I don’t log in to Twitter very often. Much of the content is discouraging and does not bring joy to my heart. But regrettably, I decided to check in the other day. It only took two quick scrolls before I was reminded why I limit my engagement. The tweet that made me cringe was not from a radical politician or a Hollywood celebrity. Instead, it was from a prominent evangelical voice. The tweet read,
“Today on my run up through Central Park in Harlem I saw four teenagers smoking weed. As I passed them I shouted in a firm but friendly voice: “Smells like failure!” and kept going. I said it as an act of love, honestly. I hope that at some point one of them might think about it.”
To be clear, I have been critical about legalizing recreational marijuana. And I have received harsh criticism from both the right and the left in the Twitter sphere for my position. I acknowledge there are legitimate concerns about excessive criminal sentences and the disproportionate harm they cause minority communities. And I appreciate the libertarian’s concern for individual freedom and personal rights. I also understand the pragmatism in tax revenue, product control, and public demand.
Nevertheless, I hold to my conviction against legalization. I believe we could have addressed these concerns without a full-throated endorsement of recreational drug use. I simply am not convinced that encouraging more intoxication leads to a flourishing society.
But the author’s “friendly” admonition does not feel very friendly nor sound like an “act of love.” I have no doubt the author sincerely desires good for these teens. And I trust the author genuinely believes he is providing helpful guidance. Yet, one has to wonder if an obscure voice prophesying failure over these teens only reinforces the very beliefs that cause the behavior in the first place. The Mayo Clinic cites low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, anxiety, and feelings of meaninglessness as some of the contributing factors in teen drug use. One can imagine that the tweeter’s words strengthen the teens’ underlying belief system rather than prompting any honest reflection. It is hard to understand how a drive-by moral rebuke creates a pathway for rich dialogue.
The author may very well be correct; the teens may be headed for a life of struggle and hardship. I have not researched teen marijuana usage and its bearing on future success —there may indeed be a strong causal link — I don’t know for sure. But I believe his attempt to be helpful was careless and undermined a crucial value in evangelical faith: human dignity.
Evangelical Christians (like all forms of orthodox Christianity) believe in God’s imprint on every human soul. Because humans are made in God’s image, we must recognize the inherent dignity in every person — even those with which we have strong disagreements. Our social witness necessitates that we honor human dignity in both our deeds and rhetoric.
I assume the tweeter understands the link between personhood and practice. The faith we both share recognizes that a person’s inner formation happens through spiritual habits. This is exactly why we stress the practice of spiritual disciplines. We believe prayer, Bible reading, and fasting, to name a few, affect our inner and outer person. Because personhood and practice are so closely linked, it seems hard to imagine these teens can separate the words “smells like failure!” from “you are a failure”
Some may argue that the tweeter is right. Our faith does recognize human failure. In one sense, we are all failures before Holy God. But in another sense, the tweeter’s shoutout seemingly shut down the opportunity for meaningful conversation — the kind needed when unpacking a rich theological concept like depravity. Theologian Kosuke Koyama said, “That which is unholy violates human dignity.” Consequently, it seems the tweeter’s “honest act of love” may actually have been an act contrary to love because it is a conversation stopper.
Our nation’s social ethics have rapidly shifted, undoubtedly unsettling people of faith. Practices that were judged unacceptable a generation ago are now commonplace. But if faith leaders are to have a compelling public witness, we must saturate our rhetoric in the doctrine of imago dei (image of God). Consequently, we cannot proclaim we value human dignity while using methods of engagement that undermine one’s human dignity.