for HIV transmission are the unwitting sexual partners of the addicts and their potential children. The societal cost in dollars alone should be compelling, never mind the human cost. Nothing about needle exchange condones drug addiction; it merely recognizes a condition that simply exists and seeks to limit it’s human cost.

  • pierre13
  • Anna, Harm Reduction doesn’t make my brain explode. What makes my brain explode is the idea of trying to align belief systems and addiction mythology in the interest of doing the decent thing. (There were questions I didn’t ask just in the interest of not being an asshole.) I genuinely would like Christians to be able to align their belief system with this logical and compassionate approach to addiction. I have no idea what it’s like to think: OK, I know that this action will save lives and is the basic compassionate thing to do, but it might give people the wrong impression because of God. I simply cannot get my head around that.

  • Oh, it’s Pierre’s Footprints poster!

  • Martha
  • MikeAugustine

    I think this issue falls more in the realm of public policy and is better pondered by sociologists and health providers. As a christian I would likely err on the side of allowing exchanging needles, but also see indirect longer term problems for society in doing so.

    Btw, jesus never washed the feet of a prostitute, but he did talk with a samaritan woman. That was waaaaay more radical.

  • hulahoop

    My uncle’s name is Jesus. I will call him to see what he would do.

  • Greetings friends,

    Thanks for picking up the post and talking about the subject. I am actually in favor of needle exchange program, even encouraged a local council member to vote for it when proposed for our area. Nonetheless I recognize that for some the notion of enabling drug abuse is still there and so I asked the question to help start a healthy discussion. You’re welcome to start this conversation over at Christ and Pop Culture and find out for yourselves what other Christians think.

    Thanks again.

  • hulahoop

    MikeAugustine says I think this issue falls more in the realm of public policy and is better pondered by sociologists and health providers. As a christian I would likely err on the side of allowing exchanging needles, but also see indirect longer term problems for society in doing so.

    I agree with Mike. I agree with program.

    I do not think it promotes drug abuse nor addiction no more than I think the wet house I read about promotes alcoholism. I think it’s safe to say people are addicted by the time they reach the point of exchanging needles. The best I can do as a Christian is to try to love everyone (even though I don’t, but I do try) and not to judge them. (Although it’s easier for me to judge some more than it is others.)

    I think a lot of Christians get too caught up in up the dogma and not the actual idea. I don’t care if you believe in Jesus or not. I think the world would be a much better place if we all behaved the way he did or at least tried to.

  • Portugal decriminalised drugs. HIV went down. I don’t think that drug taking is a great idea but I ponder the relationship between the cult and the war on drugs.

  • MikeAugustine

    @prim, Portugal is also seeing a drop in its rate of graduates and skilled workers. I wonder if there’s a connection.

  • I am trying to stay out of politics and religion. Since AA claims it is not a religion, I guess I am OK. I do know that AA gets heavy into politics and the making of laws. Bill Wilson even testified in Congress I am told, but he wouldn’t let them take any pictures of him testifying so it couldn’t be proved (at least that is my take on it).

    I would really like to see groups that classify themselves as a “religion” stay out of politics and the making of laws. The needle exchange program being discussed by groups classifying themselves as a religion also have a debate about condoms and are trying to make laws and policies about the distribution of them (especially among teenagers). These same religious groups protected Father Oliver O’Grady who in the 1970′s raped dozens of children. I wonder if he wore a condom? They have made a documentary called “Deliver Us From Evil” that explains it all.

    It may be impossible to keep religion and AA out of politics.

  • Disclosure

    It seems to me that society’s representative, the law maker, enjoys establishing rule that favors control. I feel those opposed to needle exchange or the housing and feeding of society’s outcasts have subscribed to the old notion that this is unhealthy enabling and endorsement. Human nature would dictate that those who are different should not be supported in any way, once cast off they will see the nature of their wrongs. With financial cost being the supreme motivator, we force the downtrodden hand with short sighted regulation and force our will onto the disadvantaged while adding confusion with questions of religion and imaginary disease.

  • Mike says, “I think this issue falls more in the realm of public policy and is better pondered by sociologists and health providers. As a christian I would likely err on the side of allowing exchanging needles, but also see indirect longer term problems for society in doing so.

    Btw, jesus never washed the feet of a prostitute, but he did talk with a samaritan woman. That was waaaaay more radical.

    I agree with you, Mike. It is a public policy question, and I thought it was really interesting, because most people in this country are religious, and I wonder how many people would have to justify their decision with their religious beliefs — and how would they do that? A lot of our policy makers are religious people, too.

  • Oh sheez! I got my feet washers all mixed up…

  • AnnaZed

    I know ftg, that was just a rhetorical flourish. As for Christians and what they as a group might think about just about anything; I don’t really care.

  • chris

    Maybe the prostitute was giving her 5th step to Jesus, woulda made sense. Because she could have admitted to God (Jesus), herself and another human being (Jesus) at the same time. But, he wasn`t able to wash her feet because it was the sabbath and would`ve seemed alittle bit like work.

  • Hi PastorDave, Thanks for visiting. I had a feeling you’d support the needle exchange program — I’m glad that you do! Again, I’ll say that I think it’s a really interesting question you asked your audience. I see needle exchange as simply imperative, but it gets more complicated when you’d have to justify your support according to religious principles. I suspect that a lot of people making policy might do that, which might be one reason that harm reduction programs in general have such a hard time with the mainstream.

  • Pingback: What of Needle Exchanges?()

  • humanspirit

    This is a really interesting question, and I suppose the answer lies in the fact that there are Christians and Christians. The Rev Martin Luther King Jr was a deeply committed and devout Christian, but the people who opposed – often violently – what he was trying to achieve would probably have described themselves as such too. Some Christians really do practise the principles – ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, ‘judge not that ye may be judged’, compassion for the weak, needy and dispossessed, etc. – whereas others set themselves up as narrow-minded judges and arbiters of other people’s moral behaviour in minute detail. (To my mind, this is one of the most convincing arguments against an idea of a supernatural being who has a specific moral purpose for the human race – it seems that that god is telling all kinds of different people all kinds of completely different things. God will tell one person to go and work with the homeless, with addicts, with the poor, etc., but tell another to go and fly a plane into the Twin Towers in his name.)

    When it comes to addiction, I really don’t think morality comes into it. For many, many years, for example, my partner drank pretty much the same as me and many others of our friends/family members. He became seriously addicted; we didn’t. Did that make him a morally bad person and us morally superior? The same goes for drugs. Perhaps there is an argument that anyone who takes drugs is “bad” (not one I subscribe to) but it is only those who, for whatever reason, get addicted and ask for help that ever get any real kind of moral opprobrium. And these are actually the people who really need help, and yes, harm reduction programs, until such a point when they can manage to control and overcome the addiction altogether.

    It’s in the nature of advanced addiction that the addictive urge is quite imperative. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an addiction, just a pleasurable pastime. And if an injecting addict can’t get a clean needle, he/she will just use a dirty one, greatly enhancing risks to him/herself, to others, and to society generally. This is just a practical, objective fact. Do those who object to needle exchanges really think that some non-addict will turn up out of the blue saying, “Oh, I see you’re providing free needles, I think I’ll try some heroin for the first time and become a drug addict?”

    @PastorDave – Glad to see you here too! But like FTG, I too feel I shouldn’t be commenting on a discussion thread among Christians.

  • humanspirit

    Sorry, I’ve got to point this out – what really pisses me off about AA is exactly what FTG cites as the opinion that “addiction is a condition of willful moral or spiritual degeneracy”. This is the very basis of the 12-step program and the big book., bringing with its nonsensical opinion, based in 19th century fundamentalist religious thinking, that people with substance abuse problems are morally degenerate and the only answer for them is to find God as defined in AA literature. It runs through the whole insidious AA culture – you got addicted because you are a bad person, and you need ‘tough love’, emotional bullying, and general abuse and control from other steppers in order to keep your congenital awfulness in check. This carries on even after you’ve actually stopped drinking and have stopped any bad behavior associated with drinking! Let’s face it, most people who attend AA meetings are actually sober, but they still get told that they are worthless irredeemable drunks.

    Most individuals who want to stop drinking/using want to do just that. No more, no less. Most approaching AA really do just have a desire to stop drinking, which is ostensibly the only criterion for membership. But AA insists that you will not achieve that unless you have a desire to find God, become ‘spiritual’, work the steps, and generally become a ‘better person’ (not that working the steps ever particularly made anyone a better person, in my experience). Why? Why should anyone necessarily want to become a better person, whatever that may mean, if they want to stop drinking? It’s completely irrelevant to the main objective. Does becoming a ‘better person’ mean putting God first, AA second, and your family third, for example, as is “suggested”?

    If I’m a complete bastard as a person, that’s not really anything to do with my wanting to stop drinking. I will carry on being a complete bastard if I want to, whether I drink or not – and that is none of anyone else’s business. Equally if I’m a basically good person, I will carry on being a good person if I want to, whether I drink or not – and that is equally none of anyone else’s business. How long will it take for us to expose the truth that in the end AA and the 12-step program have actually very little to do with the basic issue of tackling addiction, and that the whole deceitful racket has a completely different agenda?

  • I have worked in needle exchange. Many decades ago people tried to make needle exchange contingent on participating in a program. This was a total failure. People stopped coming in for clean needles and shared needles instead. You need to respect the humanity of the drug user if you work in needle exchange. They are not to be dehumanized and treated is inferior. I do not consider drug use a sin period.

    If Jesus were alive today he would take five syringes and two heroin cookers and multiply them to enable a multitude to shoot up safely with five baskets of syringes to be gathered up thereafter.

    If you want a real good perspective on Christianity and harm reduction check out this article:

    Why I help addicts shoot up
    A Christian defence of harm reduction
    By Meera Bai with John Stackhouse

  • chris

    If Jesus were here, AA would convince him HE`S sick and then have HIM selling flowers at the airport.

  • I have been really holding back on this one. I don’t have a picture of Bill Wilson on my wall. I have a picture of Bob Villa, the master carpenter on “This Old House”.

  • Disclosure

    I guess God created the poppy yet man abused it of his free will. In this concept it is a sin. On the other hand, who am I to say who needs and doesn’t need medication? Jesus adds a spoonful of forgiveness and its all better. I love Harm Reduction. Better is better.

  • Steven Slate wrote a really interesting response to this article here: http://www.thecleanslate.org/what-of-needle-exchanges/#comment-762.

    And thank you so much Kenneth! Excellent link.

  • humanspirit

    @Kenneth Anderson says – “If Jesus were alive today he would take five syringes and two heroin cookers and multiply them to enable a multitude to shoot up safely with five baskets of syringes to be gathered up thereafter.”

    Kenneth sounds like the kind of Christian I can relate to. It reminds me of a “what would Jesus do?” response in a thread about abortion: Jesus wouldn’t be standing outside a abortion clinics with a placard harassing scared and desperate women and blowing up doctors, but would more likely be out there at the back door comforting those women after they came out. (And on this particular issue, I’m reminded of the several times Jesus apparently said “better for that person never to have been born . . .” I.e., there are worse things that can happen than not being born.) (Like you, FTG, I was brought up with this stuff and am better at quoting the bible than most religious people – are you familiar with the bit about mangled testicles?)

    On the other hand, I understand that there have been questions asked about “what kind of gun would Jesus use?” and even an action figure, intended for children, of Jesus with a gun. As pointed out yesterday, there are Christians and Christians.