catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 13 :: 2003.06.20 — 2003.07.03


Did Jesus smoke?

I remember three things about the church I attended from 1976-1979. The
first involves scary pastor-portraits in the hallway. The second,
roller skating to impress a girl named Tina. And the third, the one I
can't get out of my head, involves lepers. Every Sunday after church,
shuffling behind my family through the parking lot, I saw Them. Always
the same ones, huddled in a close circle, their circumference dictated
by temperature: the colder the air, the tighter the circle. Always, a
pillar of steam rising from their center, regardless of temperature. No
one talked to them, and no one went close enough to touch them, taking
long-cuts to their station wagons to avoid them. Parents gathered their
children in close, slowly folding them into their coats, shutting their
eyes to the show. My parents never caught me looking, and, though I
waited, terrified and delighted, nothing bad happened to me. I became
infatuated with the mystery, and I began looking forward to Sunday. I
daydreamed about Them, and, in terms of firing my curiosity, they
ranked right up there with reproduction and how could there be so many
ramps in Hazzard County.

One morning in Sunday school, Mr. Goode gave us a lesson on lepers; he
apologized for not having any feltboard characters for us to see. So he
sketched a leper colony on the blackboard, and when he moved out of the
way, my breath caught, and my lungs began to burn. We had a leper
colony outside our church, and my delight in Them was snuffed out. I
was afraid.

A few years later, after I read Where Did I Come From? and
discovered the workings of television car chases, I also realized that
those weren't really lepers outside my church, they were smokers. Here
was my first lesson in mystery, fear, stigma. I've learned since that
the church labels its vices well, and, rather than stepping into sordid
circles, we tend to colonize our offenders and rope them off with Bible
verses and voices of concern.

The church was/is/will be full of smokers. Some of them are regarded
as kings (C.S. Lewis, Charles Spurgeon, R.C. Sproul), some of them are
considered "normal" (the regular number outside my church in St.
Louis), and some of them are filtered out, quietly vanishing from the
church like wisps of smoke. They have these things in common: they love
Jesus, they like to smoke, and they leave themselves open to criticism.
All Christians, truly, are open to criticism; when we become children
of God, we also become his representatives, his hands, eyes, ears,
mouth. What we do with those hands and mouths must faithfully represent
their creator. We are responsible for representing him faithfully,
which means we must be open to criticism and be willing to criticize
unfaithfulness. We are called to community for this reason. Our
criticism must be warm, gentle, winsome, thoughtful; otherwise,
unfaithfulness adds to unfaithfulness. Though some criticize smokers
warmly and gently, few of us do so winsomely, fewer still thoughtfully.

We see a Christian hold a three-inch cylinder packed with dead leaves,
set it on fire and suck on it, and we pronounce "sin." The Christian
blows smoke from his mouth, and we back up and say, a bit louder,
"Sin." We watch this happen again and again, twenty times per pack,
and, without thinking, we cry "SIN," effectively cutting smokers off
from meaningful dialogue, from biblical criticism.

I've spent the last few years huddling with Christians who smoke,
sitting in circles of Christians' smoke. Many of these people have left
the church, refugees from rebuke and subtle disregard. Some of them are
addicts, some of them are just smokish, but all of them have been
treated poorly. And they still smoke, tightening their circles, cut off
from the corporate worship of the living, breathing God.

The church is called to be God's hands and mouth: warm, thoughtful,
compassionate. We are called to evaluate our behavior with discernment
(prudence rather than prudishness) rather than mere reaction. When we
find our knees jerking in reaction, we must question ourselves, the
Kingdom does not operate on the basis of jerks.

During my praying, thinking, questioning, interacting, I have yet to
find a way to support from Scripture that smoking itself is sinful.
Addiction, yes. Under-age smoking, yes. Causing a brother to stumble,
yes. Smoking itself, no. This is no black-and-white matter, where we're
either Pro-Lung or Pro-Choice. To our lessons in mystery, fear, stigma,
let us add discernment.
Last Sunday morning, as the offering plate drew near, my pew-mate
confessed that he had spent the few dollars he had set aside for the
offering, he ran out of cigarettes Saturday night. The gas station is
on the way to church. Cigarettes add up; they can be costly financially
and physically. Cigarette smoke offends most people. Secondhand smoke
hurts babies. So, is it a sin to spend money on the things we like? To
expose our bodies to physical harm? To smell bad? Put another way:
smoking is the leading cause of cancer, and the Fall is the leading
cause of sin. So, are cigarettes a result of the fall? Is smoking a
cigarette a sin?

To at least approach an answer, we must examine our hermeneutics:
our understanding of Scripture and our application of compassion.

Last month, my roommate asked me to promptly return some videos for
him. I told him I would. I did, but not last month. My roommate now has
a nasty late fee. Have I sinned? Fundamentally, sin is a transgression
of the law of God, a prohibition committed or a command omitted. I
searched Scripture, thinking surely that the apostles didn't have time
to rent movies. I was right, no specific command to return movies on
time, and no specific prohibition against keeping movies too long.
While I was at it, I searched and found a similar absence of references
to smoking cigarettes. So, are the smoker and movie procrastinator free
from sin? (Reader: my intent is not to insult, but carefully to
punctuate our agreement.) By this hermeneutic, they have not sinned.
But this is a strictly literalistic hermeneutic, and were we to adhere
to such, I would be forced to forego my hatred for neo-Nazi hate
crimes, as the Bible doesn't address them (and, thus, condemn them)
specifically. If smoking isn't denounced on these grounds, then which?

I told my roommate I'd return the videos on time. I had the
opportunity, and I didn't. I did not fulfill my commitment, and I acted
unfaithfully, both principles that Scripture clearly enunciates.
Deprived of specifics, we look for principles. Rightly so. Lacking
specifics, then, what principle do most people raise against smoking?
This is the part, frankly, where my ashy skin tightens and I strap on
my anti-mantra helmet, hoping to avoid the near-inevitable
Scripture-grenade: "The body is the temple of the Lord." Plucked from I
Corinthians 6, this passage tends to be the champion of those who label
smoking sinful. And the principle infusing the passage? That exposing
the body to physical harm is a sin. Here is the point of contention.

And here is the point. First, this passage certainly refers to
believers and their bodies, but Paul isn't addressing physical harm to
the body. I Cor. 6:15-20 describes the believer's body as a figurative
temple, the union-house of Christ (6:15) and the vessel of the Holy
Spirit (6:19). In this passage, Paul speaks exclusively of sexual
immorality. Because of the believer's union with Christ and, thus, his
union with other believers, sexual sin, the only sin against the body
(6:18), and thus, against this union, affects, mysteriously and
differently than other sins, everyone who is united to Christ: the
Church. This, the unique peril of sexual immorality, is Paul's
contention with Corinth. Certainly, from this passage, we can infer
that our bodies are important, possibly moreso than we realize, and we
must treat them well, but we cannot, from this passage, conclude that exposing the body to physical (non-sexual) harm is a sin.

Second, supposing that the other 1,188 chapters of Scripture might have
something to say, let us grant, for the sake of discernment, the
proposed principle that exposing the body to physical harm is a sin. I
returned my roommate's movies at 5:15 on a Monday afternoon. St. Louis
had just received a carton of snow, and, on the way to the car, I
slipped on the ice and bumped my bum. I scraped my knuckles on the door
handle trying to de-ice the lock. I almost lost control on Delmar
Avenue. On the way home, to soothe my nerves, I picked up some
MSG-laden General Tso's Chicken. Once home, I washed the General down
with Coca-Cola. Two states away, a dear friend of mine, who labels
smoking a sin on the "physical harm" principle, was having his fourth
cup of coffee for the day. Two countries away, a missionary was dealing
with dysentery. My friend in Los Angeles was breathing smog, and a
cab-driving Christian in New York was doing his everyday cab driving in
New York. Across town, a Christian was delivering a baby. Even the
recluse hypochondriac, who decided to avoid the perils of the world,
was experiencing muscular degeneration from sitting on the couch all
day. We live in a fallen world, and the only guarantee we have, save
the second coming, is that we will die in a fallen world, certainly a
physical harm. Truly, some exposure to physical harm is necessary, some
of it voluntary, some of it part of calling; in all of these examples,
though, physical harm, either actual or potential, is unavoidable,
exposing our bodies to harm is inevitable, and it measures itself in
degrees. And who of us has the right to legislate degrees? We cannot
say, absolutey, generally, or consistently, that exposing the body to
physical harm is a sin.

We do not have the right, from scripture, to see a Christian smoking
and, on the basis of the cigarette alone, call his behavior sinful: sin
resides in the heart, not in the tobacco. We do have the right to require prudence, and we are obliged to evaluate each other's behavior with discernment.

Smoking can be expensive, offensive, and addictive, and it is mostly
not a good idea. But if we make judgments beyond that, we must ask
ourselves why. What is the origin of our judgments? Is it scripture,
society, tradition, a mixture of them all?

Of all the things I hoped I would never hear a Christian say, "Kirk Cameron was soooo hot in Left Behind, The Movie"
tops the list. A close second: "Don't smoke, don't chew, don't go with
girls who do." For all of us who had grandmothers who turned snuff into
a beautiful art form, let us be grateful that this dictum didn't sway
our grandfathers. For my part, I'm not necessarily looking for a girl
with a dip-can ring worn into the back pocket of her Wranglers, but I
can't, on biblical grounds, rule her out. On cultural grounds, it's
worth discussion, but on biblical grounds, no. When we seek to evaluate
our behaviors, we must not allow culture to inform our decisions more
than Scripture. In India, a smoker is considered a non-Christian; in
Holland, an elder; in Mississippi, a backslider; in California, a
Republican. How much of our views on smoking is dictated by culture
rather than Scripture?

As we must be critical and discerning of culture (and our own views
regarding it), we must be the same with smoking. But we cannot equate
critique with prohibition. Much of what we critique (music, film,
politics) we also enjoy, and are at liberty to enjoy. We may not be
able to parcel out the particulars, to draw the line between degrees,
but that is the difficulty, the responsibility, and the privilege of
being a discerning people. You may not think it prudent to be a
Democrat, or to watch Magnolia repeatedly, but can you call it sinful?

I doubt if Jesus smoked or watched Magnolia, but I know that
he engaged in much that was considered culturally sinful. Were he to
stand outside one of our churches today, I have no doubt he would
gladly engage with the smokers, the modern-day leper colonies. In his
own day, lepers were considered culturally unclean, sinful. The
Pharisees refused to touch lepers, lest that touch make them unclean in
the process. Jesus was born to touch lepers. And in his touching,
Jesus' point was that sin resided not in the leprosy itself, but in the
heart. Those who stigmatized lepers, especially the Pharisees, were
criticizing the form rather than the substance; they were condemning
people based on culture rather than Scripture. We cannot make strict
parallels between leprosy and smoking, but we become Pharisees when we
condemn a smoker on the basis of cultural grounds rather than biblical
standards. We must be careful, lest we strain the gnat and swallow the
Camel Light.
Jesus, while touching lepers with compassion, extended little to
Pharisees. We, too, like the Pharisees, are in danger of becoming
selective with our compassion if we allow culture to direct our
judgments. Ask yourself: were you on a panel to select a youth worker,
the applicants being equally qualified in all other areas, would you be
more inclined to hire the smoker or the coffee addict? The shop-aholic?
More willing to invite over for dinner the smoker or the Christian
struggling with alcoholism? From my experience, the smoker, whether
addict or occasional inhaler, receives less patience, compassion, and
sympathy than others who "struggle" with a traditional vice. My fear is
that the church has become selective with her compassion, and we select
based on potential burden. The drug addict, the church member who
struggles with pornography, and the alcoholic don't make our clothes
stink, don't pollute our air, and our differing treatments reveal that
we are often concerned for ourselves more than others: "As long as your
smoke, your 'sin', doesn't get into my fibers, welcome. We touch you in
the name of Jesus."

Recently, on my morning walk to the coffee shop, I noticed a button on
the ground. I leaned over, picked it up, and wiped off a thin layer of
dirt. Underneath, the slogan: Fight Homophobia. I decided to keep the
button, proud of my compassion for "sinners," and as I reached to put
the button in my satchel, the pin on the back pricked me, and the
thought flashed through my mind: "Those damn activists planted this
thing to give me AIDS." I became aware of two things at that moment:
One, I should be careful with buttons. Two, until it became a burden to
me, I was glad to practice compassion, but once pricked, I realized the
true depth of my concern. If patience, compassion, and understanding
aren't coupled with sympathy, the willingness to enter another's world,
to get dirty, to smell bad, to hurt personally, then we might as well
hang a letter on the necks of sinners and rope them off.

My friend Winston (yes, go ahead, laugh) is a deacon in his church,
a gracious husband, and a playful father of three. Every once in a
while, after a long week of church meetings and work and dirty diapers,
he puts the last whining child to bed, pours two glasses of wine, sits
on the deck, and enjoys a cigarette with his wife, the wine and the
nicotine making his heart glad.

A friend of mine spends a lot of time sitting inside a coffee shop,
writing. After staring at a sentence for 45 minutes, he likes to take a
break and sit outside and have a smoke. The coffee shop is near the
local university, and almost every time he sits outside and smokes, a
student approaches him and asks to "bum a smoke." He obliges, offers a
light, and they talk, smoker-to-smoker, image of God to image of God.
And the only reason for the discussion, the spark that ignites it, is
that in his smoking, he has created a safe haven, instant hospitality,
unabashed freedom from judgment that smokers crave. He is gifted and
called to write and to befriend and respect unbelievers; smoking isn't
a necessary part of his calling, but it is a valuable one, and,
according to Scripture, if he can pack smoking into his calling
responsibly (without addiction, e.g.), then he is at liberty to do so.

Is the typical cigarette-smoking Christian addicted? Yes. Must the
Christian smoker, addicted or not, be sensitive with his smoke? Yes.
Must he be regarded or treated differently than others with behaviors
that we don't like? According to Scripture, no. Does this mean our
churches are required to build smoking rooms inside our churches so the
smokers don't have to shiver outside while everyone else is shaking
warm hands? Probably not, though it's worth considering. What is
required of the church is that she think through her criticism before
stigmatizing people. That she be willing to offer the benefit of the
doubt first, and to seek understanding accordingly, before she form
conclusions. We have lost many gifted and beautiful saints because of
our lack of discernment and biblical thinking on this issue. Regardless
of whether fewer or more people are smoking now than last year, or ten
years hence compared to now, the church will always have her smokers.
Will we continue to make them feel that their "temples of the Lord"
aren't as valuable or healthy as the rest, or will we treat them
respectfully, winsomely, warmly, thoughtfully, I hope for the latter. I
can't quit praying for the latter, I hope to become addicted.

"Did Jesus smoke?" originally appeared in Critique(Issue #1, 2003), the journal of Ransom Fellowship. Visit Ransom's site for more excellent resources relating to Christian discernment.

Discussion topic: Public sin

Why are church communities so often obsessed with the condemnation of
public sin? How should we be approaching such things as adultery and
addiction? How should we be approaching more private and less definable
sins, like greed and pride?

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