Overdoses Hit Close to Home
An opioid epidemic is ravaging communities across America. What can we Christians do about it?A recent edition of the New Yorker contained one of the saddest collection of stories I’ve ever read. The article described in detail the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic on one small city—actually more like a large town—in West Virginia.This article literally hit close to home for me. Martinsburg, West Virginia is less than half an hour away from where I grew up, and I still have family members who live in the area.Margaret Talbot’s article begins with a harrowing tale about two parents who overdosed while watching their daughter’s softball game. While paramedics administered Narcan, “a drug that reverses heroin overdoses,” other parents were livid that their kids had to witness what had just happened.Their anger may be justified, but as Talbot makes clear, it’s the kind of event more and more kids are witnessing in Martinsburg and in similar towns across America. While the opioid epidemic is usually associated with white, often rural, communities like Martinsburg, it’s also beginning to spread to African-American communities in places like Cleveland as well.In Martinsburg alone, between mid-January and early April, “emergency medical personnel responded to a hundred and forty-five overdoses, eighteen of which were fatal.” And if anything, “this underestimates the scale of the epidemic, because many overdoses do not prompt 911 calls.”Numbers like these partially explain why two-thirds—yes, you heard that right—two-thirds!, of the county’s emergency medication budget is spent on Narcan. What it doesn’t explain is why so many people have turned to opiates such as heroin for comfort and solace in the first place.There’s a terrible hopelessness settling over a large part of America. It isn’t only seen in drug abuse. At the same time the New Yorker told the story of Martinsburg, the Washington Post ran a story about a family in rural southeastern Missouri where four generations are or have been on disability.So what’s a Christian to think and do about all of this? The first answer is pray. There’s a joke I’ve heard, borrowing from a famous quip by Churchill, that “Christians can be counted on to pray, after they’ve exhausted all other possibilities.”We can’t do that here. We need to pray for wisdom and guidance, not only for ourselves but for our leaders. What’s going on requires right policies but ultimately it transcends policies and even good ideas.We need to pray for compassion. It’s tempting to point to people’s bad choices, in part, because there are plenty of bad choices to point to. If we go that route, we may be mimicking Jesus’ disciples whom, upon seeing a man who was blind from birth, asked, who sinned: him or his parents? The multi-generational brokenness described in both the New Yorker and the Washington Post articles is the backdrop for this opioid epidemic.We should recall Jesus’ reply: “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” We’re called to do the works of God in the midst of a hurting world. This, not assigning blame, is what restoration looks like.Finally, we should pray for a spirit of gratitude and generosity. We should never forget that we are the beneficiaries of grace. For the Christian, there’s no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman. As the King James Version of 1 Chronicles 29 famously reads, “For all things come from Thee, and from Thine own have we given Thee.”And pray that God will mobilize us, His people, to follow the examples of Christians throughout history who, finding themselves in times and places of significant crisis, social brokenness, and suffering, ran into the mess—not away from it.May we not be like the priest and Levite who walked around the beaten, bloody man on the road. May instead we be like the Samaritan, willing to get our hands dirty to help the multitudes of half-dead people left on the side of the road across this country. And please, forward this commentary to your friends so that they can be in prayer, too.