Last week, I received training on how to reverse an opioid overdose. The trainer first taught us the signs of an overdose: unconsciousness, unresponsiveness, shallow or absent breath, purple lips. After she taught us how to administer the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone, she described the rapid reversal the overdosing person experiences. From the very edge of death, they emerge wide awake in a matter of seconds, albeit in considerable pain.
As a pastor, it brought to mind Jesus’ resurrection of Jairus’ deceased daughter. “The child is not dead. She is just asleep,” he said before bringing the 12-year-old back to life (Luke 8:52 CEV). Confronted with a seemingly hopeless patient, Christ did not give up on her. He brought her back to health quickly and easily, defying the limitations of the possible. Naloxone puts near-miraculous power in our hands today. I have two doses in my purse.
As we globally observed International Overdose Awareness Day this past Saturday on Aug. 31, it is urgent that people of faith equip and dedicate ourselves to affirming the lives and dignity of people who use drugs.
Somewhere in the U.S., at this moment, a pastor is conducting a funeral for a child of God who died of an opioid overdose. The deceased might fit the stereotype: a young underemployed white person in Appalachia who unknowingly took a fatal dose of fentanyl. Or they might be a middle-aged African American who died the same way in Cleveland. Or a suburbanite given an oxycodone prescription after surgery. Or someone of wealth and prestige. (Remember, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Prince both died as a result of overdoses.) From all walks of life, 130 people per day in the U.S. lose their lives because of accidental opioid overdose.
There was so much more to each of these people than their drug use, and their deaths were preventable. Drugs like fentanyl cause breathing to stop, but a toxic cocktail of fear, stigma and dehumanization is the root cause of death. Those of us who were raised amid the “war on drugs” all too often see people who use drugs as a problem to be solved with punishment rather than a person to be embraced with kindness and respect.
The pastors performing funerals today can work to save lives instead of just marking deaths. The harm reduction movement is a way to do that. Harm reduction is a philosophy and set of practices rooted in the fundamental belief in the dignity and autonomy of people who use drugs. It incorporates a broad range of tools, from providing safe injection sites to facilitating access to treatment for those who choose it to distributing the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone.
Churches nationwide are awakening to their responsibility to welcome and value the lives of people who use drugs. In Ohio, several of my colleagues at Faith in Public Life are taking part in the Naloxone Saves tour, in which churches in four cities across the state hold services where they bless and distribute this life-saving drug. In July, the annual Wild Goose festival that draws thousands of Christians to rural western North Carolina included a Faith in Public Life panel on harm reduction. This year, the North Carolina Council of Churches has held events in 12 cities promoting harm reduction.
Harm reduction is also a systemic approach, which is crucial because the proliferation of opioids is very much a systemic problem. A federal court recently found Johnson & Johnson liable for the proliferation of opioids in Oklahoma, fining the pharmaceutical giant over $500 million. Purdue Pharma, which flooded the U.S. with Oxycontin, just reached a $12 billion settlement consolidating 2,000 lawsuits against the company.
Federal policymakers must do more to hold accountable companies that flooded communities with opioids despite widespread reports of addiction and lethal overdoses by the thousands. They must also do an about-face from decades of criminalizing people who use drugs. They must also ensure that communities have the resources they need to solve the public health challenges that come along with the proliferation of opioids. These issues demand more attention on the presidential campaign trail.
And in our congregations and communities, we must look to the Gospel for guidance. In addition to raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead, Jesus embraced the outcast. As a pastor, I have no doubt that today he would dine with people who use drugs and rebuke those of us who dehumanize them. We must do the same.