The White House reported this week that the opioid crisis is worse than previously thought. New estimates from the White House Council of Economic Advisors show opioid-related fatalities have been underreported by 24 percent, raising the death toll to more than 40,000 in 2015 alone. By all accounts, the opioids crisis worsened in 2016, as synthetic opioids flooded the heroin market.
It is not an overstatement to call this a crisis. In 2015 alone, drug overdoses killed more people than the entire Vietnam War. Drugs are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. And opioid deaths outnumber car crashes and gun-related deaths.
While the death toll has risen sharply these last few years, there is one aspect of the epidemic that hasn’t changed: Many believe this phenomenon is fueled by a spiritual crisis in America.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, wrote in the Hill.com:
“There’s also a reason why this is all happening now. Long ago, people found purpose in their responsibilities. They lived for their spouses, to whom they sought to bring feelings of preciousness and love. They toiled for their children, whom they struggled not just to support, but to show constant affection, giving them a sense of self worth. People were also more spiritual, and in a treasured connection to God they found a sense of purpose that gave context to their existence. Often, they also fought for a cause, be it their communities, their countries, and their values. And it was in this fulfillment of a purpose that people got high. It was in causes that were larger than themselves that they found an escape from the ordinary and mundane.”
TRYING TO FILL A GOD-SHAPED HOLE
Opioids are just the latest substance Americans use to find happiness and joy apart from God. A 2015 study found 30 percent of Americans had an alcohol abuse disorder at some point in their lives.
The crack epidemic of the mid-to-late 1980s hit a peak of two overdose deaths per 100,000.
Then there are prescription medications for depression and anxiety. The United States leads the world in per capita consumption of these drugs, with roughly 11 percent of the population over the age of 12 using them.
Damon Linker, writing for theweek.com, says opioids are the new trend, “What is clear is that the United States is filled with people pursuing various forms of relief from various forms of profound unhappiness, discontent, malaise, agitation, and emotional and/or physical pain.
A PLACE FOR MINISTRY
If the problem is indeed spiritual, churches are best equipped to help, and many are responding.
Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church in Belmont, Massachusetts has hosted 12-step recovery programs in the building’s basement for several years. Pastor Mike Clark told WBUR one of the first things he noticed was the number of people coming to church, but not for the service upstairs on Sunday. “I realized that people’s lives were being saved every day in this building. And that it was happening in the basement, it was happening outside our angle of vision—and that’s fine, it was happening anonymously—but that it was an amazing story of human transformation.”
While many might see two different churches at the Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church, pastor Mike Clark says they are more alike than many will admit. “In my experience, there are as many active alcoholics and addicts upstairs in churches as there are recovering alcoholics and addicts downstairs. But the ability to be honest about it and seek help unfortunately is a challenge for most people.”
One of the programs that many churches are using is “Celebrate Recovery.” Launched in 1991 by John Baker, a recovering alcoholic, now a Saddleback minister, Celebrate Recovery uses biblical principles to help people overcome their hurtful habits—from codependency to anger and addiction. It’s solution is to fill the void with Jesus, not a substance or behavior.
RESPONDING TO THE CHURCH-STATE DIVIDE
Faith-based solutions come with the typical church-state tensions and plenty of secular groups looking to exploit the schism. But that hasn’t stopped some governments from looking for spiritual answers. One is Tennessee.
In Tennessee, more than 50 percent of adults attend weekly religious services according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. About two years ago, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services launched a faith-based recovery network to spread the word about addiction, recovery and available services. It also encourages congregations to start their own support programs.
Monty Burks, the director of the department’s faith-based initiatives and special projects, told the tennessean.com, “Historically, institutions of faith have been at the forefront of every single major issue that we’ve had in our country. The key component in recovery is faith. So why not try to educate them and let them harness that number and that power and that belief and helping people in recovery.
A PROBLEM THE CHURCH CANNOT IGNORE
The opioid epidemic is a huge problem in America and getting worse. Being a place of hope for those suffering and dying from it is a tall order for the church. But it is also a plight the church cannot ignore if it hopes to show God’s love for mankind. As Augustine pointed out “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
If any one group of people should have reason to hope, it is the church. Coupled with our commission to introduce people to the source of that hope, we should have no qualms lending ourselves to fight in the battle against opioid addiction.