D.L. Mayfield is an Evangelical who used to drink alcohol from time to time, until she and her husband moved into a housing project where many of the residents were suffering from alcoholism. She quit drinking. Excerpt:

Our first shock when we moved into our low-income apartment in a Midwestern inner city was the amount of substance abuse that surrounded us. I heard the sounds every day: the Patsy Cline blaring next door, the off-key singing, the shouting matches, the cackling, the doors banging, the bodies crashing to the floor in a stupor. I would go to get my mail and find a man blocking the stairs, passed out and unresponsive at 11 in the morning.

We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn.

And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable. It makes me question my faith in God, struggling to find hope for those who are addicted. There are other neighbors here too, people who are in various stages of recovery, and they help me. They drink their coffee black and smoke in the parking lots. They shake their heads and tell me they don’t touch the stuff anymore. They find that every sober day is a gift.

After a year of living among them, I gradually just . . . stopped.

She goes on to say that Christians who drink ought to consider giving it up out of solidarity with the poor, and with alcoholics. In other words, she’s calling for teetotaling not for conservative Evangelical reasons (because drinking is thought to be a sin), but for progressive Evangelical reasons: out of a sense of social justice.

I’m not an Evangelical, of course, and I have never been part of a church or religious tradition that stigmatized drinking, so I don’t have the same kind of moral and theological relationship with alcohol that many Evangelicals do. I find Mayfield’s essay to be a bit on the moralistic side (that is, it comes across as a bit too “why don’t you Christian drinkers care as much about the poor as I do?”), but I have to admit that if I lived in the world she does, where booze tore apart people and their families, I’d probably develop a Strange New Respect for temperance. And I appreciate how Mayfield’s essay raises a question that doesn’t often occur to educated middle-class people who enjoy drinking and/or smoking pot: how do our pleasures affect those who are less able to exercise self-control than we are?

To be perfectly clear, I don’t think the inability of others to handle booze or pot is a good argument for outlawing either, or for forbidding those who can use them responsibly from doing so. If it were, well, why not outlaw nachos, Twinkies, and bacon double cheeseburgers because of obesity? Still, Mayfield’s experiences living among impoverished alcoholics are hard to dismiss easily. Her piece brought to mind friends I’ve had over the years who did not drink, or who did not drink much, and did not drink with ease, because they’d grown up in alcoholic households. I don’t recall any of them making a moral issue of others’ drinking, but if you’ve suffered from the alcoholism of others, or suffered with alcoholics that you’ve loved, I can imagine how difficult it is to be at ease with booze.

What do you think?