Seattle is Dying…for a third way view of justice

If you care about poverty, homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, or the morale of law enforcement, I hope you find some time to watch this excellent documentary, regardless of where you live.  If you live in Seattle, this is required viewing in my opinion.  KOMO News in Seattle does an outstanding job exposing the depth of our homeless problem in Seattle, and it’s inextricable link to addiction.  It’s raw, difficult viewing, exposing visually and viscerally, the rise in homelessness and its attendant trash, human waste, and crime.  The affects of our city’s laissez faire approach to petty crime and drug use is exposed, and an anonymous survey of Seattle Police reveals frustrations to the extreme over new policies of tolerance regarding drug use, illegal parking of RV’s, property destruction, and so much more.  The lack of consequences and accountability for offenses have created a culture of anarchy and disregard for the law, resulting in Seattle being among the national leaders in property crimes last year.

The weight of these revelations should feel like a gut punch to anyone loving Seattle, and Christ followers, who are encouraged by Jeremiah to “work and pray for the blessing of the city in which they live”, must allow themselves to feel the pain of that punch in the gut.  The crime, the trash, the human lives imprisoned by poverty, addiction, and despair — this is our city!

I can tell you, as one who travels for work, that it doesn’t need to be this way.  Large urban cities across the globe are dealing with the same growth pains, the same income inequities, but they’re dealing with it better than we are, because our way of dealing with it seems to be driven by a thoughtless “tolerance” that, while emotionally appealing to many in our city, is neither loving nor just.

After the revelation of problems like these, the conversation often denigrates as people move to their respective corners and either advocate for continued tolerance or “crack down” with retributive justice.  Put another way, we’re arguing about whether to spend more money on tiny houses or just sweep everything clean, locking up violators and throwing away the key.  Thankfully, the documentary points us to a third way, by showing a Rhode Island program that’s essentially an expression of  restorative justice.  Violators of the law are cited, as violators should be if law is to have any meaning.  They’re arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated.  But the goal of their time in prison isn’t retributive; simply a punishment to ‘get them off our streets.  It’s restorative.  It includes a program to treat the addiction.  There are mentors who stay in contact with the person once they’ve served their time and are free.  There are check-in centers on the outside where they can continue to receive the meds that are freeing them from addiction.  And of course, woven through all this is the investment of healthy relational capital, the very thing that nearly 100% of the homeless people living on our streets and battling addiction demons are missing.

We are reaping the fruit of what our hyper-individualistic culture has sown, as the number of people who’ve no “tribe” to walk with them through life’s painful valleys continues to rise.  Our entire culture needs to look in the mirror and ask whether the rising relational poverty all around us is worth it because, though its beyond the scope of this post, the reality is that our current cultural values fracture and isolate us.  In the meantime, though, Rhode Island has decided to intervene and provide the relational capital offenders so desperately need.  They offer a model:

Arrest offenders.  Provide addiction treatment and counseling.  Provide follow-up after care upon release.  If Seattle began to think this way, act this way, the landscape of our city would change, literally – the landscape itself would change.

“Leave them alone” isn’t love.  It’s cowardly enabling, made all the worse by a city council that sometimes won’t even look up from their phones during council meetings to listen to offer common respect to law abiding citizens seeking to engage democracy.  Talk about relational poverty!!

“Lock them up and forget about them” isn’t love either.  It’s self-righteous anger that fails to see what people ultimately need isn’t just punishment, but intervention.  I counted at least five people in the Rhode Island story who said, in various ways, “the day I got arrested was the best day of my life… a turning point… it saved me life… I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t been arrested.”  Those testimonies don’t happen when people are locked and forgotten.  They happen when they’re locked, treated, and equipped to return to culture and live whole lives.

“Actions have consequences” and “We’re committed to making this moment of your failure a catalyst for your transformation” IS what love does, and what people in crisis need.  What’s more, this documentary shows Seattle that it’s doable — but it requires third way thinking, and that’s a rare commodity these days in a world where the political right and left both seem to see their ways as the “only way”.

7 thoughts on “Seattle is Dying…for a third way view of justice

  1. I can readily agree to what is included but feel your portrait is like putting a hand over one eye and then saying I can see everything. Yes we face a huge problem in Seattle. The roots of that problem do not emerge from a tolerant response locally. This attitude contributes to keeping the problem going but it’s roots lie elsewhere. Those roots show up in the name Sackler and Purdue Pharma and McKesson. This is a cartel worse than any Mexican or Colombian group. Until this cartel faces accountability and a message is sent that we have a working justice system here in the U S it seems our efforts amount together little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I agree with what you say but tackle the cause at least at the same time. Maybe we are doing that, just maybe. Until we see some draconian claw backs and jail time handed out others thinking of similar actions will not be deterred from new ways to abuse others. The prophets seem to focus more on those who recline in opulence than those caught in the cycle of destruction. I hope we engage retributive justice. I doubt it will have much impact until we cut the roots off.

  2. Fabulous post, Richard. Right on target. When I left my work at Seattle Pacific, Sharon and I lived right downtown on Second Avenue. I saw firsthand all this coming. My heart ached for these people, for the city I love. I wrote an op-ed in the Times saying similar things. We’re going to lose our city if leaders don’t step up to this dire challenge. Too much suffering going on for so many people. Too much destruction of our city and its neighborhoods. This calls on the heart of those who love Christ. It calls on our leaders for both wisdom and courage. It calls, as you say so well, for tough action and visible compassion. It can be done! I commend you, Richard, for your voice.

    1. I’m curious what you personally doing about it as a pastor of a large church in the city? Do you live in the city? Are you actively working to remedy this situation ?

      1. I live in the city part time, next door to the church I lead. Our church offers a homeless shelter several nights a week, a community meal, and partners with another ministry to provide volunteers for a mobile medical clinic. Most importantly, we seek to not just offer people commodities, but to share life, and conversation, and story – recognizing the mutuality of blessing that can and does occur

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