During my visit to West Virginia this summer, I was getting to know a friend’s husband. He runs one of the local funeral homes, so I asked if the funerals he hosted were largely for the elderly.
“No,” he said, “many of the bodies we see are guys our age–white guys in their 20’s and 30’s.”
Shocked, I asked him what was behind these deaths.
The rampant addiction to prescription pills like Oxycontin that plagued Logan when I lived there more than a decade ago has now given way to heroin addiction. He told me that heroin is as cheap as marijuana there, and with the coal industry and broader economy in decline, many are turning to this highly addictive drug for an escape. His former high school classmates are dying all around him.
This is not merely anecdotal. Heroin usage and deaths have spiked, especially in rural towns in states like New Hampshire and West Virginia. And, unlike other drug epidemics in our nation’s history, this one disproportionately affects whites, who make up 90% of new heroin users over the past decade.*
The compassion and heartache I feel over this crisis in one of my many hometowns forces me to ask a difficult question: would I feel the same grief if the epidemic was restricted to Chinese Americans in San Francisco or Cuban Americans in Miami or Native Americans in Minnesota? Or is this only poignant because I lived in those hills and look like those who have died?
This empathy gap has become stark as middle-class, white families respond socially and politically to the deaths of their sons and daughters. According to the New York Times article, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs,”** affected communities replace language of “addicts” and “junkies” with that of “substance abuse disorder.” They view heroin users as troubled souls in need of treatment, not criminals in need of incarceration. Some police departments have stopped arresting users if they come in for help, even if they are carrying needles or drugs.
Needless to say, this was not the approach to the crack epidemic in black urban centers in the 1980s. The empathy gap being exposed by the current reaction is not lost on black advocates, though they celebrate the gentler approach. As one law professor expressed in the article, “had this compassion existed for African-Americans caught up in addiction and the behaviors it produces, the devastating impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities would never have happened.”
As tempting as it is to heap on the white guilt, my larger concern is how the gospel should close the empathy gap as we address local problems of our time. If we consider the War on Drugs to be a Bad Samaritan story, what do we learn from the Good Samaritan? More significantly, what do we learn from the incarnation of the Son of God that might empower us to approach those in dire straits with compassion and sacrifice rather than suspicion and fear?
We will address those questions next week. Until then, may our prayer be for greater Christlikeness in this hurting and rebellious world.