The Common Good
July-August 1997

Controversy in the Recovery Movement

by Carol LeMasters | July-August 1997

The theological assumptions of Alcoholics Anonymous

Criticism of Twelve Step programs is not new; what makes Linda Mercadante's Victims and Sinners unique is her theological perspective. As mainstream churches increasingly turn to the recovery movement as a model, Mercadante believes a profound theological debate is occurring around such issues as sin, grace, and free will.

Formed in 1935, AA has its origins in the Oxford Group, a religious movement that began in the early century as a reaction to the social gospel. Although AA has downplayed this early connection, both its founders (Robert Smith and Bill Wilson) were members, and many of the movement’s premises are now familiar to AAers: Conversion comes through surrender; sin derives from self-centeredness; and evangelism consists in personal life-changing.

Known for its theological simplicity, the Oxford Group program was based on four absolutes: honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. Members met in small groups in which personal confession played a central role. Experience took precedence over intellect ("It works!"), and members were expected to humble themselves through making a moral inventory. While the program appealed largely to the wealthy, help was available to all ("No one has sunk too low").

Many of those helped by the Oxford Group were heavy drinkers. Wilson, however, believed its demands were too much for alcoholics, whom he saw as victims of a permanent illness and thus in a special category. So while the Oxford Group emphasized complete victory, AAers focused more on limitation, expecting less of themselves and—as Mercadante points out—perhaps even of God.

One of the richest sections of Victims and Sinners contains Mercadante’s insightful analysis of the complex interplay between "sin" and "addiction." Initially, the "addiction" metaphor appeared a more humane approach, a reasonable bridge between the religious and medical views. In recent years, however, it’s begun to function almost as an updated version of "original sin" ("Everyone is addicted to something").

Mercadante agrees that, by absolutizing something relative, addiction can be "sinful," what she refers to as a "God-avoiding" behavior. However, she finds the addiction model inadequate for three reasons. Twelve Step programs tend to equate victim and perpetrator. Yet sin is a messy business: Context is critical, and there are degrees of guilt. Focusing on personal sin with an addict trapped in a domestic violence situation, for example, may do more harm than good.

Second, sin cannot be reduced to a single cause. While it may derive from pride ("the desire to be God"), it may just as easily derive from self-loss ("not wanting to be what God requires of us").

Finally, the addiction model fails to distinguish sin from victimization. Mercadante takes as an alternative the Korean minjung theological concept "han," which she defines as "the reaction of the oppressed to having been sinned against." In a sexist culture, a woman’s lack of a "center," for example, could fall into such a category. Without a corresponding concept, Twelve Step theory will not be able to distinguish "coerced self-surrender from manipulative self-loss...controlling behavior versus survival tactics."

Because AA ignores societal factors, the humbling process advocated for alcoholics may prove detrimental. Paradoxically, AA both alleviates and compounds guilt, claiming on the one hand that alcoholism is not a sin but a sickness but then revoking this offer of grace because that sickness derives from personal self-will. (The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous itself refers to alcoholics as "the chief of sinners.") Mercadante finds such a charge not only potentially devastating to those already depressed at a vulnerable time, but conducive to self-deprecating attitudes generally.

UNLIKE OTHER critics Mercadante faults AA not for its inclusion of God but for the way it envisions God. On the one hand, AAers have kept the concept of a "Higher Power" vague in order to broaden its appeal. Yet God is also the "Director" who wants total control. The result can be either a God as "untrustworthy as one’s own changing mental scenery" or an omnipotent dictator who inspires anything but trust: "If God is presented as an insatiable controller, destroyer, stripper away of addiction—even a "loving accepting" one—some people will be loath to make the jump, and sometimes for understandably self-preserving reasons."

For all the book’s strengths, glaring omissions exist. Accounts of Mercadante’s personal experiences with AA, such as having a family member join only to get worse, remain too vague to lend much insight. Similarly, her views themselves are sometimes unclear. We know, for instance, that she finds the disease model problematic, but she never spells out why or offers any other paradigm.

Finally, while it’s not the job of the critic to come up with solutions, the alcoholic at the end of this book has few choices. With AA pretty much "the only game in town," the alcoholic is left stranded between a church ill-equipped to meet his or her needs and an organization many of whose basic premises Mercadante has just severely undermined.

Yet on the whole, Mercadante succeeds in bringing a much-needed objectivity and historical perspective to an emotionally charged subject. Whatever her concerns, she fully credits AA with filling critical gaps in theological thinking, providing spiritual help to those people churches had abandoned, and—by drawing on the experiences of addicts themselves—offering unique insights into the complex ways the physical and spiritual interact. While Twelve Step programs may be "only one of the dramas of human conversion," Mercadante believes it an important one deserving of respect—so much so that she believes its principles worth challenging and dialogue with it crucial.

CAROL LeMASTERS is assistant project coordinator of Action Ohio Coalition for Battered Women in Columbus.

Victims and Sinners: Spiritual Roots of Addictions and Recovery. Linda A. Mercandante. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996.

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