Kyle Eller: Alcoholics deserve more than 'wet house'

An article last weekend in another newspaper outlined views of the new "wet house" in Duluth, a home for chronic alcoholics to get three square meals and a safe place to drink themselves to death.

An article last weekend in another newspaper outlined views of the new "wet house" in Duluth, a home for chronic alcoholics to get three square meals and a safe place to drink themselves to death.

The wet house won't provide alcohol -- or much treatment. Residents will be able to drink in their rooms but not in common areas.

The reasoning is that some addicts are incorrigible. Proponents say it is both humane and fiscally wise to stabilize their lives, get them off the streets and direct treatment to those it is more likely to help.

The article also posed a values question. The facility will be values-neutral and will not pass judgment, it said. And the wet house is broadly considered a "harm reduction" strategy, like giving clean needles to heroin addicts or condoms to people with AIDS.

The mention of values was fleeting, and since values-based opposition to the Duluth project apparently doesn't exist, rightly so.


Still, it raises an important point. What are the values questions surrounding this project? What does faith have to say about the wet house?

Different people and different faiths will have different answers, but here's one line of thought.

First, we can dismiss the objections already given. As for judgment, just last November, millions of what have now been dubbed "values voters" re-elected a president with a history of substance abuse who found God.

Judging acts is not the same as judging people. Moral clarity about acts affirms human dignity: persons are moral actors; beasts aren't. I doubt anyone at the "values-neutral" wet house will pretend drinking yourself to death is a good thing, just as I doubt Christians who aid alcoholics spend a lot of time berating them for their sins.

As to the second, while the wet house is rightly called a harm-reduction strategy, it is distinguished from others by a lack of participation in the immoral behavior itself. The difference between giving a drunk a bowl of soup and giving him a bottle of cheap whiskey may not be obvious to everyone in these confused times, but it is not slight.

No, the values questions in the wet house lie elsewhere. I think they culminate here: What do we owe the town drunk?

Two truths compete for our attention with alcoholism. One is that alcoholics still exercise some free will. The other is that they are impaired in doing so by the effects of previous bad choices, perhaps even by their biology, and by factors like homelessness, wrecked families and mental illness.

So how responsible are alcoholics? One's answer seems to influence how one sees the wet house. Those inclined to attribute greater responsibility to the individual alcoholic will be inclined to a solution more like justice, where people suffer more consequences of their choices, while those inclined the other way are more prone to mercy.


But this is a false choice. Christianity, at any rate, demands moral clarity about behavior -- but also precisely the humility to refrain from judging individual culpability, which is for God alone. It recognizes the virtue of justice but ranks mercy higher.

This does not always translate perfectly to government. Government cannot and should not prohibit every immoral act. And courts, for instance, must protect society and so must judge culpability, at least enough to impose jail sentences on murderers but not on those who kill in legitimate self-defense.

But in the case of the wet house, the mercy-over-justice heirarchy seems apt.

Yet this only partially answers our question about what we owe the town drunk. For the town drunk is not merely his behavior but a person with a name, a soul. In fact, the Bible says we should treat him as we wish to be treated, or even as Christ himself.

The city government's obligations may differ, but nothing less than this is what believers owe the town drunk, even if we are, by and large, wretched failures by the standard.

That's what troubles me about the project: the fatalism of its "value-neutral" approach. In essence, it calls some persons hopeless when no person is hopeless. The facility will be a place for people to commit suicide by alcohol more comfortably. And I do not mean comfort for the dying only.

It's true that this affords the long-term alcoholic more dignity than freezing to death in an alley would. I don't wish to be naive. Likely many of these souls will not use whatever free choice remains in them to transform their lives.

It is also true that government is not in the business of saving souls.


Still, this project sets a minimal standard of dignity. The decision to treat some of these human beings as hopeless in order to focus resources elsewhere ought to disturb any Christian. It parallels other aspects of the utilitarian nightmare into which we are so rapidly descending.

Finally, as 12-step programs and faith-based initiatives have shown, God, and not just our free will, is at the heart of changing lives, a public good.

Three square meals is an improvement, but the recommended daily allowance of another kind of daily bread is missing here.

Christians do manifest real love for addicts and other troubled souls in countless ways, from the acts of individual clergy and lay people to those of Loaves and Fishes, the Damiano Center, CHUM, the Union Gospel Mission, the Salvation Army and all who support them. It would be simplistic -- and wrong -- to say Christians aren't doing anything.

But in a city with so many who profess the Christian faith, we ought to ask how this wet house came to be our best answer. Out of sight, out of mind ought not be good enough.

Kyle Eller is features editor of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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