A TASTE FOR TEMPERANCE
She stood in front of her kitchen window, through which daylight filled the room. Finely woven white sheers hung from the top, gathered at the sides. An African violet—for years near death, but somehow refusing to die—hugged the window sill, above the sink. My grandmother was dressed, as always, in a dress of tiny, floral print and very conservative, clunky black shoes.
At her direction, I raised my right hand. “Now, repeat after me,” she said with a hint of smile, sweetly. “I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented, and malt liquors, including wine, beer, and hard cider.” It was the pledge of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU); she had years before served as its president in Seattle and King County; I was sixteen; the year was 1968; I revered her. My grandmother (my mom’s mom) was an anchoring, loving, generous, and hugely influential figure in my life; the Spirit of Jesus seemed always to clothe her. She passed away in 1989, just short of her 99th birthday.
At the age of sixteen, I was a sophomore, awkward, nerdy, and on the curb of my high school’s social highway. It was, in many ways, a transformational year, though, as I suddenly began to grow tall and thin (after carrying too much weight in my earlier height-challenged teen years), reached for my driver’s license, and developed more confidence with my peers. Perhaps my grandmother sensed that “the world” was at my doorstep, plotting to detour her Jimmy from following Jesus completely. As she watched me become a young man, maybe she feared that I would cross some lines never before imagined as the kid who preferred books over basketballs and spent Friday nights at home watching “The Wild, Wild West.” Whatever was running through her mind on that day, I knew she loved me and sought to protect me from what she understood to be the dangers of alcohol and all the ways it could bring grief. She asked me to take the pledge. I did, without asking any questions.
After making the promise in front of the kitchen window, I sat down at her kitchen table and devoured a piece of her always-worth-a-trip warm blackberry pie, topped with sweet cream freshly whipped. And, then, I went home.
The years have flown by. Every now and then, I revisit in my memory the two-story house on Linden Avenue in Seattle, in which she lived for decades, raised her five children, and treated me to lunch every Wednesday, after I entered college. I am sixty-six years old now; I have never “had a drink,” I have never tasted alcohol. There was something about my grandmother’s administration of the WCTU pledge that always stuck with me, ever after, whenever offered a beer, a glass of wine, or anything else that might be categorized as “distilled” or “fermented.” In my younger years, I resisted drinking, in part, because I thought the Bible required me to do so (and that the pledge simply reflected New Testament holy living), but, eventually, I concluded that temperance (as in refusing all alcohol) was not a biblical imperative so much as it was just a thoughtful choice. Drunkenness, of course, is everywhere forbidden in the Scripture, but alcohol per se is not.
But, wherever I was in my journey of biblical exegesis on the subject, I found that one thing about being a “teetotaler” never changed: it set me apart. In high school, when later living on campus during my undergraduate college years, when living in the dorm at the University of Washington during my law school years, when working at Northwest Airlines after I left law school, when diving into politics, both campaigning and then representing northwest Seattle in the House of Representatives in Olympia, when hanging out with my brothers-in-law or socializing as an adult—at every stage, in every circumstance, my adherence to “the pledge” made me realize I was different. Sometimes this bothered me. Eventually, however, it gave me confidence and a sense of self. And, self-control.
All of this has come to mind this week, as the sad spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Appointment Hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee have unfolded, in the wake of sexual assault allegations. Whatever your take on the merits of his accuser’s claims or his response—whoever you conclude is telling the truth with the most accurate memory—one obvious truth jumps off the page: the charges, the events alleged, the conduct condemned, the stories of assault, are all alcohol-fueled.
The culture of Kavanaugh’s high school years at Georgetown Prep and his college years at Yale have come under close scrutiny. Those who claim to be his victims admit to themselves drinking, underage. His accusers claim he assaulted them while under the influence. His peers and contemporaries describe a teenaged and young adult culture in the 1980s of free-flowing alcohol, drinking to “blackout,” and uninhibited behavior pushing the envelope in ugly and threatening ways. None of us are in a position to absolutely judge the case but, all of us must admit, alcohol played a central role in the whole narrative, true or false. The 1980s, in this regard, were not unlike the 1990s or the 1960s or the 1930s or the 1870s (when the WCTU was born).
This is not surprising given the incidence of sexual assault and #MeToo moments framed by alcohol in reporting and court cases across the land, so much in the news today. Not everyone who drinks becomes a sexual predator or victim, of course. Most people know their consumption limits and responsibly do not press them.
But, as I’ve watched the Kavanaugh drama unfold, I can only look backward and thank my grandma for persuading me to take “the pledge,” and thank God I have been able to live up to it. Whatever else is said about me, no one will ever seriously argue that I acted out after drinking too much. And, I will never be pulled over while driving and nailed with a “driving under the influence” charge. No one will ever be injured because my reaction time while driving was compromised because of anything I drank before getting behind the wheel. My speech will not be slurred by alcohol, ever. My social checks will not be compromised by alcohol, ever. The calories and the cost of alcohol will not be taking a toll on me. Ever. Orange juice with extra pulp is still my best game. Milk works, too. Propel. Coke Zero. I’m in. “This Bud’s for you?” Nope, not for me. Ever.
I’m not suggesting that drinking alcohol is sin or in any way a Kingdom failure. As long as drunkenness is not in view, temperate consumption is not anywhere discouraged in Scripture (except in the instance of a Nazirite vow, for instance). But, I am suggesting that going dry, stepping away from alcohol altogether, has no downsides. Alternatively, drinking alcohol has few upsides.
How so? A few weeks ago, the Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) study was published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The sweeping research analyzed global alcohol consumption and its outcomes from 1990 to 2016 in 195 countries; the data has been described as unassailable.
National Public Radio summarized the GBD’s conclusions this way, “While the study’s authors say that moderate drinking may safeguard people against heart disease, they found that the potential to develop cancer and other diseases offsets these potential benefits, as do other risks of harm.”
The study itself says, “Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none. This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day.” The GBD urges public health officials worldwide to review and revise guidelines which today recommend alcohol consumption as healthy and, instead, discourage its use. The GBD represents a dramatic and compelling reversal of popularly and professionally embraced understanding of alcohol’s health benefits.
The study has its critics, of course. The principal argument against the study’s conclusions are not directed at its research methodologies, analysis, or data, but, instead, at its recommendation of abstinence. It’s not safe to drive, either, goes the pushback (“accidents happen”), but no one is suggesting we give up cars to minimize the risks.
Perhaps. But, when I tally up the high calories of alcoholic beverages, the high cost of alcoholic beverages, the ways in which alcohol reduces capacity to react and respond, the ways in which alcohol reduces healthy inhibitions and social checks, the stats linking alcohol to many diseases, and everything else, I’m thinking my grandmother was on to something. I’m thinking that being “set apart” by “the pledge” hasn’t cost me much, at all—and saved me a great deal.
I hope you know I am throwing no stones here. The Bible has enough high ground to which we must live up without adding new rules and regulations like prohibition. Still, today, at my advanced age, I am so thankful for my grandmother’s administration of “the pledge” to me so long ago. And, I’m wondering if Brett Kavanaugh and his accusers are all wishing they had a grandma like mine who would have done the same for them.
Now, don’t ask me about chocolate. That’s another story.
1 Corinthians 9:27