Would Jesus Give an Addict a Clean Needle?

by Craig Greenfield on October 5, 2015

Would you give an addict a clean needle, so they could stay alive until they found freedom from their addiction?

Would you give a prostituted woman condoms, so she could protect herself until she found freedom from prostitution?

Clearly, the famous evangelical leader I was speaking with in Cambodia didn’t think we should be helping people in this way. He was adamant that Jesus would never give out condoms or clean needles. He insisted that the little clinic we were running in a Phnom Penh brothel was a waste of time and inconsistent with the gospel.

“Son, when you get as many years on earth as I have you’ll see the truth!”

Fair enough, I’m still young… (er than him).

Christian friends of mine work at INSITE in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – the only legal supervised drug injection site in North America. They give clean needles, provide medical intervention when people overdose, and assist addicts into rehab if they wish to get clean. There are hundreds of people alive today because of their help. They do a difficult job with grace and patience. And I admire them.

The “Harm Reduction” debate, as it is known, rages on and on, and Christians concerned about justice sometimes find themselves caught in the middle.

But, for me the question is not so much, “Would Jesus give out clean needles?” or “Would Jesus hand out condoms?” but, “What do we do to keep people alive until we can help them find freedom in Jesus?”

The story of the demoniac in Luke 8 is helpful. This poor man was a danger to himself and others. He kept throwing himself into the fire. Finally, they bound him in chains to keep him safe. He wanted and needed complete freedom. But his time had not yet come.

Clean needles and condoms are the chains we use to keep people safe until they find true freedom. They are a human response. And very often a loving one. They are best we can offer as one human being to another who is struggling.

But thankfully, we know that there is more than our human initiative. There is the freedom found in Christ. There is freedom and healing from addiction and brokenness.

There is Jesus.


My buddy had an encounter with Jesus and got free of addiction after many years on the Downtown Eastside.

My evangelical leader friend was partly right. I doubt Jesus would bother handing out clean needles or condoms on a street corner. I think he would probably skip that part and offer healing immediately to all who wanted it.

But I’m not Jesus. And we live in a broken, hurting society full of broken, hurting people.

Living and working on the margins ALWAYS leads to messy, grey situations, that are not easily addressed by our black and white thinking.

I’m grateful to have seen dozens of my friends freed from addiction, and even a few women come out of prostitution. But not everyone is there yet. So, the best I can do is to help keep my friends alive until they can have an encounter with this Jesus who frees.

If it takes a clean needle or condom to do that, so be it.


Originally published here.


craig1Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of Subversive Jesus (to be published by Zondervan in 2016). During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.


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  • Marilyn Gardner

    As a public health nurse, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this piece. Thank you. My niece and her husband just moved to Thailand to help care for the medical needs of people working in brothels. It’s controversial and it’s messy – but it’s critically important.

    • craigasauros

      Thanks Marilyn, this is where the rubber hits the road, our faith is worked out in practice with those who are struggling on the margins.

  • Casey

    Such a heartbreaking and difficult subject: allowing people to stay in their chains…even providing those chains. Messy! I am curious what you think of NGOs who take women to get safe abortions? Are there other “messy” services that fall into this category in your opinion?

    • craigasauros

      Hi Casey, yes – messy indeed. I’m not sure I would see abortions generally fitting into this category, since the aim of harm reduction is to keep people alive until they can find a better path (transformation), whereas an abortion by definition means a life will be ended.

      Other examples of Harm Reduction are mostly around drug/alcohol addiction or unhealthy sexual behaviors. So, there are some examples of “wet” shelters, which allow hard-core long-term alcoholics to continue drinking, but to still have access to shelter.

      The main issue I have with the secular use of Harm reduction strategies like this, is that they tend to be lacking in hope for transformation. The main issue I have with the common “Christian” approach is that they tend to expect complete compliance/change immediately, or else help is not offered. I prefer a combination of grace, flexibility and help, while still expecting that Jesus offers transformation.

      • Christy

        I am a maternity nurse who works in a country where abortion is illegal. If abortion were a legal option for me to offer, I would absolutely offer as an important form of harm reduction in a few select cases. I see very young girls who get pregnant before their bone structures are developed enough to pass a term baby through their pelvis, sometimes they are child brides, sometimes victims of rape. If c-sections were readily available, I would see this differently. But when c-sections are hard to come by, this kind of birth could very easily mean death for baby and mom or death of baby and severe injury to mom, possibly resulting in longterm incontinence of urine and stool and permanent nerve damage. These women often end up completely ostracized from their communities and unable to provide for themselves. This may be unique to my context and I certainly wouldn’t claim harm reduction for all abortions, but I will say that it has become a lot less black and white for me.

  • Mindy Kozloff

    Thanks for the article Craig, appreciate your thoughts. As a Christian and provincial tax payer of BC, I support Insite and the work they do in Vancouver. But I’m less familiar with the issues in Cambodia, as I don’t know any drug addicts here. Do you see any differences in the habits/pressures/strongholds of addicts in a place like Phnom Penh, or is it generally the same and the same principles (i.e. Christian clinics giving out clean needles) would apply here?

    • craigasauros

      Hi Mindy, I don’t work directly with addicts in Cambodia, but we have run a brothel clinic here. It seems to me that the general principle stands – we need to keep folks alive until they can get help (sometimes that means waiting until they recognize the need to get help but being there for them in the meantime). We often want things to be clean and tidy and quick. But working with broken people is rarely that way.

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