I did not want to call the police. Manna House seeks to practice Christian hospitality. Our focus is on welcoming persons in poverty, especially those experiencing homelessness. We seek to meet some specific and basic needs, like showers, clothing, and sanctuary from the violence of the streets. We seek to do this in ways that respect the dignity of our guests.
The focus of the police is quite different. The police enforce laws. The law and the legal system of courts, judges, lawyers, jails and prisons, are not hospitable to people in poverty and people on the streets.
I did not want to call the police. But Manna House had been broken into six times in the past three weeks. I wanted the break-ins to stop.
Each time goods were taken that we give to our guests to meet their needs: socks, shoes, shirts, underwear, bottled water. And other goods needed to prepare the space for hospitality were taken too. The most expensive was the leaf blower (battery powered) we use to keep the backyard tidy and inviting for guests.
Each time we had to make repairs to windows, doors, and fencing damaged by the break-ins. We added more security bars, more locks, more lighting, even some low-tech security cameras. I did not like that we were becoming physically more like a fortress than a place of hospitality.
So, when we learned who was doing the break-ins and given there were no signs he would stop, I called the police. They took a report. An investigator was assigned. A few days later there was some follow-up. The man doing the break-ins was found and arrested. He is now in jail, at 201 Poplar, awaiting a court date.
The break-ins have stopped. We can get back to the work of hospitality, serving our guests. We can stop the work of adding security bars and repairing doors and windows and fences. For that I am grateful. I am grateful I can enter Manna House without fearing that this intruder is lurking inside. I am grateful the police enforced the laws against burglary. But I take no delight or satisfaction in having called the police and in the arrest of the man doing the break-ins.
Instead, I am asking for God’s mercy. In my brokenness and in the brokenness of this world, I could not see a way forward except to join with an inhospitable system that will not help the man arrested. He will (likely) be punished with a prison sentence. In prison he will face violence and more dehumanization. I also know nothing will address the poverty and drug addiction that are part of his life, and that he will live with once he is out of prison. Finally, I know that his arrest itself was not without risk to his life.
The longer I do this work of hospitality the more I encounter the moral perplexity of feeling that I have failed morally even when no right action seems to have been possible. It was right and responsible to act to stop the break-ins. But the man’s arrest, given our criminal justice system, will not help him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw that moral decisions are often “ventures in the twilight.” Given that as a human being I am finite, fallen, and corruptible, and live in a society of the same, I will fall short on a regular basis. I live in a broken world. I will often live in the twilight.
I do not see any other way than to go with Bonhoeffer who wrote, “Those who act responsibly place their action into the hands of God and live by God’s grace and judgment” (Ethics, 268-69). May God forgive me.
[Reflection informed in part by a seminar I took long ago on moral perplexity and on reading Dallas Gingles, Justifications and Judgments: Walzer, Bonhoeffer, and the Problem of Dirty Hands, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 37,1 (2017):83-99.]