In the words of the late, great comic Bill Hicks: “To make marijuana against the law is like saying God made a mistake.” These days, legalization and the Internet are bringing Christians and cannabis together.
On a Wednesday evening in a quiet Denver suburb, a small group of Christians are beginning their weekly Bible study. Prayers are spoken with heads bowed, songs of praise are sung to the heavens, followed by a heavy discussion about the Book of Job.
At first glance, it looks just like any of the other countless Bible studies happening in suburban homes all over the country. The one anomaly is that every God-fearing soul who showed up tonight is getting thoroughly stoned.
Relaxing on the back patio of this upscale home, the participants pass joints and bongs around the circle, along with Bibles for people who forgot to bring theirs. A summer breeze blows through the dozen half-grown cannabis plants that surround us, bolstering the overwhelming funk of ganja emanating from the circle. The red-eyed pastor guides everyone through the Book of Job, which sparks a conversation about how marijuana can serve as a conduit for spiritual experiences.
“In Job’s time, he could speak directly with God, but we can’t do that today,” says Deb Button, whose home is serving as the gathering place for tonight’s Stoner Jesus Bible Study. “I believe that consuming cannabis brings me closer to Jesus. It gives me that sense of awe, the spiritual experience I was always looking for in church.”
A middle-aged mother of two who curses more than any evangelical Christian alive, Button has transformed her home into a social space for Christian potheads (as well as a Bud & Breakfast), despite having tried marijuana for the first time only 18 months ago.
Since she began advertising the group on Craigslist and MeetUp, Button has been inundated with daily messages from Christians all over the world and from many different backgrounds, excited to find other followers of both Kush and Christ.
“There’s a lot of people out there who feel isolated as Christian pot smokers,” says Button, who sees no conflict in identifying as both an evangelical conservative and a pot smoker. “There are a lot of conservatives out there who smoke pot.”
Button believes that the traditional 420 stoner stereotype doesn’t begin to capture the variety of people who consume cannabis, a notion that’s reflected in the diverse makeup of the people attending her Bible study. There are so many ages, races, classes, cultures and genders in this group, it looks like an ACLU ad for diversity. Many of these people have been consuming cannabis and reading the Bible their entire adult lives, but had never met others who did likewise.
An elderly white woman passes her vape pen to a college-age black girl as they discuss how much they appreciate God’s creation of the trees, mountains and sky. Before legalization—and the Internet— it would have been difficult to imagine these two even crossing paths, let alone engaging in passionate conversation about a shared interest.
“Last year, it was hard for me, as a Christian, to come out as a pot smoker,” Button says. “But I think it’s becoming less taboo.”
Marijuana: Sin or Spiritual Tool?
From a certain perspective, it might appear that Christians are beginning to warm up to marijuana. In 2012, iconic televangelist (and two-time presidential candidate) Pat Robertson said: “I believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol.” Around the same time, so-called “cannabis churches” began popping up all over the country. And in the last year, the Sisters of the Valley have become media darlings for their nuns-who-smoke-pot activism.
But look a little more closely, and this picture is not what it seems. Robertson would go on to retract his endorsement of pot; most cannabis churches have nothing to do with Christianity; and the Sisters of the Valley are not Catholics but Wiccan priestesses.
In fact, studies show that while a majority of Americans (58 percent) are increasingly in favor of marijuana legalization, the demographic pulling that number down is evangelical Christians, only 29 percent of whom, according to a Public Religion Research Institute study, support legalization. Other Christian groups hover in the 40s—far below the national average.
This wasn’t always the case, says Dr. Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver. He doesn’t believe there’s a scriptural precedent for banning marijuana. Unlike booze or certain sexual practices, the Bible doesn’t mention pot, in part because it wasn’t very common in that time and place, but also because, as Raschke explains: “In ancient Judea and Christianity, the focus wasn’t on the substance itself, but how it was used. This legalistic approach of forbidding some substances was a late development. It’s not an ethical issue but a legal one. In America, we’ve decided marijuana should be a Schedule I drug for whatever reason, but we didn’t have those reasons before the 1930s.”
In the past, inquisitive young Christians who asked their parents why God forbids marijuana use were typically pointed toward its illegality, along with several Bible verses instructing them to obey the laws of man. But once marijuana laws began changing in 2012, additional arguments were needed to condemn pot.
Since then, several tech-savvy young pastors have written blog posts with some variation of the headline “Is Marijuana Use a Sin?” (Presumably because this was a popular Google search among their followers.) The vast majority of these Christian bloggers are anti-pot, and they typically cite Bible verses condemning intoxication and the defilement of our bodies, basically revamping the antiquated arguments that Christians made during the anti-alcohol temperance movement of the early 20th century.
But what if you believe that marijuana isn’t an intoxicant, but a spiritual tool?
For nearly a century, Rastafarians have used marijuana as a ritualistic sacrament. And they have their own Bible verses to cite when defending cannabis as holy, such as Revelation 22:2, which refers to the Tree of Life bearing leaves “for the healing of all nations.”
Similarly, David Simpson, a Texas state representative and evangelical Republican, made headlines last year when he offered a Christian argument for legalization by citing 1 Timothy 4:4 (“Everything God created is good”) in an interview with the Daily Beast.
There are also Christians who believe that the holy anointing oil mentioned in the Bible was made from cannabis, and even that Jesus used the herb to perform his healing miracles, though these are far from mainstream beliefs.
For the most part, marijuana has been so taboo among modern Christians that those who use it have, until recently, done so in secret, alone and often with no small amount of shame. And as with gays and lesbians, we’re now finding out that tokers have existed in churches around the country this whole time.
Bible Beatniks and Cannabigotry
It’s an often-overlooked piece of pop-culture history, but throughout the 1970s, many burned-out hippies in California were converting to Christianity in what became known as the Jesus Movement. Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and Barry McGuire were all devoted converts. Even John Lennon toyed with the idea.
This culture kept the hippie clothes and music, but rejected hard drugs in favor of clean living. Grass fell into an unspoken gray area.
Did people in the Jesus Movement smoke dope?
“Definitely,” says Professor Raschke, who was a student at UC Berkeley at the time. “It was illegal, so people didn’t talk about it, but most people had a benign attitude about it.”
This movement of Bible beatniks soon spread across the nation, ironically laying the groundwork for what would become the Christian right of the 1980s, a political force that wholeheartedly embraced Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the War on Drugs. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, any Charlie Churchgoer who required cannabis for medicinal reasons (or simply liked to get high and watch The Cosby Show) was forced into the closet with a towel under the door. For anyone who’s experienced a moment of paranoia while high under awkward circumstances, life was like that all the time for Christian stoners in the late 20th century (not to mention the difficulties of finding a reliable dealer when your entire social circle comes from the church).
“I was constantly worried about smelling like pot or having red eyes,” remembers Greg Giesbrecht, the red-eyed pastor from Stoner Jesus.
A decidedly normal-looking, silver-haired white dude clad in a polo shirt and jeans, Giesbrecht seems like he’d fit in better at an insurance convention than a 420 rally. But he’s an old-school, born-again bong-ripper who knows what it takes to keep his medication a secret.
Growing up in Fountain Valley, California, Giesbrecht was exposed to marijuana from a young age, smoking a joint with his older brother for the first time in 1975. It didn’t become a regular part of his life until he moved to Denver in the 1980s, when he fell down the steps of the Capitol building while delivering a copier. The injury got him hooked on opiates, before friends recommended that he try switching to cannabis.
It has since become an essential component of his life, though before he met Deb Button and the Stoner Jesus group, Giesbrecht rarely let anyone in on his little secret—especially not anyone who knew him from church. “I was honest with my family—my children always knew it as my medicine,” he says. “But I had to be careful who I let into that circle. Almost none of my friends knew.”
Until earlier this year, Giesbrecht was volunteering and playing guitar for a large church in Colorado (which he doesn’t wish to name). By this time, marijuana was legal in the state, and he was beginning to be somewhat more open about his medication. This led him to join the Stoner Jesus Bible Study, where, for the first time, he discovered that he wasn’t the only one who saw no conflict between God and ganja.
Still, a local news outlet filmed a story about Stoner Jesus featuring Giesbrecht and others sharing a large joint while praising God, and he was quickly reminded that mainstream Christians still weren’t ready to accept a cannabis congregation. “After the story aired, I got a call from one of the pastors, and he said, ‘You’re not the type of people we want in leadership here,’” Giesbrecht recalls. “And then everyone turned their backs on us.”
Button also knows something about cannabigotry on the part of Christians. The avalanche of support she received from Christian tokers online after forming Stoner Jesus was equaled by the amount of hate she received from mainstream believers, who harassed her via blogs, social media, e-mails and phone calls.
“There were some disturbing comments on my Facebook page—people calling me a heretic, saying that I’m going to hell, very vitriolic,” she recalls. “One was a very graphic death threat putting a $10,000 bounty on my head. After that, I shut down the website and tried to scrub my phone number and address from the Internet.”
Button has since relaunched the website, but she’s careful about whom she provides with her home address. While her online haters are now confined to a computer screen, she still has to contend with the disapproving eyes of her fellow suburbanites.
“My neighbors told me how fearful they are now that they can’t keep their doors unlocked anymore,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘It’s a freakin’ Bible study!’ I think they don’t like the look of the people who come here—it’s a very diverse crowd. They take pictures of everyone who comes and goes.”
Button is very protective of the community she’s created with Stoner Jesus. Like Giesbrecht, she was forced to abandon the social network she’d formed at church when she decided to go public about her marijuana use—though, unlike him, she’d never even tried marijuana before 2015.
Before that, Button fit the profile of the red-blooded, all-American, strongly conservative soccer mom. Despite being a lifelong Christian who raised her two sons in an evangelical church, Button says she’d lived her whole life without ever experiencing the emotional stir of God’s presence that her peers seemed to have every Sunday. “I was very lonely in my faith,” she confides.
Feeling increasingly disconnected from the people at her church, Button longed for a spiritual community she could relate to. Around the same time that she began drifting away from the church, Button and her husband divorced, sending her into a spiral of depression and migraines. To help with her headaches, Button’s friend recommended that she try a cannabis edible. In the past, Button might have declined, but with her life turned upside down, she was willing to try anything.
“It was like a reawakening,” Button recalls of her first cannabis experience. “It focused me in the moment, and my worry started to disappear. All that mattered was the love I was feeling right then. It gave me a sense of awe and wonder for God’s creation—the feeling that everyone said I should feel in church. Suddenly, I felt betrayed by the church.”
Button was amazed at the spiritual power of cannabis, and she soon began centering her life around the experience. If she hadn’t been living in the banner state of legalization in the age of the Internet, Deb Button might have been damned to the life of isolation that befalls most Christian stoners. But all it really took was a couple of posts on MeetUp and Craigslist, and suddenly she had the community of spiritual seekers she’d always wanted—right in her own living room!
It’s important to Button that Stoner Jesus never takes on the trappings of a church service. Instead, it remains an informal social hour where Christians can discuss the Bible while enjoying the lift of a good toke.
“There’s nothing about church in the Bible,” Button says. “I think, for a lot of people, it’s outlived its purpose. I never felt anything praying in church. But praying with a friend in the backyard—that’s personal.”
Button adds that if politics enters the conversation, she has an easier time talking things through with a group of stoners than she would have with anyone in church. When she told the group of her plans to vote for Donald Trump, a few of them rolled their eyes (the racial and gender makeup of the group certainly doesn’t match that of a Trump rally), but that’s about as vitriolic as things get.
The two intersecting circles that make up the Stoner Jesus Venn diagram—religion and weed—can splinter off into many opposing views. Catholics, Mormons, Baptists and folks from several other denominations are often in attendance, and not all of them consume marijuana with the same intent. Many are recreational users, but Geisbrecht only uses pot medicinally. He says that he doesn’t experience the same supernatural high that Button does. But Button explains that her recreational and spiritual highs are very different experiences, like the difference between sacramental wine and a shot of tequila.
Whether or not their cannabis use is integral to their spirituality, the fact that the members of Stoner Jesus can discuss these different approaches and experiences in public, with people who might be strangers, in a place of scripture and prayer, represents an opportunity to unearth what many Christian stoners have been doing in private for decades. And this can only lead others like them, living in more repressive, non-legalized Christian communities, to reject the shame and isolation handed to them by church leaders, and begin to proudly identify as tokers for Christ.
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