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2011-05-01 issue:

Alcohol: A gift from God

by Jonathan N. Roth

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All things in the world are there by the creative power of God. Alcohol is a generic term that includes a family of organic compounds that have many valid uses. In itself, it is neither good nor bad. It is only in the use and the results of use that the question of effects comes into play from a moral viewpoint. The use of many things (e.g. penicillin) has saved many lives, but the misuse of other things causes untold numbers of illnesses and deaths. Alcohol is at the top of that list.  In our current world, we cannot plead ignorance to the known effects of discoveries and expect to be absolved of responsibility for those effects.

Wine appeared to be an accepted part of the society and the daily life of people of Biblical times, although “drunkenness” was considered unacceptable. Because there was no concept of microorganisms, it would have been virtually impossible to prevent the fermentation of fruit juices (beverages) to form wine. The water was often contaminated and likely caused more obvious illnesses and death than those that could easily be attributed to drinking wine. People would have had no knowledge of the long-term effects of alcoholic beverage. Death from traffic accidents was not a significant problem. “Disciplining” (abuse) of children or women did not seem to be as seriously taken as in our society. 

I suggest that it is time to introduce some new perspectives to the historic situation pertaining to alcohol use. These perspectives are not gleaned from information or data supplied by the Bible, nor are they mandatory to a Christian or religious stance. They are facts that we now know and understand that are derived from scientific studies and clear data (results). God has given us the ability to study and learn more about His creation. With the gift of knowledge comes responsibility. Virtually everyone agrees that wars are terrible and should not be waged. Likewise, while no informed person would state that the violence, illness and deaths (more than from all the wars in history) resulting from alcohol use are good, our populace is unwilling to abstain and thus supports the huge and lucrative alcohol industry. If people were served an acknowledged poison by their host at a party or dinner, this would constitute a crime and the host would be tried and incarcerated. Yet this happens every time alcohol is served and no law prevents it. It is interesting that there are laws against minors buying and consuming alcohol. One can only speculate why our laws find alcohol to be more harmful to an 18 year-old than to a 21 year-old person.
So far, I have refrained from suggesting that alcohol use is other than a moral and ethical shortcoming on the part of the human race. But if there is one thing that differentiates the Mennonite church from other denominations, it is its stance as a “peace” church. To me, as a lifelong member of the Mennonite church who served one of our church institutions for more than four decades, pacifism means the avoidance of violent and harmful actions, and supporting activities that are helpful instead of harmful. It is not limited to war. It is difficult for me to understand how any thoughtful person who uses alcohol can be characterized as a pacifist. Pacifism is about avoiding and preventing death and violence, which is the opposite of alcohol effects. To purchase and use alcoholic beverages is to support (an industry that causes) death and violence, the antithesis of pacifism and the teaching of Jesus. To plead ignorance and avoid the issue when the evidence is plentiful and easy to access cannot be an acceptable response. 

Alcohol is addictive and estimates of the percentage of persons who take their first drink who become helplessly addicted vary from a low of about 5 percent up to about 12 percent. This means that at least one person in 20 who takes that first drink will become an addict and will lead a troubled life because of this addiction. Is it worth taking that chance? Almost all of us have traveled by air. If we knew that one of every 20 flights ends in a crash in which everyone is killed, how many of us would fly? 

It is an accepted medical fact that brain cells are destroyed every time a person drinks an alcoholic beverage. Continued destruction of brain cells by alcohol use catches up to many who are habitual drinkers. If a mother drinks during pregnancy, alcohol is infused into the developing child and many children are born with the condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome. These children will never be what they could have been if that damage had not been inflicted upon them. But our laws do not prosecute those who inflict this abuse.

I do not doubt that most parents love their children dearly and believe that they are doing everything they can to help those children grow up safely and happily into productive members of society. There is a high probability that if alcohol is kept in the home and parents drink socially, children will follow suit. There are two risks to this situation. First, at least 5 percent of persons who take the first drink become addicted and cannot control their drinking. Second, children will think that if it is OK for their parents to drink, it is OK for them too. The news is full of notices of accidental deaths of someone’s child (children) who died of overdosing at social gatherings, or was killed in a vehicular accident resulting from alcohol use. Alcohol negatively affects good judgment and behavior.  I believe that the term “responsible drinking” is an oxymoron.

Just as I tried to be an example to my children as an abstainer, I also felt the responsibility to share that stance with my students and practice my convictions. I did not want to be a stumbling block to anyone. Not all my colleagues were abstainers, and so the institution could not practice a unified and firm stance to deal with alcohol use, although written Standards of Our Life Together were clearly against alcohol use.  Alcohol use and abuse is an acknowledged epidemic in colleges and universities and is a problem in middle and high schools. I believe that our Mennonite colleges and universities are in a unique position to enlighten and bring to view the effects of alcohol (and other damaging substances and activities) not only to its students, but also to the world by taking a stance and teaching the facts about it. Mennonite Church USA is itself responsible and remiss in its unwillingness to address this evil. Goshen (Ind.) College’s new motto  “Peace by Peace” could be a poster to lead the way in this area.

How can one be an environmental activist without acknowledging that drinking alcohol is destructive to the most sacred environment, his/her own body? The effects of environmental pollution are trivial to the human body and society when compared to the effects of alcohol. It is commonly thought that alcohol is a stimulant. However, it is actually a strong depressant and intoxicant. Alcohol is a toxin and a microbial waste product. It causes cancer and other diseases. If persons were forced to drink it, there would be a public outburst of violation of personal rights. If alcohol were a newly discovered substance in our water or our food, the EPA would ban it and our medical establishment would give grave warnings about its side effects and overall effects. Also, if the grains and other products were used for food instead of the production of alcohol, there would be less hunger in the world.

Our current generations consider themselves sophisticated and knowledgeable. Instead of accepting the fact that more than 50 percent of traffic fatalities involve alcohol and crusading to promote abstinence, they try to design safer vehicles with air bags, seat belts and baby seats and pass laws mandating their presence and use. This when it is known that abstaining from alcohol use would eliminate thousands of annual fatalities. 

I was disappointed to read the January article in The Mennonite, which seemed to be a free and open endorsement of a Mennonite-owned winery and its products that are even blessed by ministers. It was also disappointing to learn that 75 percent of Mennonites surveyed do not think that alcohol use is always wrong, according to Conrad Kanagy's study. If Mennonite Church USA tacitly or openly accepts the use of alcohol by its members, I believe that a written statement of clarification to that effect should be made. If that were done, the question of whether it can be classified as a “peace church” should be officially addressed. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to state that it is an “anti-war” church. 

I have often heard or read statements aimed at the justification of alcohol use. A common argument is that “studies” have shown that the heart benefits from moderate intake of alcohol, so one should actually drink moderately for best health.  First, consider the finding of the World Health Organization that the detrimental effects of alcohol on the heart outweigh the benefits by a ratio of 2.5 to 1. Then consider all the other effects that alcohol has on the body. It is the number one cause of cirrhosis of the liver and pancreatitis, both precursors to cancer of those structures. Another common response is that other things are also bad, so why pick on this particular thing? I can only say that one wrong does not justify another.

Due to space limitations, exhaustive statistics and studies to substantiate my position cannot be included, but they are plentiful and irrefutable. Anyone who is interested in the truth about alcohol can easily find information. Hundreds of studies and articles on virtually any aspect of alcohol pop up if key words are plugged into a web search engine like Google. I would suggest “alcohol and cancer,” “alcohol and crime,” “alcohol and disease,” “alcohol and illness,” “alcohol and violence,” “alcohol and sports,” “alcohol and depression,” as key word combinations. Also, Google the web sites of the World Health Organization or the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. These can be read selectively and the interpretations can be very selective, so that one can pick out only certain parts that one wishes to use and ignore related statements and data to avoid the whole truth. 
A recent article provides results of a rather thorough study done by a team of experts from the United Kingdom. This current publication in the internationally respected journal, Lancet, compares 20 drugs on 16 different criteria pertaining to the comparative harms that each drug causes to both individuals and society. In this study, the drugs were scored on a 100 point scale with 100 being the worst (most harmful). In the abstract, it is stated “Overall, alcohol was the most harmful drug (overall harm score 72), with heroin (55) and crack cocaine (54) in second and third places.” (Nutt et al., Lancet, 376:1558-66,2010)  (Dr. David Nutt is Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and a practicing psychiatrist specializing in medicine of addictions.)

Studies may be flawed in various ways. There are many published studies that were sponsored (financially supported) by companies or organizations that are part of the alcohol industry and who depend upon their continued existence and profitability by convincing the world that their industry and its products are wholesome and essential to enjoy the “good” life. One such organization is the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. They have supported research and researchers, have a powerful lobbying force, and do everything in their power to present the alcohol industry in a powerfully positive light. You can use Google to find them.

I hope that this article might stimulate some readers to reach a position that they are pleased and compelled to openly share with others. I welcome responses. Contact me at

Reader Comments

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  • Posted by bmc19512 at Monday, May 16, 2011 at 09:29 AM

    What a great article. I've been forming a response about alcohol for several months now and you put pretty much everything into words that I've been thinking. Thanks

  • Posted by KateSlater at Monday, May 16, 2011 at 09:37 AM

    Your facts about the destructive role of alcohol in our society are irrefutable, yet I am not convinced that as a pacifist I must practice and promote abstinence. Why? Because Jesus teaches me what it means to be a pacifist. If he, as the greatest peacemaker who has ever walked the earth, both drank and served alcohol, I must accept that the term 'responsible drinking', and the term 'moderation' with respect to alcohol have real meaning for a person who builds peace in this world.

  • Posted by roymb at Monday, May 16, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    I very much appreciate your comprehensive article on alcohol use. You articulate well our (MC USA and society in general)apparent intent to disregard the facts and justify consumption of alcohol. Similary, we have irrefutable facts about the advantages of excercise and eating healthy and the disadvantages of fast food...yet our society ignores this information as well. Thank you for calling us and leaders of our congregations and church owned and operated educational institutions to accountability and leadership on this important issue. How can clear minded folks call destroying brain cells "responsible drinking" or self damaging our bodies by "drinking in moderation?" Bless You!

  • Posted by JohnMMiller at Monday, May 16, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    In my view Jonathan rightly sorts out the issues involved in the use of alcohol. KateSlater is technically correct. Jesus did not specifically ban or teach against the use of fermented drinks but – as Roth acknowledges – accepted and shared in its use in that cultural situation. What Slater fails to deal with is the significance of Roth's stated and implied societal argument that the possible benefits of moderate drinking were greater and the deleterious effects much less. To use technicalities and ignore principles that Jesus taught about love's concern for the the effects of one's actions on weaker persons who may be harmed by one's 'freedom' fails to come to grips with the harmful effects of one's choices in today's society. I, too, was disappointed with the blasé choice of The Mennonite in publishing what appears to be a promotion of alcohol as acceptable among those who seek to be serious in following Jesus' way of love in our world.

  • Posted by KateSlater at Monday, May 16, 2011 at 10:41 PM

    Maybe I should have said it a little differently to avoid misunderstanding: There are many good reasons for a follower of Christ to choose complete abstinence with regard to alcohol (the article mentions them) and I myself have been an abstainer most of my life. However, if we see complete abstinence as an essential facet of pacifism, then Jesus himself--a moderate and responsible drinker--would not measure up to our pacifist standard. Setting standards that exceed those of Christ is dangerous. We risk joining the Pharisees in honoring the letter of a law that we have extrapolated from God's foundational law of love, but that God himself has not written. Let's encourage one another in practicing the law of love according to our best understanding, but let's not doubt or question the pacifist convictions of those whose practice is different from ours, as long as--in their drinking--they demonstrate Christ's joy of celebration, his love in giving and receiving hospitality, his commitment to peace in relationships, and his concern for the well-being of others.

  • Posted by kshelly at Monday, May 16, 2011 at 11:03 PM

    I have to respectfully say that the argument “Jesus may have drank alcohol in his time, but he’d be against it in our time” is not very compelling. Similarly, I don't find compelling those who argue, "Jesus may have been a man of peace in his time, but in our time he'd agree that some wars are just."

  • Posted by menno5 at Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 11:45 AM

    Thank you Dr. Roth for serving as an example and explaining your actions. There are many of us who studied under your example at Goshen who still hold true to values of community and service. Community is looking out for the brother and it is better for me to give up a bit of my freedom (drinking alcohol) than to cause a little one to stumble. Thank you for so clearly writing it.

  • Posted by amishviking at Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 02:28 PM

    How then are we to interpret Jesus changing water to wine? Not just wine but apparently really good wine. How also are we to look at "the last supper" when Jesus clearly used a cup of wine? I think this issue is far more complicated and intertwined than either side seems willing to acknowledge.

  • Posted by marco_funk at Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 02:44 PM

    I try to not eat or drink anything that I know will be a stumbling block for someone else. I confess that at times I have eaten meat alongside brothers and sisters that are passionately vegetarian because of their faith. I confess that I might have had a beer alongside brothers and sisters who are struggling or recovering Alcoholics. I confess that I live a wealthy lifestlye that might be a stumbling block to many poor brothers and sisters in other places. I confess that some of my actions, and some of my inactions, are a stumbling block to brothers and sisters in my congregation and community. I try to be sensitive and avoid being a stumbling block - BUT I CONFESS, that is what I am. I ask people's forbearance and forgiveness if my actions or inactions have been a stumbling block. At the same time, I commit myself to always assume the best of my fellow brothers and sisters when their actions offend my sensibilities. I commit myself to forgive others when they inadvertently are stumbling blocks to me. May my life reflect the open generosity and radical love of Jesus my Savior, who also was a stumbling block to many of his brothers and sisters... his reputation wasn't always that great. His goal was not to be a stumbling block, but to live into the radical Shalom of God's inbreaking Kingdom. That's my goal as well.

  • Posted by sandyoyer at Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 09:28 PM

    Every pastor, social worker,family or christian who has suffered with an alcoholic knows what it does to an individuals life. It destroys a person and family. It destroys careers and costs the economy billions of dollars. It cost buinesses millions of dollars annually. It causes thousands of death per. year. Thousands die every year from teen age drinking drivers. The only reason, it is said, that alcohol is not outlawed is because most of the State and Federal politicans drink at their social functions. They wont outlaw what they enjoy. They could care less for the effects on soceity. Can we be mature disciples and stop arguing whether Jesus drank wine or new wine (grape juice). We do not know what Jesus did. But we can be sure that he did not do anythng that was distructive to his creation. We all are aware what alcohol is doing to our soceity and to the world. As the body of Christ we should be doing everything we can to destroy this evil and at least as christins to model Godly abstinence. Thank you Jonathan Roth for your excellent input.

  • Posted by cileposi at Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 04:10 AM

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