Recently I was at a worldwide Quaker event and an older Quaker asked me a question that shook me: Do you drink despite the traditional Quaker testimony against it because you truly don’t think it is damaging, or do you do so because drinking is convenient?
He brought up the sacrificially of many of the Quaker testimonies: refusing to swear oaths or pay tithes resulted in frequent and extended imprisonment, opposing slavery resulted in financial and social loss, and rejecting war resulted in derision by societies hungry for power.
Quakers continued to take these stand because of their ethical integrity. This older Friend questioned, or perhaps his question led me to question of myself, whether I was simply choosing the easier path than the social inconvenience of taking a stand against alcohol.
I had never heard an argument like that before. I was raised by the child of an alcoholic. My father was desperately afraid of alcohol because he had seen what it could do to people. So, to keep my siblings and I away from it he used the most powerful tactic he could think of: fear.
I can’t tell you how many times as a child I heard it repeated: my Native American heritage made me genetically an alcoholic. One sip of alcohol and my life would be gone.
The racially problematic parts of that statement aside, by the time I was a teenager my siblings had begun to drink so I could clearly see that my father was just wrong. My brother and sister both drank responsibly and maintained happy and productive lives.
So I decided that upon reaching legal age, I would partake responsibly. And I did. From the time I was 21 until I went to the conference a year later, I would drink about once a week or every other week. I never got wasted, I never made any big mistakes, and I never regretted my decision to drink. After all, the only reason I had been given to avoid alcohol- that it would make me into a terrible person- was clearly not true.
This Friend’s question changed everything. Now, it wasn’t just an issue of whether it was possible to drink responsibly, but whether drinking responsibly was ethically okay.
Honestly, he kind of hijacked the rest of the conference for me. I still participated in all the activities and conversations, but most of my solitary time went into considering his question.
While most yearly meetings (an organizing body of Quakerism) discourage drinking, they generally do not go so far as to frame abstinence as essential. Britain Yearly Meeting’s approach is fair model of this:
In view of the harm done by the use of alcohol, tobacco and other habit-forming drugs, consider whether you should limit your use of them or refrain from using them altogether. Remember that any use of alcohol or drugs may impair judgment and put both the user and others in danger [Advice and Query 40.]
Statements like that sometimes make me long for a prescriptive religion. It would be so much easier to have someone tell me “do this!” and “don’t do this!” than having to consider it for myself. But my Quakerism makes it essential for me to consider three aspects of my spirituality to reach an answer. Biblical tradition, communal wisdom, and personal experience/revelation all come together to form the spiritual framework that thereafter informs my life.
Quaker communal wisdom, such as the Advice quoted above, almost invariably advocates for refraining from alcohol consumption. The Bible is more ambiguous- alcohol was important in that it was a safe way to intake liquids, but that alcohol was much lower proof than that which we consume now. And the New Testament of the Bible again and again warns against drunkenness. These verses, however, did little to convict me against alcohol because they speak to moderation rather than just abstinence.
One verse did cause me to struggle. In Romans 14: 21 Paul wrote “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
Here, I stopped to ponder. Is drinking responsibly ethically wrong because it could cause others to drink excessively?
This question is what consumed my free time at the conference. I spent hours trying to figure it out in the theoretical context, but in the end looking at my personal experience settled the question for me.
I have several friends who don’t drink for a variety of reasons. One, specifically, does not drink because she has struggled with other addictions in the past. I whole heartedly support her. While considering whether I felt free to drink or not, I emailed her about how she felt about her friends drinking. This is an excerpt of her response
… I do not need others to abstain. I just need their support when I do. People who drink moderately not only don’t contribute to the culture of excess, but they actually provide a third path somewhere between the completely safe/boring road of abstinence and the hazardous/glamorous and fun road of hardcore partying.
I love that idea of a third path. And when I considered where that third path had led me in the past, I felt completely free to follow it.
As a bartender I’ve been able to use my power to help ensure the safety of others by cutting people off earlier than some bartenders might (often at the expense of my tips) and insisting on and ordering taxis to take customers home.
Additionally, my time in bars as a bartender and patron have led to many discussions that I truly believe opened individuals up to the Light.
I am grateful to those who choose to live out a testimony of abstinence from alcohol because I believe it is important for people to see that as an option. Spaces where abstinence is a comfortable and easy option are essential. There are certainly those who I think should abstain, such as those individuals who have struggled with alcoholism or for some reason believe they could not partake responsibly. My personal experience leads me to believe that, for me, moderately consuming alcohol is a net positive.
This is not to say that I will always feel this way. I will continue to consider the effect of my alcohol consumption on my life and on the lives of those around me to ensure that I don’t put myself or others in danger.
But for now, the Spirit is not leading me away from spirits.
What canst thou say?