Emilio Morenatti / AP file
Pat Robertson isn't the only religious leader who supports legalization of marijuana.
The Rev. Pat Robertson says America should legalize marijuana. Would Jesus agree?
Msnbc.com put that question to a few theologians and religion experts, and the answer is … decidedly hazy.
Robertson, the outspoken Christian evangelist and host of “The 700 Club,” made national headlines this week when he told The New York Times that pot should be decriminalized and treated like alcohol because the government’s war on drugs has failed miserably and is costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
“I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded,” he told the newspaper.
Scholars disagree on whether the Bible lays down the law on use of mind-altering drugs such as marijuana, also known as cannabis.
"It’s not so simple that you can just go to the Scriptures and say, 'Hey, that (passage) says marijuana should be illegal,' or 'that says marijuana should be legal.' There is no such passage," says Father Thomas Reese, S.J., senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
Some pro-pot Christians refer to Genesis 1:29 and interpret it to mean God does not frown on ingesting plants such as marijuana:
And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, which has seed in its fruit; to you it shall be for food.
But Todd Johnson, associate professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution in Pasadena, Calif., says the more relevant biblical passage is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in the New Testament, in which the apostle Paul writes about wrongdoers and ills affecting the early church:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul goes on to describe food and the body, and concludes:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
“Paul is addressing the issue of morality. One of the concerns he has is drunkenness. He concludes your body is in fact a temple of the Holy Spirit,” Johnson says.
“What substances do you put in your body? I think Paul implies there is a connection there.”
“I think the issue is, are you doing something in excess that could damage your body, that is not reflective of the holiness that God invites you to love?”
Reese says because the Bible doesn't refer directly to marijuana, theologians can only draw moral analogies based on biblical references to the drug of choice at the time -- alcohol.
"Just as abuse of alcohol is sinful because of its weakening of character and our ability to do good, so too we look at drugs and can come to moral conclusion that if drug use is leading us to do things we wouldn't do if we weren’t on drugs … then the use of these drugs is also bad."
Casting out demons
Carl A.P. Ruck, professor of classical studies at Boston University and co-author of “Apples of Apollo: Pagan and Christian Mysteries of the Eucharist,” contends there’s evidence biblical figures used cannabis as an ingredient in holy incense and anointing oil, as well as medicinally.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., discusses televangelist Pat Robertson's surprising pro-marijuana stance.
He says cannabis was widely cultivated throughout early Christian times, and contends Jesus himself used it. Jesus’ anointment with chrism, a cannabis-based oil, may have caused his spiritual visions, he adds.
“Residues of cannabis, moreover, have been detected in vessels from Judea and Egypt in a context indicating its medicinal, as well as visionary, use. Jesus is described by the apostle Mark as casting out demons and healing by the use of this holy chrism,” Ruck wrote in a 2003 newspaper column titled "Was there a whiff of cannabis about Jesus?” “Earlier, from the time of Moses until the later prophet Samuel, holy anointing oil was used by the shamanic Levite priesthood to receive the ‘revelations of the Lord.’ The chosen ones were drenched in this potent cannabis oil.”
In an email Friday to msnbc.com, Ruck says there are also references in the Bible to the use of mandrake, a poisonous and mind-altering plant.
“The Bible … claims that Leah paid some mandrakes to Rachel in order to spend a night sleeping with her own husband that Rachel had stolen away from her. Understandably, some scholars would like to not identify the plants as mandrakes,” Ruck says.
“The Bible also speaks of 'strong wine.' There was no distillation known in antiquity to fortify the alcoholic content of wine. The strength comes from the fact that wine was usually the medium for administering a variable mixture of intoxicating additives.”
Several Christian organizations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church, have issued statements supporting medicinal marijuana use, according to a 2007 story on slate.com. But none of them seem to endorse smoking pot recreationally.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops didn’t immediately return a call to msnbc.com for comment on where it stands on the legalization of pot. But the Vatican has said that the use of drugs causes “very grave damage on human health and life” and adds that “their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.”
Legalize or not?
So is legalization of marijuana the Christian thing to do?
Reese, who like Bill Clinton says he's "never inhaled," supports legalization. "There’s a tradition within Catholic theology that the purpose of law is not to outlaw every sin. Prohibition was a classic failure of trying to do that," he says.
"I think because of the terrible impact on society of these criminal gangs that control marijuana, we’d be better off legalizing it and putting a decent tax on it and having it branded like we brand cigarettes."
Scholars all agree on this much: Drugs are tearing apart America’s neighborhoods and society and current solutions aren't working.
"The war on drugs has been lost and like the war in Vietnam, maybe it’s time to cut and run," Reese says.
“Prohibition merely manufactures criminals. There should be an approach that tries to evolve an etiquette for the correct use, similar to the designated driver for alcohol parties,” says Ruck.
Adds Johnson: “In some ways I have to applaud Pat Robertson for posing that question. I think Robertson, agree or disagree, has raised a question about a very relevant topic. We as a society have to wrestle with that.”
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