05/27/2015 01:14 pm ET Updated May 26, 2016

What Harm Would Jesus Reduce?

It is now 141 years since the founding of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which preached total abstinence from alcohol and mounted the campaign that resulted in Prohibition in the United States. It's 44 years since President Nixon declared a "war on drugs". Both of these crusades resulted in disaster. Both were motivated by an essentially religious impulse for purity. Since religion helped get us into this mess, it's time for religion to help to get us out of it.

Perhaps the best place to start is to re-read the Sermon on the Mount.

In it, Jesus expounded on an old Jewish tradition called "fencing". It was a path toward total abstinence from sin. If you want to succeed in obeying the Law, you must build a "fence" far beyond the limits of the Law itself. Adultery is on the other side of the fence, but to avoid committing it, you have to put lust on the other side of the fence, too. Extreme revenge beyond "an eye for an eye" is on the other side of the fence, but to achieve zero tolerance for extreme revenge, you have to put anger off-limits as well. The Law says to love your family, but to be absolutely sure you don't fail to do so, you must love everyone, even your enemies.

As Jesus continued his Sermon on the Mount, the fence encroached over an ever-larger area until there was nowhere left for mere mortals to stand. "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect," he said. (Matthew 5: 48) It's a noble and inspiring challenge! But no matter how hard we try, we fall short of God's glory.

The Sermon on the Mount is a reductio ad absurdum. To get zero tolerance for breaking the Law, you have to be perfect - which nobody is, nor ever will be. So Jesus cleverly argued that the "fencing" needed to obey the Law requires loving one's enemies and refraining from condemning others. "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7: 1-5, NRSV) Everybody has a log in the eye, not just a speck! Jesus revolutionized religion by artfully turning its focus to love, and away from rote, slavish obedience to a set of purity standards.

America's anti-drug crusade started as an over-reaction to the social unrest and youth counterculture of the 60's and 70's, and the drug use and abuse associated with it. But the war on drugs long ago became a reductio ad absurdum. Its spectacular failure to stop the use of drugs and cut off their sources, its creation of a vast prison gulag, provides further proof of what Jesus explained long ago in the Sermon on the Mount. Humans aren't God. We can't always stay on the right side of the zero-tolerance fence. Therefore, above all, mercy is asked of us.

The drug warriors read "be perfect" in the Sermon on the Mount and ran with it until we had 2,000,000 imperfect Americans behind bars and another 317,000,000 imperfect Americans footing the bill for their largely pointless incarceration. So it's long past time for us to read the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, and engage in the kind of compassionate harm reduction that Jesus practiced. Jesus told a group of men about to stone a woman to death for having committed adultery: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8: 7) Sure, adultery is a sin. But the punishment you are about to inflict is worse. Reduce the harm: drop your stones and walk away.

Marijuana is not harmless. That's not the argument for legalizing it. Smoke a lot of it and you'll suffer from a variety of unhealthy consequences. But by banning it, users and society as a whole have suffered even worse consequences. So it is time to reduce the overall harm by legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, regulating it carefully and consistently, and mounting a robust, smart public health campaign to dampen its use.

Some drugs are too dangerous to be legalized. But the abusers of these stronger drugs should be decriminalized. They should be treated as sufferers of the disease of addiction. The goal should not be the unattainable perfection of eradication, but rather the attainable reduction of harm to addicts and to society as a whole.

We Americans have fenced ourselves into a corner by waging a costly, ineffective, unrealistic, and counter-productive war on drugs since President Nixon declared it in 1971. Legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of other drugs won't solve the problems of drug use and abuse. But such a change in policy would reduce the sum of the harm caused by drug use and the war against it. A careful reading of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount reveals what divine love asks of us: a drug policy based on mercy, not on perfection.