Speaking Up for Recovery

freedom - prison - bird (KeithBishop)

illustration by Keith Bishop

by Harold Dean Trulear

As I write this, I am celebrating another anniversary in my recovery from alcohol addiction. Each day, month, year represents an opportunity to celebrate the grace of God in my deliverance from this dreaded addiction.

I had help—first from God, who surrounded me with a loving family, a supportive church, and a solid 12-step program. Additionally, I participate in an ongoing therapeutic treatment program.

Millions of Americans suffer the immediate pains of addiction. And each of them represents countless others—families, friends, employers, and co-workers—who are impacted by addiction's collateral costs. Yet the voice of Christians has been strangely muted when it comes to treatment needs and intervention, public policy surrounding addiction, and the behavior of insurance companies in their reticence to support requisite care. Despite numerous medical studies, Christians still struggle to accept that addiction is a disease. Moral failure dominates the language surrounding substance abuse, and while those in recovery understand the need to take responsibility for their lives in their post-addiction days, most are also clear that their participation in addictive behaviors seemed involuntary. What we now know about the brain and chemical makeup of addicts ought to help Christians accept the medical reality of addiction as a disease and respond to those trapped in addiction as sick people who need to get well.

Many Christians believe that conversion covers the necessary conditions for deliverance from addiction. "You don't need 12 steps, just one step—Jesus," I once heard from the pulpit, a variation on a consistent theme that argues for a purely spiritual response to addiction. Yet such sentiments fail to understand that the 12-step movement in general, and Alcoholics Anonymous in particular, began within the Christian tradition. Before the AA textbook  ever existed, members read from 1 Corinthians 13 and the book of James or devotional literature such as Oswald Chambers' My Utmost for His Highest. Close examination of the 12 steps themselves reveals their Christian roots, from admitting powerlessness over alcohol (sin) to taking inventory (confession of sin), and from making amends (restorative justice) to carrying the message (outreach).

Arguments against 12-step programs often include their low rate of success and the antagonism of some participants to organized religion. If the former argument were applied to churches, we'd have to shut down a number of congregations that "don't work" either—after all, people do sin after conversion. And when the hostility-to-religion argument is more carefully researched, we find in the meeting rooms of AA and other recovery programs many Christians who found the God of the Bible made more real to them through the 12 steps. Others, including my sponsor, Chris, found Christ for the first time by journeying through the steps.

Chris talks about his reluctance to embrace Christianity during his early recovery: "I had the Old Man, I figured I didn't need the Kid," he testifies. But when practicing step nine—"Make direct amends to [people I have harmed], wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others"—he found himself wondering how he could make amends to "the Old Man." Suddenly, Jesus made sense to him; he placed his faith in the atoning work of the cross. Additionally, Christian ministries such as Celebrate Recovery insist on the recovery as a process inextricable from faith in Christ.

It's fascinating that it took Pat Robertson to put public policy and addiction back in play as an issue for the church. His call to revisit sentencing guidelines for marijuana use sparked a much-needed, if short-lived, debate on our policies of criminalization and drug use, part of a larger conversation necessary to shape fair and equitable policy that works to get people help with—rather than mere punishment for—their addictions. We need legislation that supports appropriations for wider substance abuse treatment both inside and outside jail/prison walls, where such treatment should be readily available. This would include appropriations for jails/prisons with dedicated programs and actual "recovery jails" such as the STOP (Secure Transitional Offenders Program) program in Montgomery County, Ohio. We also need a greater presence of volunteers with specific supports for addiction recovery.

The jury is still out on whether insurance companies have gotten the message about their need to invest in treatment. It has been so difficult for many treatment centers to collect from insurance companies that many of the "elite" centers now require cash up front, with clients having to be reimbursed by carriers. How many people can afford such an arrangement? No wonder the centers with the highest success rates have the lowest numbers of black, brown, and poor people in their clientele.

Congregations can do more—they can create a welcoming climate for those in need of recovery. They can partner with 12-step groups to provide childcare for those who attend meetings in their basements. They can become educated about the disease of addiction and the pain experienced by family members. They can look seriously at public policies and the compliance of jails/prisons, insurance companies, and others whose way of doing business often negatively affects individuals' chances at substance-free living.

"God as I understand him" requires that we provide for those suffering from addiction. I praise God that, through many channels, he has done just that for me.

Harold Dean Trulear is director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and a fellow at the Center for Public Justice. He has written extensively on issues related to incarceration and is the coeditor of Ministry with Prisoners & Families: The Way Forward (Judson Press, 2011). A member of the Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Dr. Trulear is also an associate professor of applied theology at Howard Divinity School in DC and on the pastoral staff of Praise and Glory Tabernacle in Philadelphia, Pa.


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1 Response

  1. Steve Simms says:

    When congregations go beyond church and into ekklesia they automatically create a culture conducive to recovery based on open sharing, testimony, and ministry to one another. Source: "Beyond Church: An Invitation To Experience The Lost Word Of The Bible–Ekklesia."

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