Would you give an addict a clean needle, so they could stay alive until they found freedom from their addiction?
Would you give a prostituted woman condoms, so she could protect herself until she found freedom from prostitution?
Clearly, the famous evangelical leader I was speaking with in Cambodia didn't think we should be helping people in this way. He was adamant that Jesus would never give out condoms or clean needles. He insisted that the little clinic we were running in a Phnom Penh brothel was a waste of time and inconsistent with the gospel.
"Son, when you get as many years on earth as I have you'll see the truth!"
Fair enough, I'm still young... (er than him).
Christian friends of mine work at INSITE in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside - the only legal supervised drug injection site in North America. They give clean needles, provide medical intervention when people overdose, and assist addicts into rehab if they wish to get clean. There are hundreds of people alive today because of their help. They do a difficult job with grace and patience. And I admire them.
The "Harm Reduction" debate, as it is known, rages on and on, and Christians concerned about justice sometimes find themselves caught in the middle.
But, for me the question is not so much, "Would Jesus give out clean needles?" or "Would Jesus hand out condoms?" but, "What do we do to keep people alive until we can help them find freedom in Jesus?"
The story of the demoniac in Luke 8 is helpful. This poor man was a danger to himself and others. He kept throwing himself into the fire. Finally, they bound him in chains to keep him safe. He wanted and needed complete freedom. But his time had not yet come.
Clean needles and condoms are the chains we use to keep people safe until they find true freedom. They are a human response. And very often a loving one. They are best we can offer as one human being to another who is struggling.
But thankfully, we know that there is more than our human initiative. There is the freedom found in Christ. There is freedom and healing from addiction and brokenness.
There is Jesus.
My evangelical leader friend was partly right. I doubt Jesus would bother handing out clean needles or condoms on a street corner. I think he would probably skip that part and offer healing immediately to all who wanted it.
But I'm not Jesus. And we live in a broken, hurting society full of broken, hurting people.
Living and working on the margins ALWAYS leads to messy, grey situations, that are not easily addressed by our black and white thinking.
I'm grateful to have seen dozens of my friends freed from addiction, and even a few women come out of prostitution. But not everyone is there yet. So, the best I can do, is help keep my friends alive until they can have an encounter with this Jesus who frees.
If it takes a clean needle or condom to do that, so be it.