Jury duty

Dec 8, 2014 by

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As the judge began her address to the panel of jurors, she said that to serve on a jury is one of the highest civic duties, second only to being in the armed services “defending our country.”



That was when I started feeling a little different from my fellow residents of Cook County, Ill., around me.

Not that I hadn’t noticed differences before that. My morning at criminal court had started with a security line separated by gender. Several of the couple of dozen men — who were mostly African- American and Hispanic — helpfully pointed me to where I was supposed to be in the women’s line, behind one other white woman who was a juror.

In the jury room, I continued thinking of those men — my neighbors in Chicago — many of them lined up for court dates. Whether those charged with a crime are guilty or innocent, the truth remains that men of color are often treated unjustly by the justice system.

But the difference I felt in the courtroom wasn’t visible in the same way as race or gender. It came from knowing that members of our Anabaptist tradition have engaged with government in ways that can set us apart from many of our neighbors.

Shortly after the judge told us about the importance of jury duty, she asked us to swear that we would respond truthfully to her questions about our backgrounds and fitness as jurors on this case. I raised my hand and said, “In my religious tradition, we affirm rather than swearing an oath.”

The judged responded, “Of course. Thank you. That goes for everyone: You may affirm rather than swear.”

After affirming that I would be honest, I got uncomfortable again when I realized that I’d have to describe in front of 40 or so people that my father was a draft resister. I’m deeply proud of my father; I have been as long as I can remember. I told high school and college classmates about my dad’s arrest by the FBI from one of his college classrooms for writing a letter saying that he would not register for the military draft. (You can read more in the first chapter of The Path of Most Resis­tance: Stories of Mennonite Conscientious Objectors Who Did Not Cooperate With the Vietnam War Draft.)

Since this was my first time on jury duty, I didn’t have practice describing that part of my family history in response to the question, “Have you or anyone close to you ever been arrested?” I didn’t want to say anything, because I didn’t have the liberty to tell more of the story. Several of the jurors who responded before me had served in the military, and I didn’t want them to think I held a disparaging view of them. Further, the people in the room knew little about me.

They didn’t know I’m a Mennonite, even if they knew some of our history.
When my turn came, I answered that my father was arrested for failing to register with Selective Service. I kind of mumbled. I wish I hadn’t. I had easily raised my hand to ask the judge if I could affirm rather than swear, but I wasn’t sure how to tell about a part of my life that reveals much more of the distinction that I cherish as an Anabaptist. It was an inconsequential but humbling experience. (I wasn’t selected for a jury for unrelated reasons.)

Many of us in North America today may not face the choices that our ancestors did, but it still tests our discipleship to engage with our tradition and beliefs under present governments. Like the rest of discipleship, it requires lifelong work.

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.

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