Conscientious Objectors to AA

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Not all the drunk driving stories I’ve heard were tragic. One individual driving back from an out-of-state visit became lost on a rural road in the middle of the night. He saw a local police officer in the process of having another vehicle towed, so he stopped to ask directions. As it turned out, the officer was finishing up with a DUI arrest he had made earlier that night. Soon after the lost man lowered his window to ask for directions, he became the officer’s second DUI arrest of the night.

Another person returned to her downtown apartment after a long workday and was relaxing with a few glasses of wine. She answered an insistent knocking on her door from her landlord, who informed her the city would tow her car in the morning if she didn’t move it. The officer who arrested her for DUI was not sympathetic. The woman was particularly incensed because she previously thought she was doing the right thing by sleeping it off in her car instead of driving home from a restaurant. But she was still charged with a DUI when a police officer woke her in her car a few hours later.

In many states, multiple offenders have the opportunity to receive alternate sentencing to DUI courts or treatment programs in lieu of jail time. The American Automobile Association (AAA) reported that there are currently more then 1900 DUI/Drug Courts across the country.  And there is evidence that these programs reduce recidivism. The vast majority of DUI episodes are caused by a small group of repeat offenders. Estimates suggest that 3-5 percent of drivers account for around 80 percent of the DUI episodes.

These courts are mostly post-conviction, meaning that the accused must plead guilty or be convicted to participate in them. . . . Compliance with treatment and other court-mandated requirements is verified by frequent testing, close community supervision and interaction with the judge in non-adversarial court review hearings.

A frequent requirement of DUI courts and other legal-based substance-abuse intervention programs is for the individual to attend some sort of a treatment program and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And some individuals raise strong objections to the court-ordered AA attendance.

One former court mandated attendee of AA meetings viewed her attendance as the government prescribing “prayer under the threat of imprisonment.” As an atheist, she found it difficult to believe she had an imaginary friend. A court ordered treatment program she was in structured its group therapy sessions with opening and closing prayers (the Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer). She reported that when she took a bathroom break during the “Our Father,” she was told she couldn’t leave during the prayer.

Another individual is suing the state of Nebraska, alleging his constitutional rights were violated because he was required to attend AA meetings even though he objected to its religious foundation: “I do not believe the state should be telling anybody to go to them, and it cost me a career as a massage therapist because I didn’t go.” Somehow I think there is a little bit more to the loss of his masseuse license.

When I hear of experiences like these, I wonder what’s missing. Was the woman really reprimanded for not participating in a prayer or for leaving the group without permission? Did the Nebraska man lose his career because he refused to attend AA meetings, or because an alcohol-related arrest violated a professional code of ethics?  I think many of the conscientious objectors to AA attendance on nonreligious grounds are erecting straw man arguments to knock down because they are angry about the legal consequences of their drinking—and not simply their forced attendance at “religious” gatherings.

AA meetings have been legally designated as “religious” within the U.S. The court cases that successfully challenged mandated meeting attendance were all brought by parolees, probationers and inmates. They argued that mandated attendance was a violation of the Establishment Clause, which requires “governmental neutrality with respect to religion and a wall of separation between Church and State.” So it seems there will have to be an ongoing adjustment to how governmental agencies address this perceived violation of Church and State through mandated AA attendance. This is a state-by-state battle for now.

However, I don’t think it is a forgone conclusion that A.A. is “religious” because the courts have said its literature reflects elements common to most theistic religions. Yes, there are clear elements of religious dogma if the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer” is recited at meetings. But that does not occur at all A.A. meetings and I’ve not known where it is expected of anyone to recite the prayer.

There are conceptions of what constitutes a “religion” and a “church” that do not equate any and all belief in God or a Higher Power as religious dogma. If these views were to be legally recognized, then mandated A.A. attendance would not necessarily be a violation of the Establishment Clause. I’ll look at this in some future posts. But back to the conscientious objectors to AA attendance.

Erica Larsen on AfterPartyChat is more sympathetic to these individuals than I am. She empathizes with their “feelings of alienation from AA’s more Christian elements. The whole Higher Power thing kept me out of any 12-Step programs for years, so I get it. I totally get it.” But now that she is actually involved in 12-Step fellowships, she believes it was one of the best personal decisions she ever made. “Getting over the God thing was surprisingly easy once I decided to actually give meetings and sponsorship a try.” But she still wanted to just shake the guy in Nebraska and tell him to just go to the meetings.



A Daily Reprieve

Our Father who art in heaven, (help me not to take a drink today), Hallowed be thy name, (yes, let your name be thrice hallowed for the sobriety you have given me.) Thy kingdom come, (my part in your kingdom is sobriety), Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, (for me, let your will be that I do not drink today),Give us this day our daily bread, (your bread is your good will to me, an alcoholic), And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, (we are forgiven only if we forgive others as our inventory shows), Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, (my chief evil is the use of booze), (Keep me sober today), Amen.

The above paragraph was from “Grass Roots Opinion,” an article in the January 1952 edition of the Grapevine, the journal for Alcoholics Anonymous. A previous post, “Our Pappa Who Art in Heaven,” reflected on honoring God and His kingdom in the first part of the Lord’s Prayer. In what follows, we petition the Lord for our daily needs: bread, debt forgiveness, and protection from temptation.

Give us this day our daily bread.” Biblical scholars have had a lot to say about the Greek word usually translated “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer, epiousios. This is often the case when there is only one occurrence of the word in the New Testament, as with the word here. Werner Forester, in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, suggested that the meaning of the phrase “daily bread” is adequately given as: “The bread which we need, give us to-day (day by day).”

In Alcoholics Anonymous Bill W. wrote that the alcoholic is never cured of alcoholism. “What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities.” This is also the spiritual condition of the believer in Christ. In this life, we are never “cured” of sin. Yet we may have a daily reprieve when we ask daily how we can best serve God: “Thy will (not mine) be done.”

A little further on in Matthew 6, Jesus elaborates on how we should not be anxious about our daily life—what we eat, drink or wear: “Your heavenly father knows you need them all,” so take one day at a time (Matthew 6:32, 34). Verse 6:34 actually says: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”, but the paraphrase “one day at a time,” commonly heard in 12 Step recovery, clearly fits in both verses, 6:11 and 6:34.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The word translated as debt here refers to a moral obligation or sin, as the Lord’s Prayer is given in Luke 11:4, “and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” Whether sin or debt, the principle here is that our forgiveness by God is correlated to how we forgive others. Verses 14-15 repeat the thinking of verse 12 and add the negative consequences of failing to forgive others, your Father will not forgive you.

Unforgiveness in recovery is understood as holding on to resentment. Alcoholics Anonymous, the A.A. Big Book, says that resentment, “destroys more alcoholics than anything else. . . . It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. . . . We found that it is fatal. . . . If we were to live, we had to be free of anger.” The people who wronged us were spiritually sick—like we were. So we asked God to help us show them tolerance, pity and patience. “God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.”

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  God does not tempt us, as James 1:13 teaches, so the original meaning here was more like “don’t allow us to succumb to temptation” or “don’t abandon us to temptation.” The parallelism of the second clause here—deliver us from evil—reinforces the sense that we are pleading for God to protect us from temptation.

There is a dispute as to whether or not the Greek word for “evil” here should be translated “the evil one” (the devil) or just plain old impersonal “evil.” Either one is grammatically possible. But functionally, the point is moot. Whether there is an “evil one” or simply just “evil” we need God to keep us from it. There is also something to be said for sometimes praying to be delivered from “evil” and at other times praying to be delivered from the “evil one.”

The struggle of resisting temptation to sin or to drink and/or use drugs can often feel experientially like we struggle against a personality; an evil one. There is a malevolent force that plots against us; a roaring lion who seeks to devour us (1 Peter 5:8). If we submit ourselves to God and resist the evil one, he will flee from us (James 4:7).

I was intrigued to discover that in the second issue of the Grapevine, July of 1944, was a recommendation for other A.A. members to read the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. “Readers will laugh at the shrewd portrayal of soft spots, alibis and rationalizations suggested by Screwtape in the battle between His Father, Satan, and The Enemy, God.”  Both A.A.s and followers of Christ can relate to the battle illustrated there.

Please Lord. Deliver us this day from the evil one—whether that is alcohol or another drug; Satan or our own evil desires.

Where in your life are you in need of a reprieve?

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”


Our Papa Who Art in Heaven

© Master2 | Dreamstime.com - Lord's Prayer In Internal Passageway Photo

© Master2 | Dreamstime.com – Lord’s Prayer In Internal Passageway Photo

Verses 9 to 13 in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew are familiar to anyone in Christian churches as “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” Emmet Fox said it was “the most important of all Christian documents;” the best known and most often quoted of all the teachings of Jesus. Easily memorized, it has been recited publically and privately from the early days of the church. “It is indeed, the one common denominator of all the Christian churches.” The Lord’s Prayer is a model for our praying—“Pray then like this.” (Matt. 6:9) It also has parallels to the principles of recovery embedded in Twelve Steps.

In Matthew 6:1, Jesus cautioned his hearers against public displays of righteousness. Essentially he said that if you make a public display of being pious, you aren’t really being spiritual. He then proceeded to look at the three main aspects of Jewish piety: giving to charity (2-4), prayer (5-15) and fasting (16-18).

Matthew 6:5-8 begins: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.”  Here is the second thing to unlearn if you want to practice true spirituality—don’t make a big show out of praying! In fact, find a way to pray in secret. God sees you. Also, don’t babble on and on, thinking that because you have a lot to say, God is impressed with your eloquence—He isn’t. Then Jesus drops a bomb: “Your Papa knows what you need before you ask him.”

New Testament scholars suggest that when the Greek word for Father appears in the Gospel prayers, the Aramaic word  ’abba was originally used in conversation. ’Abba was the equivalent of an infant babbling “Papa” to his father. To his audience, Jesus was suggesting an uncomfortably familiar form of address to God in prayer. Pious Jews wouldn’t even spell God’s name completely, and Jesus was referring to him as ’abba! One commentator said “Christians should consider God as accessible as the most loving human parent.” The hypocrites used flowery, eloquent language when they prayed. Jesus says don’t be like them—come to papa, who already knows what you need.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Our Father links the person praying to all other believers. I am reminded here that the first word of the First Step is also plural, We, connecting the individual alcoholic to all others in A.A. The intimacy of praying to ’abba is counterbalanced by His presence in heaven. We can come into the presence of the creator of the universe, knowing He is our ’abba. We can approach the God of the universe in all our prayers.

In the chapter “We Agnostics,” of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. wrote that alcoholics were faced with a crisis they could not postpone or evade. They were confronted with the question of faith. “God either is, or He isn’t. What was our choice to be?” Wilson went on to say that deep down in every person was the fundamental idea of God. Faith in some kind of God was a part of being human. “We found the Great Reality deep down within us.”  The God of heaven was near to us. In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Bill ended his essay with the following declaration: “When we drew near to Him He disclosed Himself to us!”

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When Jesus heard that John the Baptist was imprisoned, he began preaching as John had in Matthew 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:17)  So here in verse 6:10, we are to pray that God’s will be done as perfectly on earth as it is in heaven. Leon Morris said: “In heaven God’s will is perfectly done now, for there is nothing in heaven to hinder it, and the prayer looks for a similar state of affairs here on earth.” Not our will, but God’s will be done.

I hear an echo of surrender to the will of God in A.A.’s Third Step here, where the individual is called to submit their will and life to the care of God as they understand Him. In the entry for August 26th, Twenty-Four Hours a Day said that if we still cling to something, we must sincerely ask for God’s help to let go of it. “We must say: ‘My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad.’” The last paragraph of the “Step Three” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions says:

In all times of emotional disturbance or indecision, we can pause, ask for quiet, and in the stillness simply say: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Thy will, not mine, be done.”

We’re not finished yet with our look at the Lord’s Prayer, but will stop here for now. Part of true spirituality is recognizing that we can approach the Creator of the universe in prayer as simply and as easily as an infant approaches his or her “papa.” And our attitude in prayer should be for God’s will to be done. I often use the Serenity Prayer in counseling to help people discern the will of God in their life. When I do, I encourage them to not only say it, but to work and apply it. Because if they do, then God’s will shall be done on earth.

Do you approach God in prayer as if you are approaching a loving Father?

See the second part of this reflection on the Lord’s Prayer in “A Daily Reprieve.”

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”