April 12, 2017 – When love leads
Last week at dinner with a couple of the artists in the Friday group, the subject of jury duty came up and I found myself recounting the experience I had when I sat on a jury several years ago. On trial was an undocumented woman from El Salvador, a mother of three who cleaned houses. The charges against her came from an incident in a courtroom when her husband was being remanded into custody. Sitting with her kids in the back of the courtroom, she ran up in protest when she saw him being brought to the ground – he was resisting arrest – and being restrained by several deputies. She ignored the judge telling her to take her seat, prompting several other deputies to physically restrain her too. She was forced to bend forward over the back of a courtroom seat, her head pushed so that her face was buried in the seat – with two more deputies holding each arm behind her back. The charges against her included: contempt of court, resisting arrest and assault of a police officer – in the struggle, one of the deputies, a woman, was bruised on her forearm.
I was amazed how easy it is to end up on a jury panel. If your name is called for you to come up to sit in the jury box and if there aren’t any questions the attorneys ask that would illicit an opportunity to reveal something they might object to, by default you are on the jury. I thought that each potential juror would have been questioned for at least a few minutes, but after stating my only name and what I did for a living, just like that, I was on the jury. The trial process was tedious and an inefficient use of the jurors’ time. We were there from 9am-5pm for something like three and a half days and were in the courtroom for maybe a total of 8 hours hearing the case. There were long lunch breaks and we were left for hours in the jury room while the judge tended to other matters. It was both fascinating and frustrating. But the most challenging for me was the deliberation process.
It was clear to me that this woman was not in any way a threat to society. She had an emotional and very human reaction to a frightening situation. Sure, there are people in her shoes who may have been able to restrain themselves, but what she did – in the scheme of all the crimes are put to a jury – seemed barely consequential. It was bad enough that she had been handled so roughly (we were shown photos of the many large bruises on her arms), then she had been put in custody not knowing what was happening with her children and then her husband was released from custody and left the country, leaving her to fend for herself and her kids. It incensed me that the precious resources of a jury trial were being used this way. I couldn’t imagine why the District Attorney had pursued the case against her!
When our foreperson asked us each to indicate where we were leaning on the charges I was the only one who expressed reservations in convicting her. Yes, we were instructed to make our judgment based on the facts as presented and the law as it was described to us. Based objectively upon that, I can see how the others came to their guilty conclusion – it was clear she made a big ruckus in the courtroom. But I could not help but look at the whole thing from a broader perspective and I saw no justice in convicting her. I hoped that I might be joined by others – but none of my fellow jurors – some of whom were mothers – shared my perspective. There were some tense moments as 11 other people looked at me, silently asking me if I was going to get in the way of having this whole thing be over with.
The resolution arose after one man brought up the idea of a “grand bargain.” He asked me if I might be willing to find her guilty on the two lesser charges and not-guilty on the more grave charge of assaulting a police officer. I sat with this for a minute or so, as they all waited on my response. I realized that given the spirit of compromise in his question, I didn’t have the guts to hold the deliberation up and I reluctantly agreed. After the trial was over I met with the woman and her attorney on a bench by the windows outside the courtroom. I asked why this case was even brought to trial. Her attorney told me that if she had been convicted of the assault charge, the deputies who arrested her would have been immune to any charge she might have brought against them for excessive use of force. The best defense is a good offence. As much as this made sense, it made me even sicker – and it made me feel used.
For a few days afterwards I felt bruised. I felt the injustice of a world that works to protect the powerful against the vulnerable. I felt the loneliness of holding a stance based upon my heart’s deepest knowing – within such a world. And I longed for the strength to have held my ground. I ask myself if I would have the strength now – I so want to believe that I would. I know that if I do ever find myself as a potential juror again, I won’t hesitate to speak up about this experience and the way it has eroded my faith in the criminal justice system in our county.
This is holy week in the Christian world – the week we commemorate the last week of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. Standing my ground in a trial of an undocumented woman is small potatoes compared to his standing before Pontius Pilate and the Roman Empire. He, in all his humanness, certainly had the courage to lead with love. He teaches us to love our enemies, to care most for the least of us, to turn the other cheek. We’ve heard this many times, but putting it into practice is a whole other thing. Take, say loving our enemies. Love those who gas their citizens? Love those on the opposite side of my politics? Even love the guy on the trail who doesn’t control his aggressive dog? Loving no matter what is hard! And to do so often goes against what we’d think would be better judgment. But love is anything but rational.
Leading with love – especially in some situations – can be a radical act. It takes courage, it takes having a well of self-love to draw from and it takes being connected to something greater than us, greater than the whole situation. It’s that third force I’ve been writing about lately – the one that delivers us to another dimension. And as I work this path of becoming more aware and conscious, I see that living this way allows us to be truly free. Not the kind of freedom that is provided by protective armies – or by any kind of armoring, but the freedom of an uncompromised heart. It’s a long-term project to live this way – one that I’m determined to continue to work on.
After a weeks of a news fast, I’m back to reading the paper – carefully – trying not to take in too much rancor. I keep looking for anyone bringing in a broader, more loving perspective into the public discourse that I can hitch my hope to – There is a part of me looking for love to take the lead as it felt it would (for many of us) with the election of our last president. But I’m seeing the world entirely differently now. It appears that change must come from the ground up, rather than the top down. I feel the call for love to lead us from within. So, after my check-in with the world, I’m getting myself right back to making beauty – as art, as making space for others to create in, as caring for people, as meals I cook – in any way I can. It is when love leads that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
With my gratitude for the companionship of your love,