A Piss-Poor Christian Witnesses How the Police Treat Jesus | Sojourners

A Piss-Poor Christian Witnesses How the Police Treat Jesus

Seattle Police retake the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) area, including their East Precinct, in Seattle, Wash., July 1, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

I was supposed to be taking a writing day this past Monday, but the sound of sirens kept distracting me. Sirens in my Seattle neighborhood are not unusual, but the sirens blared from early morning until noon. By that time, I’d heard 10 or more police cars drive by, which felt different. So, during my lunch break, I resolved to walk down the street to see what all the hullabaloo was about. I figured I wasn’t getting any writing done, so I might as well go investigate.

When I got to the area, I immediately noticed an armada of police: SWAT units, squad cars, and unmarked vehicles — I counted at least 20 police cars. My immediate fear was that someone had been shot. I introduced myself to an onlooker, a Black man who told me his name was Harrison, and asked him a few questions.

“I live in the neighborhood,” he told me, “There’s apparently a hostage situation in one of the houses.”

My fear of someone having been shot was supplanted by the fear of someone possibly being shot.

I wasn’t as worried about the hostage taker resorting to violence so much as I was worried about the Seattle Police Department resorting to violence. The same day I heard these sirens blaring in my neighborhood, The Seattle Times reported that a federal judge found evidence that the SPD “stopped and detained a Black delivery driver [Anthony Sims] at gunpoint because of his race” back in 2020.

In May of this year, Josh Cohen, a reporter for the Pacific-Northwest outlet Crosscut, reported that although the city and the U.S. Department of Justice asked a judge to end the consent decree that placed SPD under federal oversight in 2012, the judge had not yet granted their request. The decree was agreed to after “a Department of Justice investigation into the police department’s use of force concluded it was excessive to the point of being unconstitutional.”

“You can put me on the record as extremely skeptical that this work will be complete by December 2023,” the judge said.

So, as I huddled across the street with my neighbors and the morbidly curious, I began to imagine a multitude of negative outcomes.

Knowing what I know about police in general and the SPD specifically, what would possess me to insert myself in this situation? It’s tempting to give a self-aggrandizing answer and explain that Christianity provides me with a bottomless reservoir of courage. But if I were to provide an honest self-evaluation, I would say that I am a piss-poor Christian and not very brave.

I tell myself that what I lack in faith and courage I make up for in an obsession with the truth. This is why I’m a journalist and a writer: I am determined to be a witness to the truth regardless of how difficult or uncomfortable it is for me or anyone else. As a result of this obsession, I found myself standing across the street from an army of police officers, wondering if they’d be using deadly force to “resolve” this situation.

I crossed to the side of the street with caution tape to ask two other journalists — one with Fox 13 Seattle and the other with King 5 News — what they knew. They told me there was a dilapidated house where a man had been holding himself and one other person for at least two hours. I was familiar with the house; whenever I pass by, I notice piles of garbage in the front yard and a few people congregating on the sidewalk or in the driveway who bear some of the visible signs of poverty: tattered clothing and emaciated bodies. The narrative that began to take hold was that one of these people suffering from poverty had taken someone hostage. They were now holed up in the dilapidated house.

I returned to the side of the street with the growing crowd. They asked for an update with seemingly growing unease. I relayed what I had been told and the prevailing response echoed by those gathered was simply, “I hope everyone is OK.”

I found that sentiment to be refreshing and rather surprising. It’s not that I am a complete cynic regarding people’s ability to show compassion. It’s just that the dominant narrative about poverty in Seattle feels unmoored from reality and compassion, and I often wonder how much of that influences the way Washingtonians think and speak about our neighbors who are suffering from poverty.

Just as I was thinking about how refreshing it was to be surprised by strangers’ capacity to extend compassion to people suffering from poverty, a white woman, eager to tell us that she’d just come from working out, approached us and asked to be briefed on the situation. After telling her what we knew, she asked a follow-up question: “Is this all happening at the poopy house?” While I decided to ignore this question because I found it to be dehumanizing, others answered her in the affirmative.

“This might sound mean,” she hedged, “But I just don’t understand why a homeless person would take another homeless person hostage.”

What I heard in her question and statement was not concern for the people involved or an indictment of the systems that make people poor, but a cynical equation that estimates poor people’s lives to be worthless.

I couldn’t think of anything to say at the moment, as I was preoccupied with hoping for the best while expecting the worst. I headed back toward the caution tape and the journalists told me they’d heard the suspect was now in custody. I was relieved he was alive, but I knew that being arrested and sent to jail meant he might not live for long.

As I walked home with that indignant feeling that can only be described as “the blues,” I gave myself an internal lashing for the fact that I was fixating on the woman’s cynicism and had all but forgotten the larger hope expressed by the group that everyone would be OK. I started to think about why the woman’s comments bothered me — not only as a human and a journalist, but also from the perspective of a Christian.

As a Christian, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the visible signs of poverty. I imagine Jesus of Nazareth bore most, if not all, of these signs. The other reason I think so much about poverty is that my religion takes the following to be one of its major truth claims: Wherever and whenever we encounter those ransacked by poverty, we encounter Jesus. So, it becomes instructive for Christians not to disdain the poor but to disdain the systems that make people poor. Piss-poor Christian that I am, I at least know that to disdain those suffering from poverty is to disdain Christ.

I don’t know if the cynical woman cares about any of that. All I know is that her cynicism reminded me that the questions we ask tend to indict the victims of poverty and not the system of poverty itself. Summarizing a main point from Princeton sociologist Mathew Desmond’s new book Poverty, by America , Sojourners’ associate news editor Mitchell Atencio writes that “the lives the rest of us live are often connected to the conditions that cause poverty.”

If we were to take that into consideration, we might start asking questions that have larger social implications like, “Why do we send police, who often deal in violence, to address already violent situations?” Or more germane to my specific context, “Why do we continue to invest in the Seattle Police Department when we know they are not protecting citizens or alleviating poverty, but are actually making things worse?”

Or, as the cynical woman might one day ask of Jesus: “When did we see you and call your house ‘poopy?’”

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