“Religion is the opium of the people” is Karl Marx’s famous quote. A contemporary, Charles Kingsley, Canon of the Church of England, followed with, “We have used the Bible as if it were a mere special constable’s hand book, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded, a mere book to keep the poor in order.”
The suggestion was that religion was being used to keep the poor and disenfranchised people quiet and under control, convincing the oppressed that they didn’t need to revolt because everything was going to be ok in the end. They might be marginalised, they might not have enough food to eat and they might see the powerful growing rich through exploitation … but, religion will keep them opiated, quiet, numb to their pain.
Religion, in this definition, is the belief systems, and the institutions who propagate them, used to ensure that no one questions the systems and structures of the world that make their lives the way they are.
And while we’re in a different time and many of us are in different socio-economic circumstances I’m not convinced we’re any less guilty of religion that is the opiate of the masses.
Modern Christianity has been guilty of promoting a form of religion that has compromised with the systems of greed, materialism, success, celebrity worship, body image and the systemic oppression of those less fortunate. Such a religion allows us to remain docile, middle-to-upper-class consumers who are able to convince ourselves that wealth is our religious, blessed right.
“Opiate of the masses” religion allows us to look the other way at injustice and frees us from the discomfort of considering how our own lifestyle might be contributing to the poverty, pain and suffering of others.
It’s a form of religion that has no relationship to the character of God as expressed in Jesus Christ, easily recognized when its adherents are ok with billions of people suffering as long as they’ve had an opportunity to say the sinner’s prayer.
We’re taking religious opium whenever we’re able to manipulate Scripture to affirm our conformity with the values, priorities, individualism and greed of our culture instead of calling us to a transformative way of doing life.
Religion that is the opiate of the masses doesn’t ask us to change; it asks us to join a club. Religion that is an opium to “dull our pain” encourages us to join a safe community of people who share our moral values and cultural norms, gather to hear a nice message on Sundays and then return to living daily life as we have always lived it.
We know we’re on the opium when we’re locked into a set of beliefs and aren’t willing to be challenged. We know we’re on the opium when we’re not willing to step outside our comfort zone. We know we’re on the opium when we’re not hungry for growth, not desiring greater intimacy, when we’re looking for a church that “suits me”. When we’ve bought into a “Does this church make my butt look big?” kind of consumer Christianity that puts my comfort and convenience ahead of the call of Christ.
We know we’re on the opium when we’re not so concerned about the struggles and suffering of our fellow man because we’re sure it’ll all be fine in eternity.
We know we’re on the opium when nothing about the world and its inequalities would change if everyone in the world were just like us.
We know we’re on the opium when we can easily fit our follow-ship of Christ around our selfish pursuit of pleasure, comfort, wealth, promotion and fame.
James 1:27 is the go-to verse whenever people start talking about religion in the negative sense. Most versions say something like “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
The Greek word translated “religion” here is “threskeia” and it means literally “worship as expressed in ritual acts”.
In other words, the ritual acts that God accepts as pure and faultless are “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
When we hear the words “polluted by the world” our Christianized ears hear “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”. At least two out of those three could, potentially, be included – but they certainly weren’t what Jesus focused on in His teaching.
What was most important to Jesus? Two passages spring to mind –
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Luke 10:27
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21
What, then, is the pollution of the world?
Perhaps it is being convinced that our treasure is somewhere that it’s not. Perhaps it is allowing the priorities and values of the world to pollute our wholehearted love of God and distort our ability to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Perhaps it is an opiate that dulls our conscience to the point where we happily think we are living according to the just principles of the Kingdom of God, unaware of our complicity in the corrupt systems of the world.
I want to get off that opium.
I want to be able to say with William Wilberforce,
If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”
I don’t want the opium of religion dulling my awareness of the corruption of this world and its systems and priorities. I don’t want the opium of religion affirming my greed. I want to be an “incurable fanatic” for the just principles of the Kingdom of God.
As we read in Hebrews 12, I want to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And I want to run with perseverance the race marked out for me, fixing my eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of my faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
With our eyes set on Jesus a few things become clear. The haze of the opiated begins to lift.
With our eyes on Jesus, we know life is found in sacrifice not self-interest.
With our eyes on Jesus, we know that every human life is valuable – valuable enough to give our lives for.
With our eyes on Jesus, we know that violence, pride, promotion and power are not the way to change the world but peace, humility, a servant-heart and selfless love just might be.
With our eyes on Jesus, we know the emptiness of individualism and the essentialness of community.
With our eyes on Jesus, we add life to those around us, we’re at work on the renewal of all things, and we become more passionate about the healing of the world than about our next holiday, promotion or purchase.
With our eyes on Jesus, we become the visible evidence that a better world is possible and is one day coming.
With our eyes on Jesus, who did all things by the power of the Holy Spirit, we know we need to be fully immersed in that same Spirit.
With our eyes on Jesus, we know it is better to be inebriated of the Holy Spirit than opiated by religion.
With our eyes on Jesus, we see three great reasons to get off the opium of religion and onto the new wine of the Holy Spirit.
1. A little bit of wine causes a little bit of change – a lot of wine causes a lot of change
Religion makes me a little bit different, it involves a little bit of behaviour modification at the edges of my life.
I want to be so full of the Holy Spirit that I am an entirely different person. So that I am like those in Acts 2 who were accused of having too much wine.
2. When you’re inebriated it changes the way you act, the way you speak, the way you see people and the way people see you.
It is important to ask ourselves, as followers of Christ, has that happened to me?
Am I a different person who talks a different way, acts a different way, sees people differently, and is seen by people differently?
Do I seem a bit strange? Like the things of this world have grown strangely dim? Do I have a different way of seeing people, time, success, and the purpose of life itself?
I want to be filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit so people can hear it in my voice, see it in my actions, recognise it in the decisions I make and the values I hold dear.
3. When you’re inebriated your decision making process is transformed.
When you’re inebriated, you make decisions on a different basis. When you’re inebriated on the new wine of the Holy Spirit it isn’t the opium of religion that filters for our decisions, it’s the character of God.
I want to be so drunk on the new wine of the Spirit that I can consistently say, “it was the Spirit that made me do it, that made me say it, that made me make that foolish decision.”
Someone under the influence of the Spirit stands out. They’re different. They don’t walk the straight lines. They don’t have the same priorities and their ambitions don’t seem to make sense according to the economy of the world and its measures of success.
People who are inebriated on the new wine of the Spirit live for others instead of themselves.
They’re more interested in the healing of the world than the healing of their credit card.
They’re more passionate about living as the evidence that a better world is possible than about trying to make this world work in their economic or social favour.
I want to get off the opium of religion that keeps me quiet and compliant to the systems of materialism, exploitation, oppression, corruption and greed.
I want to drink deeply of a new wine that frees me from my self-addiction. I want to be so soaked in that Spirit that I am far more interested in what God wants of me than I am in what temporal treasures I might be missing out on.
I often wonder why Jesus told His disciples in Acts 1 not to leave Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them?
Perhaps he feared they’d start a religion, that they’d turn his words into rules instead of relationship. Maybe he feared they’d go and build a temple to Him, or a series of temples around the world for people to gather in on Sundays.
I’m not sure, but I do know I want to live the kind of life His disciples lived when they’d been drinking deeply of that Spirit.
And so we say, “Come, Holy Spirit”. Set us free from the opium that keeps us compliant and dulls our pain. Remind us of the adventure of faith, the sacrifice of discipleship and the life to the full that is found with our eyes firmly set on Him.
This post is derived from a sermon I delivered in January 2013. Listen to the full sermon via podcast here.
Brad Chilcott is the Lead Pastor of Activate, a church in Adelaide, Australia, committed to social justice, transformative action, and the supernatural power of God. He is also the National Director of Welcome to Australia. You can follow him on Twitter at @BradChilcott