Sunday, March 25, 2012

Legalizing Marijuana and Moral Decision-Making

A man once told me the story of how he inadvertently made an illegal left turn from a store parking lot, and crossed over two double yellow lines. He passionately announced to his young son, who was in the car and accompanied by a friend, that this was the kind of behavior that would send a person to Hell. Lawbreakers are sinners, he reasoned, and God hates sin. The man believed that, had he been killed soon after crossing those yellow lines, his eternal destiny would have been at risk.

Of course, if a week later the local city council voted to repaint that road so that such left turns were legal, others could make the exact same turn and rest easy in their standing before God. Or so the reasoning went.

So, as religious people, we might operate under the conviction that marijuana use is wrong for two reasons: First, it is essentially a bad thing to do. Second, it is illegal, and to possess and/or use marijuana is to break the law.

But now there are USAmerican state governments that declare marijuana use to be both beneficial and legal, if you can obtain a doctor’s prescription (which, in some communities, I’ve been told, is about as complicated as getting a library card).

The challenge that people face, particularly us religious types, is in distinguishing between morals and ethics. Morals refers to personal conviction, character, and behavior. Ethics refers to the larger social systems where morals are applied.

So the man I mentioned earlier might say he carries a moral conviction about being a lawbreaker. He seeks to respect the law of the land and understands that conviction to be consistent with his faith. But he lives that conviction out in a larger ethical system that is subject to change, based on popular vote, municipal practicality, and national self-interest.

When marijuana becomes legal in the US (which it probably will, since so many consumers in the US already demand it), then the overall ethic changes. But what about moral response? If the government removes the prohibition, then we are no longer lawbreakers if we indulge. How will that affect our moral response?

During Prohibition in the US, the manufacture and sale of alcohol was illegal (interestingly enough, drinking alcohol was never prohibited by law), a national ethic that was consistent with the convictions of many religious groups. However, when the law was repealed in 1933 (fueled by a movement started by a Republican), religious folks had to recast their convictions about alcohol use, not based on rule of law, but rather on a higher moral ground.

When the government legalizes something that we believe is inconsistent with our religious convictions—such as alcohol, drugs, abortion, slavery (which was legally authorized in the American colonies), same-sex marriage, and so on—are we ruined because of the effects of legislation?

I would say, no. We are not ruined. But we are cast out of the safety net of legislation and then forced to think more deeply about our convictions (or lack of them), and how we live them out in an ethical context that is contrary to the way we intend to live.

When illegal drugs become legal, we in faith communities will have to look anew at what it means to be people of character, people formed by something deeper and more significant than the dictates of municipal, state, or federal law. The law is there to govern, not to infuse people with a morality that emerges from a transcendent source.

As Jesus said, when asked about the lawfulness paying taxes to the Roman Empire: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

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