Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal


Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal


Article excerpt

A law school conference on religious values and poverty law, particularly one that explores the nexus between a lawyer's faith and her work representing poor people, is a delightfully subversive thing. Law school--at least, my experience of it--emphasized objective discourse and logical argument. It tolerated personalizations that began "I think" and frowned upon those that began "I feel." Statements beginning "I believe," or, worse, "Because I believe" generally had no place in the conversation. But this conference, and particularly this panel, is all about "Because I believe". It is a rare moment to pause and bring our core values and beliefs to bear on our rational work-life selves, to try to consciously integrate two apparently disparate, even competing, spheres of our lives. It is wonderful to gather with other legal practitioners who are engaged in the tricky and challenging business of integrating their faith-life and their work-life.

I am a staff attorney in a community-based non-profit organization, and I assist my clients in obtaining and preserving government benefits, such as welfare and food stamps, to which they are entitled. My shorthand response to the question, "How does your faith intersect with your work?" is: Matthew 25:31-46. (1) But, unable to turn away from the opportunity to prolong the God-talk in these halls of legal learning, I will unpack that response a bit more fully.

When I was eighteen years old, I entered the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Roman Catholic women's religious congregation, and began a process of spiritual formation that culminated in professing perpetual vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience eight years later. (2) At the time I entered the convent, I had little awareness of matters of social justice, in particular those concerning the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society and in the world community. That awareness changed, in great part as a result of my constant exposure to and reflection on the teachings of Scripture.

One of the Scripture courses I took in college was an introduction to the psalms and prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Although mistreatment of and indifference to the poor is a common subject in many of the prophetic books, this particular passage from Amos riveted my attention and has haunted me throughout the years:

   For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke
   the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and
   the needy for a pair of sandals--they who trample the head of
   the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of
   the way.... (3)

They sell the needy for a pair of sandals. This passage gives me pause whenever I buy a pair of shoes: are they so affordable because the people who made them are paid unjustly? More generally, however, this and like passages show God on the side of the poor in their struggle for subsistence and alert to their cries for justice. (4) Reflection on such passages compelled me to become more attentive to their cries as well.

It is part of my congregation's religious practice to attend Mass daily. In the course of a year, therefore, we hear nearly all of the Gospel texts. Over the years, the import of these texts has gradually begun to penetrate my ego-enshrouded consciousness. As a result, the glaring gap between the values inherent in the narratives I am hearing, and those embodied in the life I am living grows, more apparent. One of the Gospel parables that speaks strongly to the perils of this gap involves a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. (5)

The rich man lived in splendid estate, and every day as he left his compound to conduct the affairs that supported his sumptuous lifestyle, he passed Lazarus, a miserable beggar encamped outside his gate. (6) Longing for even the scraps that fell unnoticed from the rich man's table, Lazarus remained hungry. …

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