On Alcohol: Jarena Lee, Moderation and @ScotMcKnight

No, This is not a Wish to Return to 1920’s Prohibition

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”– Barry Goldwater, at the 1964 National Republican Convention

Around this time last year, biblioblogger Rob Kashow finished a series on Christians and alcohol. Today, Scot McKnight responded to a letter with questions about alcohol and Christianity. Here is the letter McKnight responded to.

He says, in part, “These, to me, are biblical facts. Anyone who says abstinence is required for Christians is simply not in accord with the Bible; but we also are encouraged by the Bible to think that abstinence is a genuine if not also important option.”

He continues, “Mature Christians ought to trust others to act wisely in these matters; mature Christians don’t need to censure the wise decisions of others. Having said that, alcohol ought to be consumed in moderation and wisely. That is, in a way that does not lead to drunkenness and in a way that is not intentionally scandalous or reckless with others.”

McKnight’s position is the mainstream one, it is the balanced, sound view, while the prohibitionist believers of days past are considered to be “the Zealots.”

As I continue in search of a 4th or 5th etc., way Christianity, I cannot see myself accepting the virtue of moderation at face value. What is the mature Christian position? I would argue the mature Christian position is to know the historical context of Prohibition politics, that in considering as part of a particular history linked to specific human bodies, our analysis outlook may be changed.

First of all biblical speaking, no where is moderation linked to the consumption of alcohol in “social situations”; and in the second, McKnight is correct, “the alcohol was not as strong as ours is today.” The talking point of moderation that comes from Ephesians is at best a half-hearted attempt to proof-text, leaving out a significant portion of the passage: Ephesians 5:18– “Do not get drunk on wine which leads to debauchery, instead be filled with the Spirit.” Only the first half of that passage is cited by advocates of “moderation.” It is this being filled with the Spirit, from the Greek verb plero, is not only to be full, but also to be rendered perfect and complete. The Holy Spirit perfects our sanctification, conforming us to the holiness of Christ.

It is this reading of the passage, being made perfect in the Holy Spirit, that I wish to examine the theology behind one pro-Prohibition voice in the late 19th century–Jarena Lee, a Holiness preacher from the African American tradition. in fact, her theological biography (highlighted in J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account) is shaped narrative by drunkenness and alcohol. Her parents kept liquor in the house, allowed their children to drink, “for all to drink freely of wine, brandy and gin.” In fact, at the age of five, Jarena drank from a bottle, and she was “stupidly drunk”–her terminology. Her plea for abstaining from drinking alcohol at all, comes at the end of this chapter 1 of her biography, begging us to listen to the “wailing of the poverty stricken women and children.” What we can tell already from Jarena is that, the texts that matter are the bodies in which are inscribed with the markings of oppression and abuse, rather than some “Solo Scriptura.”

When we reach Chapter 4, an astonishing argument is made: the existential crisises that Lee found herself in as both a Negro American and a woman–class, race, and gender oppression, lead her to read the New Testament more and more. It was in the course of her studying it that her teacher, John Van Paten, murdered a person who mocked his intelligence. Over the course of due time, after he accepted Christ as Savior, he was hung from a scaffold. “Oh what a barbarous thing is the taking of human life,” writes preacher Lee. Christians, in our resistance to evil, in the journey of perfection, Jarena Lee, at the height and time of alcohol consumption and the mob violence that lead to the lynching of thousands of blacks each year, prayed, “Christian men, vote as you pray, that the legalized traffic in ardent spirits may be abolished, and God grant that capital punishment may be banished from the land.”

The question is: why this politically charged prayer that would obviously be banned in the Baptist Christian land of Texas? What has the consumption of alcohol to do with the death penalty? Might I suggest that it is in the biotexts of the lives of the Crucified populations of society that our pastor for this moment, Jarena Lee, tends to as the sheep of her flock? The term “biblical” has become somewhat of a polemic, just as much as the term “zealot.” I always have this suspicion that the term “biblical” has been hijacked by some believers as a power move to place themselves over other Christians, when in reality, its just a particular kind of receiving the Scriptures.

Going back to libertarian thinker Barry Goldwater’s quote, the second half of it, moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. Jarena Lee fights Goldwater’s paradigm in that she was an extremist for justice in her ethics of the Resurrection. She herself had been to the other side, having had even at one point contemplated suicide. Only in her conversion experiences, and her call by God to preach the Good News of the Risen Savior, did she know her place in the world, and her place in the world would take her many places like the apostles of old. (I know you are shaking in your head now, considering how a black woman fits the mold of a white man’s philosophy, especially a white man who voted against important Civil Rights legislation)

Politically speaking, if the federal government’s duty is to protect the lives of individuals, then Prohibition was right for ITS time–to protect women from domestic violence. By doing this (while avoiding the extreme economic justice of the Robber Barons at that time–sigh), the Temperance movement as the most successful feminist political achievement in U.S. American history effectively made alcohol less desirable. The problem is not alcohol in and of itself; grapes are not intrinsically evil. It is when alcoholic beverages become a controlling desire that it does its damage. For Christians, it may take us away from the path of sanctification.

Once alcohol was not seen as the looming threat that it was, and once women received the right to vote, Prohibition ended. Unfortunately, in 1972, the death penalty was challenged and put to a hault but then reinstated in 1976, and today American Christians act like its been around for the longest of time, as if it was THE norm. Abstinence in accordance to a written mandate is not a “biblical fact” but what is required is the perfect love for God and for neighbors and a rejection of anarchy, moral or otherwise.

What is the solution for today?

With my experience during my undergraduate years, I found that the desire for fellowship had at its controlling factor, alcohol in most of the social situations. At the same time, for the most popular conservative Christian groups calling for moderation, a few of the members took the liberty to even attend church services hung over– right because if you use just half of that Ephesians passage, for example, you wind up with just that result.

Therefore, I think Christians should work to make alcohol less desirable, by promoting first and foremost the supremacy of abstaining from alcoholic beverages. Second, there needs to be a healthy discussion on the limits of “moderation” language as THE mainstream norm, and I do believe that this excludes churches from meeting in bars–since it works to make alcohol that much more desirable, among other things. Thirdly, Christians should work with politicians at the local, state and federal level to LOWER the drinking age. If we lower the drinking age to 18, this will be more likely to take the punch out of bing drinking when those in college or wherever when they turn 21 years of age.

And yes, I have consumed wine during communion and at weddings (it’s okay, its in the Bible, remember, so my position is “biblical”). But I refuse to drink beer or anything else. Just not going to happen. Oh, and I have had the time of my life at both wet and dry weddings.

Just Sayin’!

For more on Jarena Lee, please see William L. Andrews SISTERS OF THE SPIRIT: THREE BLACK WOMEN’S AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

0 thoughts on “On Alcohol: Jarena Lee, Moderation and @ScotMcKnight

  1. Katie

    what do you make of the fact that Jesus drank wine often and gathered with friends over wine and that the Last Supper itself was a meal at which wine was shared?

    Reply
    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      Their wine was not as strong as our wine today, or our other alcoholic beverages. I think the difference in what wine, and therefore the consumption of alcohol, meant for their culture and our culture has changed.

      Reply
  2. Matthew Raymer

    Rod,

    While I think there are a lot of things that need to be discussed about in this post, I don’t find it crazy at all.

    My grandfather was an alcoholic and my clan was plagued with alcoholic wife-beaters during the early part of the 20th century (South Central Kentucky coal mining communities is where they all lived). From that life I grew up in a family that totally abstained from alcohol — and I still do abstain and encourage abstainance.

    Matthew

    Reply
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  6. Joel

    First of all, I do agree that some Christians drink irresponsibly. In some circles, including highly conservative ones, more emphasis needs to be put on not drinking in excess and knowing your limits with alcohol. I would say that the line for responsible drinking should be drawn long before the point where you get a hangover or start seeing double. And you are correct that prohibitionists were reacting to a legitimate problem of people drinking way too much.

    With that said, I don’t quite follow what you’re trying to prove with the Ephesians verse. It’s true that wine in the ancient world was often diluted, but it could still get people drunk if consumed in excess. The warning in Ephesians 5:18 is hardly the only indication of this, especially when you consider other ancient texts outside the Bible. The association of immoral behavior with excessive alcohol isn’t anything new either. Bacchanalian orgies were probably wilder than most college parties. While alcohol in the ancient world was not the same as today, I don’t think it was so radically different that Jesus’s use of (and creation of) wine is irrelevant.

    Full disclosure: I have a beer (good beer, not domestics) almost every day after work, though usually not more than one.

    Reply

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