The Biblical Prophets as Lawyers for the Poor

By Shaffer, Thomas L. | Fordham Urban Law Journal, November 2003 | Go to article overview

The Biblical Prophets as Lawyers for the Poor


Shaffer, Thomas L., Fordham Urban Law Journal


"[T]his is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin."

Isaiah 58:6-7 ***

I have been pondering, for more than a year, a report in the New York Times of an interview with a well-dressed young man encountered on a sidewalk in New York. (1) He could have been one of my students, a year or two out, working for one of the big law firms, "[t]rudging on time to a tidy fortune." (2) I ponder him as if he were.

I ponder over the fact that this evidently prosperous, successful, young man said he was unhappy. He did not blame "the system" he serves for his unhappiness; he did not even blame his parents. (3) "There's no one to blame," he said. "There's no scapegoat." (4) What is missing from his life, he said, "is role models or mentors." (5) He said he wished he could be an apprentice to "some wise old man, and I would follow in his footsteps." (6) His comments made me remember the "role models" and mentors we were told about when I was a law student half a century ago, and those we might talk about now to our students and to our children.

In law school in the late 1950s, we were given as exemplars lawyers who were prepared to represent their enemies. They stood bravely for the adversary ethic: John Adams, who defended the British soldiers who shot down colonial Americans in Boston; the United States Army lawyers who defended General Yamashita after World War II; Thomas More, who said, in Robert Bolt's play, that he would give the Devil the benefit of the law. (7) White, male saints they were--all of them standing for the proposition that everybody is entitled to a lawyer. Our exemplars, as I went through law school, stood for that ideal. Consequently, my clients have included a Nazi, a child rapist, and General Motors.

I went to a Catholic law school, and thus I linger over St. Thomas More. In 1931, when More's statue was put above the door of the new law building at Notre Dame, he was the symbol of immigrant American defiance of the Protestants. It was not important then for law students to talk about More's personal qualities: He stood not as a "role model" but as a symbol of the Catholic alternative to American public education--where the Bible was always the King James Version and America's state religion was the Protestant, democratic order. (8)

By the time I was a law student in 1958, More had become a lawyer saint as well as a Catholic saint. But we did not learn any more about his personal qualities than our forebears had learned in the 1930s; we learned that the King had him beheaded and that More was brave in the face of death. Frank Sheed, a prominent lay Catholic writer of that era, surveyed all of the saints available for imitation by Catholic lawyers and decided More was not useful as a mentor, because, Sheed said, More was a saint only because he was a martyr; the British killed him.

Then I was hired to be the only Catholic in an Indianapolis law firm that was all male, all white, all Protestant: no Jews, no blacks, no women, and, until me, no Catholics. Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons" was popular, especially among lawyers who, thanks to Bolt, were finally paying attention to More's personal qualities. Bolt's play made More a quadruple-threat lawyer-saint. He was four-times over a saint for all lawyers, even Jews and Protestants: (i) "a hero of selfhood," as Bolt described him; (9) (ii) a hero of the American adversary ethic like John Adams and the Army lawyer--she would, for the right retainer, give the Devil the benefit of the law; (10) (iii) a saint for American civil religion, a saint whose religion was private--as religion in America is supposed to be--and eccentric; (iv) a saint who showed, with wit and with his life, how law is about power. …

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