The Children Are Asking
October 20, 2011
By Jean Stokan
In July, I was humbled and privileged to be part of a group of faith leaders who, in the days of heated Congressional debate on the federal debt, found a way to elevate the suffering that would be borne by poor and working people if drastic budget cuts were pursued — we processed into the nation’s Capitol and knelt to pray in the Rotunda. Arrested when we would not leave, yesterday, almost three months later, we of the “Rotunda 11” had our day in court.
My case was separated from the rest, in short because I had previous arrests, all related to civil disobedience. Two officers in pre-trial services hinted that the judge would “throw the book” at me.
I didn’t know until just before entering the court that I would have the opportunity to make a statement, and I resisted my initial feeling of trepidation. Fortunately I had taken from the wall above my desk a beautiful painting by Sister of St. Joseph Mary Southard of children surrounding a globe with a crack in it, a wound, which they are hugging. The art work is entitled The Children Are Asking. I had brought the poster to use at the prayer/press conference outside the courthouse before we entered, but I decided to take it up to the stand when my case was heard.
When given my time to speak, I didn’t need many words, for the framed picture I held up said it all: a world wounded, children in anguish, arms embracing the globe and each other. The judge stretched his neck to look at the children as I explained what is at stake in our country and the misrepresentation by political leaders that the problem is solely a budget crisis.
Instead, I implored that our faith witness in the Capitol Rotunda was about unmasking that our country is facing a values crisis, a priorities crisis; resources could be found IF there would be fair taxing of the wealthy and corporations, as well as drastic reductions in the Pentagon budget. I invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call that we cannot be silent, and I rested my case by stating that I would accept a just penalty. For the sake of the children, I was “guilty of being moved by love.”
Our sympathetic judge surprisingly then waxed eloquent on the history of the civil rights movement and the call to “walk the walk.” He gave me the minimum sentence, a mere $50, almost reluctantly. The prosecuting US government’s attorney objected on the grounds of my supposed terrible record. He pushed for stronger sentencing, detailing a litany of arrests over the last 25 years, identified by city and date, i.e., “disorderly conduct in Baltimore,” etc. It called to mind the many struggles of people that I was blessed to be part of…those courageous people challenging apartheid, the US-backed contra war in Nicaragua, the US financing of the death squad governments of El Salvador, etc.…not nearly enough arrests for all that merits being challenged.
I believe it is not right to give credit to those of us who sometimes choose nonviolent civil disobedience to have our message heard, for EVERY act of solidarity with those most suffering matters. Every prayer, every direct service provided by a Mercy ministry, every letter or call to a Member of Congress, every vigil matters as an act of justice.
Far more important is to keep the focus on the poor and the hungry themselves, the victims of policies that create such economic equality in our country and in our world. Learn about how the Sisters of Mercy are addressing a range of social justice issues and how you can join us in advocacy.
Also important, at least for me, is to remember that every day, people like us are risking far more to speak out for justice in their countries. They are risking their very lives, as captured in a report that we posted on the Sisters of Mercy website—pictures from Honduras of teachers, student, journalists, human rights defenders, farmworker leaders all killed in 2011 for speaking truth to power. Their lives have a claim on mine, especially given that my country’s policies are complicit in the structures of economic injustice and impunity that led to their deaths. These are the martyrs with courage far beyond my own that keep me going.
It feels like a new wind of hope is blowing throughout our land. Perhaps it was the spark of resistance that the workers in Wisconsin ignited when they took over their state’s capital last spring, or the courage of the immigrant DREAM students last spring to risk deportation to draw attention to their plight, but something is afoot.
We saw daily vigils in front of the White House in September by the environmental movement protesting the Tar Sands pipeline, resulting in more than 1000 arrests and thousands more in legal protest, and we are now witnessing the mushrooming of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in cities across the country—with a desperate cry that something has to change, that people need to be put before profit—a call that the U.S. Bishops made in their Economics Pastoral over 20 years ago.
The vigils and marches in the streets are mostly legal protests. They are one more in the menu of ways to lift our voice, to bring our Mercy banners, to draw attention to those suffering. It all matters. What matters most is that we all do something, for “the Children Are Asking.”