China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Aug

Substance abuse and spiritual hunger

Flesh and blood human beings occasionally crave a stronger stimulus than vanilla ice cream. Obesity and diabetes are becoming more common in big cities everywhere. Other substances are worse for the human body and for society, than rich food. Drunk drivers kill people and drug abusers die young, or at least a decade or two younger than the average life expectancy.

Is this something new? Several of the best-selling chemicals are new and easy to produce from raw ingredients. Unfortunately, human life has been plagued by substance abuse since the dawn of history.

Alcohol in the bible and in Old China

Noah embarrassed his sons by passing out after drinking wine (Genesis 9:21-24). Proverbs 20:1 warns that intoxication leads to foolishness and fighting, while Proverbs 23:19-21, 29-35 details the unpleasant consequences of drinking to excess. Drunkenness is listed 1 Peter 4:3 as one of several nasty behaviours in which converts had indulged earlier in life. St. Paul urged Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). Too much of any medication is harmful.

Li Bai (李白 701-762 AD) was one of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup in the Tang Dynasty, and the greatest poet among them. One clear night he drank too much while cruising on a boat. He bent down to hug the reflection of the moon on the water, fell overboard and drowned.

Old China listed four vices, in order of increasing severity: eating, drinking, womanising and gambling. Few people could afford to overeat, most people had to work hard and everyone sweated in summer before air conditioning, so obesity was never a big problem. Alcoholism apparently was not common. When a married man found a girlfriend, the result was family strife. But the main vice that led to poverty, murder and suicide was gambling.

Opium and heroin

Doctors prescribed opium during the Ming (明) Dynasty and there were laws against misusing it, but only small amounts were consumed.

The British shipped opium from India into China in the late 18th century. The illegal trade soared after 1821, but it took more than a decade for alarm bells to ring in the Qing (清) government. Chinese officials seized and burned a huge amount of opium in May 1839 and the First Opium War soon started.

As every school child in China knows, the result of the British victory was the occupation of Hong Kong and the forced entry of foreign ships into the first five Treaty Ports. The Great Qing lost Kowloon after the Second Opium War of 1858-1861.

Heroin, refined from opium, was invented in 1900. By 1928, it had become popular enough for the League of Nations to ban it. In the Chinese countryside, opium remained the drug of choice. Heroin abuse was centred in Shanghai. The Nationalist government established an Opium Suppression Commission in 1935, which was almost useless.

Drugs were a serious social problem in China until 1949, when drug dealers were forcefully suppressed. For a generation, it seemed that not one person in all of New China abused drugs. We now know that some people in authority went from occasional, medical use of sleeping pills to addiction.

The drug problem revives

After China reopened to the world, more and more ships, planes, trucks and tourists entered. Customs agents have been overwhelmed, especially along the border with the Union of Myanmar.

Drugs have been in the news lately in Hong Kong. Designer drugs such as ecstasy, methamphetamine and especially, ketamine (K) are easily available in the territory. Students high on K staggered in the halls of an elite school; others collapsed on the grass in a poor district. Many teenagers have taken the train to Shenzhen to party on cheaper pills. They were among the 200 arrested by police who raided social clubs on a recent weekend.

Nowhere in the world has the drug problem disappeared with economic growth. On the contrary, as incomes rise, teens and young adults have more spending money and more chances to buy forbidden fruit.

The United Nations designates June 26 as the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In the days leading up to this June 26, China executed at least 20 drug pushers. Confiscated opium and heroine were burned publicly. Does such media coverage reduce the problem? Unfortunately, governments worldwide are losing the War on Drugs. Because of the money involved, whenever a smuggler or a distributor is arrested, imprisoned or even executed, someone else quickly steps forward to take a risk.

Bored and falling into trouble

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said with some exaggeration, “All of people’s troubles come from not knowing how to sit still in a room.” During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), foreigners were as rare as solar eclipses. One visitor asked the hotel receptionist, “Is there anything to do in Beijing at night?” She looked puzzled, and then told him, “You can go to your room and get a good night’s sleep.”

Times have changed! Last year, high-ranking officials in Beijing reportedly met to discuss a police report of teens taking drugs in discos at 1.00am. They were puzzled and asked each other, “Why were they still awake at 1.00am?”

The teens would probably answer, “Because we were bored to death.” At night, there are more ways to kill time in a city than in a village. The inner emptiness that predisposes people for addiction has been called “a hole in the soul.” Alcohol and drugs temporarily fill that spiritual vacuum.

Killing time occasionally leads to sudden death. More often there is a gradual loss of physical and mental health – a slow way to die. In 2007, AIDS killed 32,000 addicts in Russia who injected drugs with shared needles.

As the 1990s began, amphetamines were becoming a problem in Taiwan. The drug was given a descriptive name in Chinese translation, an fei ta ming (安非他命), literally, “peace not his life.” Anyone who swallows those pills will not enjoy peace. The diocese of Taichung (台中) chose drug education as the theme for its summer youth camp in 1991. Each senior high school or university participant received a T-shirt with a drawing of Jesus laughing hilariously. Underneath was an understatement, “a sufficiently interesting friend” (够意思的朋友). If Jesus is the wearer’s “sufficiently interesting friend,” then he or she will be able to follow the advice on the back side of the T-shirt and “say no to temptation” (诱惑说不). While the programme described the health hazards of drug abuse, the hope was to attract people to Jesus. This is more positive and longer lasting than simply trying to scare them away from illegal substances.

Spiritual or secular treatment?

Twelve-step programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) begin with the substance abuser admitting powerlessness to stop the addiction and conceding that life has become unmanageable. Then there is a turn to a higher power for help, one day at a time.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev sharply curtailed the production of vodka in the then-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, urging people to drink fruit juice. The masses resorted to auto antifreeze and wood alcohol instead and many went blind or died. During the Anti-Vodka Campaign, the Soviet government still did not allow the establishment of AA groups since it promoted a higher power, obviously meaning God.

Rational recovery and smart recovery deliberately drop the higher power for psychological insight and self-control. Results so far have been limited, but at least a few people have been able to escape addiction by this secular path. Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) said in the debate about socialism versus capitalism, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, just so long as it catches mice.” If a higher power can help people live sober and drug-free lives, why should the government be opposed?

Confucius and the Catechism condemn drug abuse

In ancient Chinese thought, the human body was a gift from one’s parents, to be preserved intact. In time of war or defending the family, that was not always possible. But reckless behaviour that could lead to injury or death was a slap in the face of one’s mother and father. If Confucius and Mencius were alive today, they would condemn both tobacco and recreational drugs.

The Chinese family is not what it used to be. To what extent can young people be taught to treasure their good health and bodily integrity? In an atmosphere of hedonism and instant gratification, training to prevent addiction becomes more difficult.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has several pages of comments on the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill” (nn. 2258-2330). Respect for the dignity of persons includes respect for health. “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God (n. 2288).” Moderation is a word seldom heard today. However, “the virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine” (n. 2291).

Within the big picture of caring for our God-given bodies, the Catechism evaluates non-therapeutic drugs in a few lines: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life… Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct cooperation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law” (n. 2291).

Sinbad and Jesus, burden and relief

One description of addiction is “the monkey on my back.” This comes from the voyages of Sinbad, who once had a monkey climb on top of him and put his legs around the Arab sailor’s neck. Either Sinbad did as the monkey ordered, or else the monkey would start to choke him. Sinbad finally found a way to get the monkey off his back.

Several centuries earlier, Jesus said, “Come to me all you who labour and find life burdensome, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28, 30). Yielding to every craving is a sure way to slavery.