“I mean, if they wanted a scorched-earth defense, they should have hired a private attorney,” said the court clerk, casually to me as I filed a motion. “You’re the public defender. That’s just like, you know, when you want someone to work out an ok deal or something.” I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. The French call it l'esprit d'escalier, “staircase wit”- the reply thought of too late, when you’re inevitably climbing a flight of stairs, mumbling to yourself about what just happened.
But it’s not French that comes to me about this interaction, at least not proper French. It’s latin: NON SERVIAM. That’s what I should have said. I will not serve. I will not serve this system that is incredibly broken. I am not here to be a smooth conduit between the police and prison. NON SERVIAM! I will not serve! I will not serve! I scream it in my head.
I was raised in a certain brand of evangelical, apocalyptic Christianity particular to my part of the country and that time in American history. My childhood was full of images of the world waiting to erupt, at any second, with holy fire. Hell was as real to me as by bedroom curtains. THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. “Please,” I begged friends, “Come to church, come to church with me this Sunday, we don’t know if there will be a next Sunday. It might be too late.”
And I served. I served as hard as a small child could. What choice does one have but to serve, when there are things that see every thought in your head, when you have to fight back the demons that are real and living in your house with you, when the whole future depends on your sinfulness? “Please, Jesus, please! Don’t let the apocalypse happen tonight. I promise I’ll be so good. Please, Father, please! Not all my friends are saved. There are people in the world I love who will suffer. Please don’t come back yet.” I threw myself before the throne. How different my little seven year-old soul would have been if Barabbas had been crucified instead.
Once in law school, my criminal law professor said, “In most criminal defense attorneys, there’s some…darkness of the soul.” This is mine: that I grew up expecting the world to end by fire each night.
American society is fertile ground for apocalypticism because of the hysteria of the media and modern life. As society grew bigger, we didn’t know our neighbors and everyone who didn’t look like us became the Stranger. Bolt the doors, protect us from evils, as for me and my house…But we don’t just lock ourselves inside to stay safe, we lock away the Strangers to keep Them away from Us. Otherwise you don’t know what might happen. Otherwise things might erupt. I will not serve this.
As a child, I pressed my dimpled knees onto the hardwood floors begging for my own forgiveness. As a grown woman, I stand before the Court in uncomfortable shoes doing the same thing, on behalf of someone else.
I struggle mightily with the role that I play in this thing. I take the government’s money. I play by the rules of ethics and procedure. I smile and nod and negotiate. But my heart is a ragged wound pouring forth the hellfire I was filled with as a child.
This man standing next to me does not look like me, but he is not a stranger. Blue Bic pen scratched into his mealy, orange canvas jumpsuit, “King of the Cage.” INRI, am I right? I put my hand on his sweaty back. You are who I choose to serve. Today I am grateful for the chance to serve you.