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Why Christians need to lighten up about smoking

In looking at the question 'Should Christians smoke?' John Mayor argues the Church is guilty of employing double standards

I can still remember the first time I was shocked by my own smoking-based prejudice. I was at Spring Harvest aged 14; I walked around the corner, and there in front of me was a man smoking.

My adolescent brain thought to itself: “What’s he doing here? Has his Christian friend convinced him to come along under false pretences? Is he an undercover atheist? Or perhaps just a Butlins employee?” I would say the idea that he was a Christian who’d paid to come along knowing exactly what to expect was somewhere near the bottom of my list, nestled between ‘Russian spy’ and ‘person who’s been washed up on the nearby coastline and needed a cigarette to catch his breath while he found his bearings’.

No one had told me Christians don’t smoke. It had never been established as some kind of shibboleth. So why did my brain make this assumption? I wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I don’t think I’d seen anyone at a church smoking, and that’s not a huge surprise for two reasons.

Firstly, there’s plenty of evidence out there that our churches are predominantly middle class (citation: just look around on a Sunday morning). I do have some actual numbers as well because in 2014 a YouGov survey found that only 38 per cent of respondents who reported regular church attendance identified as working class. That’s despite the 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey revealing 60 per cent of the general population define themselves as working class.

Secondly, smoking is more popular among working-class people. The Action on Smoking and Health report states that: “Smoking kills a disproportionate number of people from social classes D and E” and: “Smoking is the biggest single contributor to health inequality – and differences in life expectancy – between social classes.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, 17 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women in “managerial and professional occupations” smoked, compared with 34 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women in “routine and manual occupations”.

So, is the reason why I hadn’t seen Christians smoking because it’s a sin, or was it because the UK Church is full of middle-class people and smoking is more prevalent among the working class?

Your body is a temple

The above anecdote doesn’t exactly paint me in a great light. Obviously most people would have more realistic reactions to seeing someone smoking in Skegness but, at the risk of being presumptive, I don’t think I’m the only person who makes these sorts of assumptions.

If smoking is a sin then perhaps I was right to react in the way that I did. After all, if you saw someone punching a person in the face at your favourite Christian conference, you’d think: “Well, that sinning seems somewhat brazen, they obviously haven’t been washed in the blood of the Lamb yet.”

If anything that doesn’t treat our bodies as temples is a sin, we probably ought to cut out big macs, coca-cola and a chunk of our coffee intake

There’s definitely something within the Church’s subculture that suggests smoking isn’t the done thing. The obvious Bible passage that appears to back this up is found in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, where Paul says: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.”

But before we go too far down this line of reasoning, we should consider this: If anything that doesn’t treat our bodies as temples is a sin, we probably ought to cut out Big Macs, Coca-Cola and a chunk of our coffee intake. Clearly we all need to spend less time sitting in pews and more time exercising.

Everything is permissible

You could argue that one type of smoking is becoming more and more common in many Christian circles – social cigars at summer wedding receptions! Take a peak out the back door and you’ll almost always find a few people (normally men) huddled together, passing a cigar around the circle, everyone having a puff, with the evening silence occasionally broken by coughs from the newbie who didn’t realise they weren’t for inhaling. (Full disclosure: I love cigars at weddings and have been known to enjoy a sneaky cigarette with a beer on occasions.)

One could argue that this means smoking is becoming more acceptable, but I would suggest it’s more that the cigar smoker doesn’t suffer the same level of judgement as the person who sneaks out at the end of the service for a crafty roll-up.

So, is this really what we believe? That anything detrimental to our health is a sin? Because that seems an awfully high bar to set. Perhaps some of Paul’s words from earlier in 1 Corinthians 6 are worth considering here: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial” (v12). That sounds about right, some things are permissible, if not hugely beneficial: cigarettes, Rolo mousses, avoiding exercise because outside looks cold, McDonalds’ new 20 pack of chicken nuggets. But for some reason, smoking seems to bring out this obsession to label everything as “good” or “bad”, whereas Paul’s approach seems to allow for a grey area.

The verse continues: “‘I have the right to do anything’ – but I will not be mastered by anything.” I think we can probably agree that addiction is bad. But are we guilty of double standards here as well? I’m sure we’ve all been around Christians whose love of (pretentious) coffee borders on addictive.

But there’s perhaps another way we’re inconsistent. If people in our communities are able to admit to themselves and others that they’ve got a problem with pornography, then our immediate approach is one of support, love and help, rather than judgement. We seek to find solutions and comfort. Could those in our churches who smoke expect the same treatment?

What if our churches were places where those who are struggling to give up smoking turned to, rather than somewhere they’d be scared of being judged?

A class issue

What is it about smoking that agitates us? Luke, who was a bricklayer before becoming a chaplain and is now president of the South chapter of God’s Squad, a Christian motorcycle club, thinks our preoccupation with smoking is indicative of a wider problem: “As an isolated issue it doesn’t put people off churches, but it’s part of a general attitude that can be quite harmful. We tell people they’re welcome, but our attitude to smoking suggests people are only welcome on our terms – they’re not welcome to bring their messy lives with them.

“Life is messy. One of the reasons the Church is failing to reach people in deprived areas is that people who come from messy backgrounds of trauma, mental health challenges and addiction (which are all higher in deprived areas) will have a messy journey of discipleship, whereas the discipleship journey of someone from a different background will look much neater. Many of us haven’t got the confidence to step into that mess. I think we’re getting better, certainly in our leadership, but we need to bring congregations with us. Our preoccupation with smoking is a good signpost to the wider issues we face – the fact we’ve got this hangup is a good example of our cultural blindness.”

It should be noted that the denomination perhaps most firmly rooted in the lived experiences of the disadvantaged, the Salvation Army, has eschewed smoking since the early days of its movement. But while being with those in deprived areas is central to the Salvation Army’s story, this isn’t true of other denomination’s issues with smoking. The wider Church’s failure to engage with those in deprived areas would certainly chime with Bishop Philip North’s assertion last summer, when speaking at New Wine, that the Church has “abandoned” the poor and that it has a “mission approach that is almost entirely focused on the needs and aspirations of the wealthy. Rather than speaking good news to the poor, we are complicit in the abandonment of the poor.”

This attitude is addictive, a distraction from things we struggle with and, in the long-term, more damaging than a smoking habit. If we’re going to quit anything, it should be becoming a Church who takes its virtues from the middle-class culture it’s embedded in. It’s time to lighten up about smoking.

John Mayor is a freelance writer and youth worker

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