On Calling the Cops
The clock said 5:20 when I heard my wife shuffling back into bed this morning. “I thought I heard something downstairs,” she mumbled. It was probably nothing, we both agreed. Our teenage son has been known to prowl about the house loudly foraging for food at ungodly hours of the night/morning. Or maybe it was our cat who has a capacity for producing levels of noise wildly disproportionate to his size. And there’s always the ever-present wind. There were a number of plausible explanations for the mystery sounds. Probably nothing.
I tossed and turned for twenty minutes before giving up and getting out of bed. I’m a ridiculously light sleeper at the best of times and I knew sleep wouldn’t be returning this morning. I put on a pot of coffee, fed the pets, put some dishes away, checked my email. Once the coffee was done, I grabbed a cup and a book and headed out to the front porch to do some reading. Morning reading on our porch is one of the highlights of summer for us. The early-morning sun is warm but not hot. It’s peaceful and quiet. You can hear the birds. It’s a good way to start the day.
Today, however, I was in for a surprise. I turned the corner and noticed the dog sniffing at a strange figure sprawled out in one of our porch chairs. He was wrapped head to toe in one of the thin throw blankets that we keep on the porch for cooler evenings. Needless to say, this was among the last things I expected to find on my front porch on a pleasant spring morning. I was puzzled and, I confess, a little afraid. What might be hiding under this blanket? A harmless homeless guy? An addict? Someone with violent tendencies? Did this person have a weapon? I went back inside and took a deep breath.
My first instinct was to call the cops. Whatever else was going on, this guy was trespassing, right? But then I thought, “Is this really the kind of thing the police need to be called for?” I pondered how automatically I default to categories like crime and punishment instead of more human modes of engagement. Maybe this guy was just in a really desperate spot and needed somewhere to rest for a while. Maybe he was lost and confused or mentally ill. Maybe he had been kicked out of somewhere. Maybe he needed a small scrap of kindness instead of the strong arm of the law.
“And what about the fact that we’re Christians?” I asked my wife, who was up by now. “That should probably have some effect on how we deal with this, right? Maybe we should invite him in for a cup of coffee.” I had inconvenient stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan careening around my skull. “Maybe,” she said, looking entirely unconvinced. “Why don’t you just go outside again and see if you can wake him up and encourage him to move along?” I agreed that this was probably the way to go, even if I still harboured a few reservations. I went outside and tentatively shook his shoulder. “Hey dude, time to wake up. Time to get moving.” Nothing. I shook the still-shrouded figure a little harder. Still nothing. I was getting a little annoyed now, so I grabbed the blanket and pulled it off him.
I may have gasped audibly when I saw the face that groggily turned in my direction. It was a young man, early twenties. His face was covered in blood. He had an enormous bruise protruding out of his forehead, a tooth that was barely hanging on, a couple of fat blood-caked lips. There was dry blood on his backpack straps and on his bare chest. He was shivering and stuttering and incoherent. His eyes vacillated between utterly vacant and panic-stricken. My wife came outside at this point and leaped into action. She went to get more blankets. She sat with him while I called 911, asking questions, trying to figure out who he was, what had happened and how he got here. She tried to get him into the house, but he was in no shape to move anywhere. Clearly, he had been beaten badly. Equally clearly, he was still pretty messed up from whatever combination of booze and drugs had been part of the previous evening’s proceedings. His nose hurt because of all the cocaine, he said, and we didn’t doubt it.
The ambulance showed up. The EMTs dealt with him efficiently and kindly. They checked his vitals and asked him where it hurt (it might have been quicker to ask where it didn’t hurt). They asked him if they could have his backpack and checked for weapons (there were none, unless a few pencils and a butter knife count). They helped him into the ambulance and drove off. The RCMP officer showed up a bit later. She, too, was kind, efficient. She asked questions took our information and promised to update us on his condition later. I hope she does. The kid is clearly in a pretty desperate place in life. No money, no ID, no shoes, no shirt… One generally doesn’t end up in a bloody, drug-addled mess on a stranger’s porch at 5:00 am because things are going well in their life and they have a whole lot of relational supports in place. I hope he gets the help that he needs.
I’ve been thinking all morning about my instinctive reaction to this situation this morning. Maybe it’s because we’ve all been daily drowning in polarizing media about the police over the last few weeks. Maybe it’s because of the narratives that dominate our screens about crime and punishment and good guys and bad guys and law and order. Maybe it’s because we’ve been trained in countless ways to criminalize our understandings of every desperate behaviour and to expect that we should be insulated from ugly manifestations of complex social problems. Whatever the cause(s), I wasn’t proud of my first impulse this morning. Why were my instinctual categories crime and punishment rather than something like a Samaritan walking down the road and seeing a man bleeding in the ditch?
Having said all that, this was a relatively harmless (to me) situation in hindsight. If I hadn’t locked the door last night and had found this guy stumbling around my kitchen at 5:00 am, I can guarantee you that I would not have hesitated to call the cops. I have friends in the police who are good people doing extremely difficult work. Every day, they see people at their very worst and sometimes most abusive and are expected to respond always and without exception in precisely the right manner. How many of us would pass that test, I wonder? And, at the end of it all, I was relieved to see a cop on my front door this morning and to know that they would be checking into things. Maybe this guy hurt someone else or committed some other serious crime last night? Who knows? Not me, certainly. There’s an awful lot that I don’t know.
My wife took the blood-stained blankets inside and threw them in the washing machine. We sat on our front porch with our coffees and our books in the morning sun with a lot more to think and talk about than we had bargained for on an ordinary spring morning.
Wow! You certainly handled this well but as you ruminated there was a lot think about, many options and possible outcomes. A difficult decision based on things happening in the world right now. Just how wide is that line between danger and safety? Sometimes wide and sometimes very narrow. Makes it very difficult to make the right choice. I am really glad you had time to analyze your situation, to be rational and Christian because someone obviously needed medical help before police help. No doubt he probably needs Christ’s help too.
Thanks kindly, Wanda.
Lot’s to unravel – I often think I know how I would respond (in such a situation) but we never really know for sure until we are in that place, especially at that time of the day
Appreciate the reflection. Thanks Ryan!
Ryan, Less than 2 hours before reading your post, I watched a one-hour Webinar: “Let’s Talk Unity–Racial Justice: The Silent Church.” The theme centered on The Good Samaritan, and was about how white churches have been walking by on the other side. I am glad to read that you did not, but I certainly empathize with your reflections on how one should react. The parable has always been important to me, but you and the webinar just raised the ante, which is uncomfortable but good for my soul.
Interesting to hear how the themes of this parable are intersecting in your life these days! I, too, have noticed that personal discomfort often turns out to be good for my soul!
Thank you,Ryan, for sharing this experience. Your a good man.
It’s really unfortunate that, in these uncertain times, we are forced to think twice and use discernment before jumping in and offering help to a stranger. I have passed up numerous opportunities to be of assistance to someone because my spirit bade me not.
Thanks, Mike, for your kind words. I hasten to add, though, that I, too, have passed up opportunities to help. I just tend not to write about those unflattering moments on my blog. 🙂
I would have called 911 right away. Without hesitation, and without regret. I am not equipped to deal with someone whose life has brought him to my front porch at 5 a.m. Are you?
I am not a mental health professional. I am not an addiction counselor. I am not a nurse or physician or EMT. I am not a police officer.
The Good Samaritan came across someone whose situation was obvious: beaten by thieves, near death, and with no one to come help. That’s why the story works. His situation was obvious, and obviously nonthreatening, and yet the religious professionals pass by.
Your situation wasn’t like that. And you have a family to consider: you’re not a single man. My wife would have killed me for putting myself at risk like that, and she would have been right to do so.
Why would you think that you would be competent to deal with such a person in such a circumstance? And if the police and ambulance come, and the person just needs breakfast–well, then, get out the eggs and bacon. That option never disappears. But you can exercise it when it’s safe for you, for your family, and for the stranger, too.
I write all this because I agree that we need to think clearly about what is and what isn’t the Christian thing to do in such situations. And guilt can be as dangerous and unhelpful a motivation as fear…
Fair enough, Ryan?
Jesus never played it safe
The victim in the story of the Samaritan was in a situation that was “obviously non-threatening?” Maybe. Maybe not. If I was travelling down a road that was known to be unsafe and violent (perhaps lacking in “police presence”) and I encountered a beaten, bloody person in a ditch I might not immediately assume I was encountering a risk-free situation.
Well, it turns out that I was equipped to deal with someone whose life brought me to their door at 5 am. Not on my own, certainly. But I was able to assess the situation ably, to manage risk responsibly, and to call for the help that this young man needed. I was also able to offer a few very small acts of kindness and to treat a confused and badly injured kid with compassion. I didn’t need to be a mental health professional or an addictions counsellor or a nurse or a physician to assess the situation and take the appropriate steps. Could it have ended badly for me? Sure, it probably could have. But as soon as I saw the shape this kid was in, I was reasonably certain he posed little physical threat to me. He was in bad shape in every way, and was probably 150 lbs soaking wet.
With respect to the story of the Good Samaritan, as Gil points out above, it’s far from clear to me that the Samaritan was walking into an unambiguously risk-free situation. I also don’t see anything in the text that would lead me to conclude that the Samaritan didn’t have a wife, kids, etc. who would have been negatively affected if the situation went sideways for him. His actions were certainly costlier and riskier than anything I did on my front porch on a Wednesday morning.
I didn’t act out of guilt. I acted out of a conviction that following Jesus sometimes calls us to act in ways that don’t straightforwardly align with cultural assumptions about “safety” and “risk.” I did it because, as I said in the post, I’m suspicious of how easily and quickly I default to seeing desperate people doing desperate things as lawbreakers, first, and human beings second.
Ryan, I apologize for not framing my response properly. You know I hold you in high esteem and, upon re-reading my response, it seems unfriendly. I apologize for that.
I am concerned, then, that well-meaning folks who look to you (and to me) for ethical guidance will take away from this the idea that a Christian is obliged to put himself or herself in harm’s way whenever someone might be in need. “Jesus never played it safe,” one of your friends chimes in, and I’m concerned that well-intentioned recklessness might result–motivated by a commendable drive not to be sub-Christian.
I suggest, then, a few things in response.
1. The story has a happy ending. But the ethics of the situation cannot be ex post facto. The ethics have to be about what to do when you don’t know who is under that blanket.
2. Suppose instead it had been someone with a knife or gun, addled by methamphetamine or schizophrenia, who sees you as threat or prey and attacks accordingly. How is it somehow more ethical to approach and risk putting yourself in harm’s way when you have the option of calling 911 and getting trained professionals to come alongside you to help as needed?
3. Suppose instead it was someone who was in dire need of immediate medical assistance. To sharpen the point, let’s suppose the person was himself a medical professional who had been in an accident, had crawled to your porch, and was now bleeding out under the warmth he had pulled around himself, unable to call for help on his own. Imagine him wishing fervently that you would immediately call 911, but instead you’re dithering about what to do, how to be most Christian, etc.–again, with the best of intentions. What would he want you to do? Call for help now!
4. Suppose the scenario shifts to an alley beside an emergency room. You come across a victim in the alley and you think of the Good Samaritan. You want to be Biblical, so you immediately go to the victim and start administering first aid, improvising with whatever materials you have at hand in the alley. OR you could pull out your cell phone and call 911–which would get the message through to trained and equipped professionals who are moments away. And then you can administer first aid, but without the risky measures you might well take if you were instead by yourself on, say, a lonely road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the first century.
5. I’m going to zero in on your wondering aloud about what role your Christianity should play. I would say that this is not the right ethical question for a Christian to ask. It sounds too Anabaptist (!), too WWJD, if I may put it that way. ; )
There is nothing distinctively Christian about caring for someone in need on your front porch. That principle is one of the “take-aways” from Jesus’s own story of the Good Samaritan: he did what needed doing to “make peace/shalom.” You don’t have to be a Christian to do what he did, as the Samaritan obviously wasn’t. In fact, there is nothing distinctively Christian about caring for a neighbour, whether in binding up his wounds or in offering him coffee. Those are just good *human* things to do.
Yes, “the love of Christ constrains us,” prompting us to love as we have been loved. And we have Jesus’s own example as our inspiration. But this is an excellent example of the point I try to make in “Making the Best of It” and “Why You’re Here”–namely, that the objective of Christianity, of salvation, is to make us properly functioning human beings. There’s no distinctively Christian way of practicing medicine or extending hospitality, right? It’s just the right thing to do in a given circumstance. So the reflex to find a distinctly Christian way to respond to a challenge isn’t, in fact, the right Christian reflex. The reflex is to ask Jesus, “What should I do?”
6. Finally, I mention “guilt” because I am concerned that Christians will act out of motives they don’t need to have according to rules or principles they shouldn’t follow–and if they don’t behave that way, they believe that they will incur guilt. I’m not saying you acted out of those feelings, but I wonder if they were in the neighbourhood!
We are, I suggest, always obliged to do what Jesus wants us to do, yes and amen. But that is to maximize shalom, to seek the fullest possible presence of the Kingdom of God in this particular situation. And I respectfully suggest that putting yourself in jeopardy because you feel somehow that Christian ethics requires you to do so is not the best way to consider these matters. Call 911, get appropriate help on site as quickly as possible, and then proceed to help all you can–for your own sake (and you matter to God), for the sake of your family, and for the sake of the figure on the porch, whoever he and his needs turn out to be.
I hope this helps, and again I apologize that my attempt to be as conceptually clear as possible did not come properly accompanied by my genuine appreciation for you and for the kindness you showed that man.
No apology necessary, John. I appreciate both the kindness and the push back of this clarification. You are right to ask the question of what kind of example I am setting in my reflections here.
Yes, it’s true, I certainly may be guilty of the ex post facto charge. I have the luxury of saying that mine was the right and faithful response because it turned out ok for me. Your alternative scenarios certainly sharpen the broader ethical question which, as you say, needs to be analyzed from the perspective of “before we know who’s under the blanket.”
With respect to the role Christianity should play in such decisions, it’s probably the residual Anabaptist still kicking around in me that won’t quite let me ignore the WWJD question, however little use I have for the acronym. There may be nothing distinctively Christian about caring for someone in need, but there may be a uniquely Christian way to go about it. Jesus was clearly prioritizing a form of mercy that simultaneously was and wasn’t obvious to his interlocutor. Yes, the lawyer could readily see that the one who showed mercy was the one who was the good neighbour. He was quite skilfully led to what should have been an obvious conclusion to anyone, regardless of their colour or creed. But it was probably also equally clear to the lawyer that human beings are naturally tribalistic and self-protective and apathetic. In this sense, it was a fairly radical, uncomfortable, boundary-crossing mercy that Jesus was holding before him (and which Jesus also modelled, obviously). It seems that in this story Jesus manages to combine both the “shalom-maximizing” generically human task of mercy and the radical, uniquely Jesus-y mercy that is the strange, unnatural and costly fulfillment of the law of love. I think the Christian task is to be properly human and seek to “maximize shalom.” But the Christian task is also to bear witness to a self-sacrificial, occasionally irrational love that goes beyond what is prudent. I fear I’m not explaining it all very well, but that’s how it seems to me.
Re: guilt, well those feelings never really leave my neighbourhood, so… 🙂 The best I can do is try to tame the beast.
Thanks again for this. You’ve pushed me, as always, to think more clearly and coherently about the task of faith and I am grateful for this.
Thanks for this. Appreciate your perspective
I think what is more interesting about this story and many other similar stories told by Ryan is how frequently people in need/distress seem to wander across his path on a regular basis.
Truly, this is a man of God.
Hyperbole aside, I don’t think John’s position is unwarranted. As his colourful, “bacon and eggs” reference implies, family safety and humane treatment of a potential threat aren’t mutually exclusive.
Frankly, if I were in a similar situation I would prioritize family safety. The, “Good Samaritan” anology differs in that we know that the Samaritan didn’t travel with his wife and children and only had to consider his own personal safety.
Further, the point of the Samaritan parable doesn’t rest on wether or not the Samaritan or the priestly authorities acknowledged the beaten man’s humanity but rather who was going to constructively intervene so as to restore the victim to, “health”.
I’m not sure it matters greatly if the Samaritan’s family wasn’t present with him in the story Jesus told. If the Samaritan had died trying to offer aid, his family’s well-being presumably would have been imperilled indirectly.
I would also imagine that determining that a victim deserves to be restored to health sort of implies that you are acknowledging their humanity. But it’s starting to feel like we’re splitting hairs, here.