on the issue of Christians smoking

in response to this article, (and in following a conversation about it on the pentecostal theology worldwide facebook page where most comments about it were mostly individual focused, my friend Monte Rice has written the following (originally posted on Facebook):

There are several variables I find highly relevant— yet hitherto unmentioned in the preceding comments on Wilson’s reflection. I refer here namely to second-hand smoke, other methods of tobacco usage, the global tobacco industry, social ethics / moral obligations towards the public sphere / common good, and the funding of a public theology towards these matters— and moreover, one that is distinctively shaped by Pentecostal sensibilities.

By default, this topic naturally draws attention to tobacco usage altogether, which the earlier comments already demonstrated. Yet I find that a weakness to those comments is that they primarily framed this discussion from the vantage point of individual rather than from or in conjunction with social concerns.

Hence, the issue has thus far been framed in terms of personal conscience and discernment. What many earlier comments have made central to this whole direction then, is the primacy of the “self.” In making the self-determination or the “self” the core-determining variable, the preceding comments tend to avoid certain crucial issues— such as the matter of second-hand smoke. With this in mind, I am thus suggesting that the more important variable that should steer our posture is not personal conscience, but rather whether or not tobacco usage is ultimately a matter impinging on the vitality of public health and social righteousness. I believe it does, and I believe it moreover does so on a global scale, particularly in impoverished Majority World populations.

I therefore suggest that the Scriptural principle of “everything is permissible, but not every thing is beneficial” text (1 Cor 6:12) is insufficient for shaping a Christian posture towards practices such as tobacco usage.

For sake of illustration, I call attention to how public policy here in Singapore currently addresses tobacco usage, in order to help frame this discussion via the vantage point— not primarily from the basis of personal conscience, but rather from the basis of what is best for the common good. There has been for over the past two years, an escalating campaign to reduce smoking usage, through both legislative actions directed towards curbing or banning the public usage of tobacco, as well as inculcating a public distaste towards tobacco usage. Now, it is becoming increasingly difficult to smoke in public places. Less space is being legally afforded for smoking in outdoor eateries and coffee shops (where a sizable segment of the local population regularly eat). Incidentally, today’s newspaper (The Straits Times, 22 March 2012), features a story on how the iconic “shisha,” which has been a tourist attraction in the Arab Street area, may likely be eventually banned.

A major variable addressed through these measures, is the harmful results of second hand smoke to non-smokers. I have supposed that this drive towards the local banning or curtailing of public smoking, particularly with reference to second hand smoke, may be linked to a national ideology called “Total Defense.” The logic of Total Defense is that the nation’s security cannot be sustained through military defense alone, but rather through the total way of life. Escalating health problems due to tobacco usage, may thus be appreciated as a threat to national security— given how this signifies a deterioration of the general population’s overall health.

Let’s for a moment now discuss the global tobacco industry, with the aim of reflecting on how we as Christians might best posture ourselves towards this industry. First off, scientific research into the health risk of tobacco usage did not fully become evident until sometime in the 1960’s. Hence, this was previously a non-issue towards tobacco usage. Meanwhile, I understand that when this research first began emerging, the tobacco industry sought to undermine the research findings. Moreover, I am not sure if there is actually pure tobacco— at least not for cigarettes, given the many additives included in tobacco that are designed to increase tobacco addiction. More recently, I became aware over the past year, that tobacco companies have begun major global marketing campaigns, specifically directed towards Majority World impoverished youth populations, in order to replace falling smoking rates in more affluent populations— as well as to replace lifelong first world smokers who are now dying from respiratory diseases— or who are no longer smoking.

I suggest that tobacco usage is not simply a matter of individual conscience but rather a matter touching on issues of public health, and hence, social morality and ethics. As earlier mentioned, I believe this brings into this discussion, the role of public theology, which addresses how Christians should respond to issues of public life in manners consonant with the Christian story. Because the drift of this online platform is directed towards fostering a Pentecostal expression of Christian tradition, I believe we should strive to do so by reflecting on possible contours of a Pentecostal social ethic. This opens up to a whole other discussion, but I briefly suggest three possible distinctives of a Pentecostal public theology and social ethic. First, a “Pentecostal” ethic (“many tongues”) affirms contextual plurality contingent to scientific, cultural, economic, social and environmental fluidity (see Nimi Wariboko, “The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit,” 2012). I believe this suggests that revised information and technology may entail revision of perspectives; hence, the morality of a cultural practice hinges on its current known threat to the common good— not precedence of past cultural acceptance.

Second, a Pentecostal social ethic arises from Pentecostal worship events that nurture our “passion for the kingdom” (Steven Land, “Passion for the Kingdom”). Third, we should reflect on the Pentecostal confession of Jesus as Healer, which should point to both preventive as well as restorative healing. Christian ethicist Cornelius Buller (“Healing Hope: Physical Healing and Resurrection Hope in a Postmodern Context,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 2002), suggests healing should lead us towards social justice. Failure to do so only feeds the narcissistic spirit of self-actualization that drives the global market— wherein personal experiences of “healing” easily become another aspect of market-driven health-care.

Finally, I want to stress the prophetic imagination that should be operative in Pentecostal spirituality. Yet I am aware some can skewer these trajectories into a Spirit-less form of group conformity that further degenerates into an exclusivist defining of holiness based on conformity to established behavioral norms; this is certainly the historical threat existing within Pentecostal tradition. It is imperative that we primarily define “holiness” in terms of eradicating social stigmas and barriers that undermine the radical social inclusiveness of Jesus.

Given that I have taken up enough space here, I will just point to the Stanley Hauerwas’ insistence that Jesus calls us to Himself in the society as a “community of character”— issuing in lifestyles that often visibly contrast with prevailing behavioral norms— showing us forth as signs of God’s kingdom and coming new world.

Is cigar smoking a sin? I don’t know, and I may seem prudish here— but based on my preceding reflections, I find Jared Wilson’s posting (“20 Ways to Smoke Cigars to the Glory of God”) pastorally irresponsible.

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