A Letter to Judge Wynn: Meditations on Breaking the Law

U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Dec. 7, 1995. Kneeling first row (left to right): Jim Wallis, Henri Nouwen, Eugene F. Rivers III, Graylan Hagler, Rose Marie Berger.

By Rose Marie Berger

If we could split ourselves
like a crack in the cement
(children’s names written when wet
a heart a flower a handprint)
like that mystical bread
(calloused hands holding up hunger
and night sweats and the one we once loved)

then we would say in our first voice: Law
and Order out of Chaos
we would listen and obey
teach our children hands up, look both ways
(pack them bubble-wrap safe
for shipping from this world to the next)

and this would be good
and called for
and proper

but sometimes we would say in our second voice:

Marcellus (age 9) breath
Marquita (age 6) breath
Titus (age 5) Regina (age 13) breath breath

a song to spark a candle
in the dark times

and when the wingéd parts of our democracy
begin to topple off the heads of pillars
to crush more than children’s names
on the Rotunda’s threshing floor

and when to be a citizen
is to be a fawn
caught at night in oncoming brightness

when the only hand that can reach out
is the one already reached to
in a cold creek, in a white robe

then those hands must reach out

when the mother lifts up her hands
for the life of her child
and pours out her heart like water

when the children faint for hunger
on every street corner

for what seemed all Law and Order
is surely Chaos

(it takes a delicate hand
to hold the brush that daubs

in the details of a country
a hand not weighted by weapons)

and yet with both voices we would praise
the balance:

that golden thread
is all that holds us. 

On Dec. 7, 1995, I was one of 39 ministers and church workers arrested in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda as an 11th hour protest against the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act , the largest reform of U.S. welfare laws since the 1930s. The act was proposed by Republicans as part of their Contract with America and signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, who campaigned on a promise to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” Our protest consisted of praying in the Rotunda and reading aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Woe to the legislators of infamous laws, to those who issue tyrannical decrees, who refuse justice to the unfortunate and cheat the poor among my people of their rights” (10:1-2). A week later, we appeared in the courtroom of D.C. Superior Court Judge Patricia Wynn. After pleading guilty as charged, Judge Wynn handed down an unusual sentence. Since we had argued that we broke a lesser law to enforce God’s higher law of caring for the poor, she assigned each of us the task of writing her a letter explaining the rule of law in our society, giving our justification for breaking the law, and stating why we felt our actions were different from those of Yigal Amir, the man who had assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a month earlier. This poem was my response. Eventually, three assistant secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services, Mary Jo Bane, Peter B. Edelman, and Wendell E. Primus, would resign to protest the law. Over the next four years, approximately 6 million people were made ineligible for government assistance in accessing food, housing, and healthcare. Twenty years later, it was estimated that severe poverty in the United States had doubled. –RMB


This PDF is provided for free by BOTTOMLESS CUP PRESS. It documents the existence of this poem, A Letter to Judge Wynn by Rose Marie Berger, which was first printed in Sojourners magazine (March-April 1996). rosemarieberger.com
Copyright 2016

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