A Foolish Vocation

[1] During my freshman year in college, four college students were shot to death by National Guardsman in an incident now only known as Kent State. In the days that followed, college students around the country experienced the anger, anxiety, and confusion that my own students experienced after 9-11. Many asked, how could death happen to us, invincible young college students, secure on our own campuses, doing what students are supposed to do – protesting against the injustice of the Vietnam War? How can the world make sense anymore?

[2] In the midst of that chaos, during a class moratorium our university called, a couple of my classmates wrote a little Christian theology responding to the chaos we were experiencing entitled, “What Kind of Foolishness Is This?” Its title has stayed with me because I think it really expresses the gist of the Lutheran witness in our time, and perhaps never more than when the Lutheran doctrine of vocation confronts the conventional wisdom about the profession of law in America.

[3] Many in our profession, when they get together in private meetings or sometimes even at conferences, will express this kind of confusion or even hopelessness, asking if the practice of law has any meaning anymore, sometimes with the same sort of anxiety that followed Kent State or 9-11. Just as, in the ’60s, many of our parents tried to look back to a better time when things were safer and made more sense, many lawyers imagine that there was once a magic time for the legal profession, when lawyers were held in high esteem, clients paid their bills and didn’t go lawyer-shopping, lawyers could trust each other and their clients, and the practice of law was a genteel profession of community leadership and meaningful work for real people. Many lawyers say that they simply do not understand who they are supposed to be, except that they don’t want to be the lawyers that everyone makes cynical jokes about.

[4] But Lutherans are neither romantics nor are we cynics. To every attempt to romanticize the past, even the past of the legal profession, we who believe that sinners are sinners in all ages have to suppress a grin. On the other hand, we Lutherans, with our doctrine of vocation, also have to respond to every grim joke expressing popular disgust at lawyers with (as my kids would say) “Not!” Not that we are apologists for ambulance chasers, Enron shredders, corrupt lawyer-politicians, and other “shysters” who are perhaps the chief genesis for these jokes. But while these jokes may contain some kernels of truth that we would be the first to admit, we Lutherans perhaps more than all religious people have to be the ones to object to the assumptions behind these caustic jokes, because of our doctrine of vocation. And we have to object as a people who bring a kind of foolishness to the public discussion – a way of thinking about the world that seems crazy, nuts, yes even foolish, to the culture around us.

[5] Let me give just some examples of how the Lutheran doctrine of vocation is foolish – how it turns the conventional wisdom embodied in lawyer jokes on its head:

The ethics of zealous advocacy
[6] Consider these jokes:FN2076

Q: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a vampire?
A: Vampires only suck blood at night

Q: What’s the difference between a divorce lawyer and a terrorist?
A: You can negotiate with terrorists.

Q: What happens when you cross a pig with a lawyer?
A: Nothing. There are some things even a pig won’t do.

[7] or consider:

Q: What’s the difference between a cat and a lawyer?
A: One is an arrogant creature who will ignore you and treat you with contempt unless it can get something out of you. The other is a house pet.

Q: How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: One: the lawyer holds it while the rest of the world revolves around him.

[8] These two sets of jokes express the conventional wisdom about how lawyers behave when they’re practicing law, and where they think they sit in the social pecking order. But notice their ambivalence, which is what makes them funny in a dark sort of way. At the core of each joke is the expression of disgust that lawyers have not met people’s expectations for them. The average person really wants to hold onto the idea that lawyers are people that all of us should be able to look up to. The joke wouldn’t be necessarily funny if you asked, what’s the difference between a real estate developer and a vampire, or what would happen if you cross a pig with a businessman? Americans don’t expect people in business to worry about how much they are charging for their services, or how they are treating their clients or whether they are playing by the ethical rules of the game. But they do, at some level, expect that lawyers should care about these things. So the jokes are really about how lawyers have failed, miserably, to live up to the public’s high expectations of them.

[9] To analogize to Luther’s time, in their heart of hearts, people really want lawyers to be like monks and nuns – people they can look up to as more learned, more important, more ethical, more selfless than they are. The medieval monastic tradition emphasized that if human beings could purify themselves, become clean souls, leave the “things of the flesh” – our mortal needs and desires and joys – behind, they could have some part in saving themselves. If one can focus on thought and spirit, upon worship and prayer, the tradition emphasized, one can become the image of God that God expects us to be. But being pure in this sense means not getting involved in the world. It means living in a separate place, separated from contact with ordinary human beings, a daily existence of separate rituals and garments and language, untouched by the nastiness of ordinary human life.

[10] At some level, people want to think of lawyers ideally as living in a “higher” world untouched by the ugliness of daily life, with their good grooming, their courtroom rituals, their arcane language. And as with the monks of old, who were the butt of many a medieval joke, when lawyers don’t live “up there,” when they don’t act like St. Francis of Assisi, people get really cynical about us: thus, implication of the previous joke: “there are some things lawyers will do that even pigs won’t do.” Most ordinary people don’t really like it when lawyers get “down and dirty” in the messiest moments of human life, when they stand with and on behalf of human beings who make us absolutely sick, when they engage in the same kind of deal-making with justice that people associate with selling a used car. People want their lawyers to be wearing nice suits, to be clean and clean-cut, not to muck around with the emotions and bodies that make these messes. Yet – and here’s where the cat joke comes in – they recognize that those who remove themselves from real people and their real, messy daily lives become arrogant, just as Luther and the common folk of his time recognized the self-righteousness that went along with monastic life.

[11] Lawyers too buy into the conventional wisdom that lawyers should be above the fray, though without wanting to admit to the charge of arrogance. Professor Thomas Shaffer from Notre Dame reminds us that America’s elite gentlemen lawyers of the 19th century, lawyers like one of the “fathers” of American legal ethics, David Hoffman, described lawyers as “‘ministersat a holy altar.'”2 In the view of Hoffman and other fathers of the profession in America, their work embodied something akin to the monastic ideal of pure reason being applied to nasty legal conflicts toward a justice unscathed by the compromises of this world.

[12] In just the same way, many modern lawyers are tempted to turn skills they are taught in law school into a moral lifestyle that’s not too far from what was wrong with the monastic tradition. As a law professor, I try to drill into my students’ heads that they should be able to identify what facts are relevant to a particular legal rule or issue, or teach them how they can make an analogy between the facts of this case and that case, so the students can construct a clean, precise legal argument. But law students, especially as they become lawyers, begin to think that the practice of law is only about narrow facts and relevant issues. They start to think: if only I can get the client I am interviewing to focus on her legal problem and not tell me all of her personal (or professional) troubles, I can get something accomplished efficiently – a clean settlement, or a clean opinion. If only I can find a legal handle on this client’s problem or boil the client’s life down to its legal essentials, I can help him wash away some of that ugliness that is his life right now. And if I can do that as a gentleman (or lady), staying above the fray, both of us are just that much farther along the road to becoming a pure soul.

[13] Yet, any Lutheran will remember the young monk Luther’s essential problem with the common sense of monastic ideology. He realized that, no matter what he did, he would always be an embodied person in a material world, a part of the world around him, no matter how much he might like to try to escape it by running away to a monastery where everything seemed morally spotless. He came to see that his presence in this messy old world of people and politics was a good gift from God, not something to escape. And, he came to see that he would always be a sinner, and that he lived in a world with other sinners, no matter how he tried to purify himself or this world.

[14] The Lutheran doctrine of vocation reflects Luther’s insight: the world is a place full of people fighting in the mud of human existence, and human beings, including lawyers, are called to be in there with them, even when we’re disgusted by what we see, and even when we’re scared about where we are. Lawyers are present in the dirtiest things that human beings do. Not just physically messy things that ER doctors do, pushing people’s insides back into their bodies, being bled on and vomited on. To be sure, lawyers triage the physical messes, clients whose bodies and lives are broken by torts and other legal violations. But they also stand right in the middle of the world’s worst moral messes: pastors who rape little boys, mothers who put cigarette butts out on their children, companies that are deciding whether to dump toxic wastes in poor people’s backyards or hide their poor stock performance from their investors, husbands and wives trying to destroy each other’s lives. Perhaps the most depressing thing about being a lawyer is seeing just what terrible things people will do to each other, but it is perhaps the most important thing we Lutheran lawyers have to acknowledge with a straight face, neither papering the reality over with wishful thinking nor trying to find a place to practice law where we can hide from it.

[15] Luther’s doctrine of Beruf – not a separate monastic “vocation” but a common old daily beruf – is that our job is to be present with our clients, to immerse ourselves in the dirt of the messes they have created. We are most ourselves as lawyers when we are, like emergency room docs, up to our elbows in the moral and emotional blood and guts of our clients’ lives. Like emergency room docs, we have a circumscribed role to play, but we cannot escape the world or our flesh, nor should we try.

[16] Another lawyer joke:

Lawyers earn a living by the sweat of browbeating others
James Gibbons Haneker

[17] The distinctive thing about the Lutheran doctrine of Beruf is that we acknowledge, yes, we will be slinging mud when we’re mud-wrestling. Sometimes we’ll be slinging mud because our job as lawyers calls for it. In his paper on vocation on the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Web site,FN2078 Bob Tuttle reminded us of Luther’s crazy views on vocation. We should particularly note his outrageous statement that, for one called to be a soldier, even “slaying and robbing” can be works of love, just as amputating a leg can be a good and Christian work if one is called to be a doctor, even though it would wrong for me to cut off someone’s leg.4

[18] For Lutherans, an ethics of vocation means:
First, we must think about whether our vocation is given by God, for there are some callings that even God does not recognize – that of torturer, for example. In his new book, Prof. May also notes 16th century theologian William Perkins’ view that who were sycophants on the wealthy and the idle did not receive their vocation from God. Here, lawyers are probably on safe ground – Luther understood that government and law were one of the chief examples of God’s work in preserving a trustworthy world, and that magistrates and other law-makers were critical to ensuring that the law was applied justly to restrain the wicked and to preserve life.

[19] Second. If our vocation is given by God, we must exercise practical wisdom, or phronesis, to determine what lawyering acts are called for by our distinctive vocation, and what kinds of lawyering acts are simply wrong. Phronesis doesn’t mean going with our gut instinct, or “eye-balling it” to decide what we should do, or deciding that “the means justify the ends” or doing what everybody else in the profession is doing, whether it is vicious cross-examination of a witness or aggressive negotiation of a settlement. Practical wisdom means that our education and the life experiences that make us able to understand particular situations are sifted through the medium of the virtues which we’ve grown up to cultivate as habits, as well as our good sense to make a judgment about how we should respond to a particular situation.

[20] To use Luther’s soldier as an analogy, the conclusion we reach after exercising our practical wisdom in a particular case might be that zealous advocacy – “slaying” a witness on cross-examination, for example – or cutting a deal like a used car salesman IS called for by our profession, even though it might not seem gentlemanly or lady-like or what a “pure” Christian would do. Then again, what we are thinking about doing might well be wrong. Only the careful, conscientious exercise of our judgment, both practical and learned, will do.

[21] Third: We must admit that sometimes, lawyers will be slinging mud just because they’re sinful human beings, and that means they’ll succumb to playing by the wrong rules just like the people they’re trying to help. In his tract on whether soldiers can be saved, Luther noted that “an occupation can be good and right in itself and yet be bad and wrong if the man who does the work is evil or wrong or does not do his work properly.”FN2080 (Note Luther’s view on incompetence.) Even being a Christian lawyer does not exempt us from doing wrong to others, and then convincing ourselves that we’re doing what a lawyer has to do for his or her client. In fact, of all people, we Lutheran lawyers in particular have to be suspicious of lawyers’ claims that we are bound by obligations of loyalty and zeal to use tactics or seek ends that will harm others, because we know that lawyers will use their great convincing skills to convince themselves that they’re acting morally, even when they’re not.

[22] The foolish thing about the Lutheran doctrine of vocation is that it tells us to get down in that mud and wrestle, even though that puts us at a great risk of sinning, and an even higher risk that we’ll convince ourselves that doing evil is a good thing. Breathtakingly crazy: this demand that we risk our very souls for the sake of our clients. Because, in fact, we might fall in love with mud-slinging that hurts our neighbor, even reveling in the harm that we do, because we forget who gave us our office. And we might go to hell because of it.

[23] But better to risk being a damned mudslinger for the sake of the neighbor, Luther would say, than to withdraw from the mucky world and pretend that you’re a pure soul who is spiritually superior to the mudslingers down there in the pit. At least if you’re down in the mudhole with the rest of the sinners, Luther suggests, you might just have to see what a mess you really are, and that only God can save you and not your own piety. Or as we lawyers might express it, at least when you’re dealing with the worst of the worst, you’ll realize that there is only one way to get to heaven, and it’s not by being a real ethical guy.

Justice, law and the client’s need
[24] The next piece of conventional wisdom about lawyers that the Lutheran doctrine turns on its head is captured in a recurring, ever-morphing joke:

A housewife, an accountant and a lawyer were asked “How much is 2+2?”

The housewife replies: “Four!”.

The accountant says: “I think it’s either 3 or 4. Let me run those figures through my spreadsheet one more time.”

The lawyer pulls the drapes, dims the lights and asks in a hushed voice, “How much do you want it to be?”

[25] Notice how, again, the conventional wisdom is ambivalent about the lawyer’s role. In the joke, the “good guy” is the housewife, the one willing to say that there is one right answer to the question “how much is 2 plus 2?” each and every time. The villain is the lawyer who is willing to “bend the truth,” shall we say, to give the client what he or she wants, to make the truth vary from person to person.

[26] See the ambivalence. On one hand, the joke illustrates the conventional wisdom that the law is a form of unchanging, clear and certain truth that will yield the same result no matter who the litigant is or who represents him. In the joke, the lawyer is condemned for trying to serve his “client’s” interests, to give him just what he wants even though it may be against the unchanging truth of 2 plus 2. The other side of the joke, what makes it painful, is its recognition that this is exactly what people want from their lawyers: they want their lawyers to serve their interests. Indeed, there are whole schools of legal ethics that argue that, because clients come to lawyers with their most difficult dilemmas, when they are the most vulnerable, lawyers must serve their interests ahead of all others, or in Charles Fried’s terms, must be their “special-purpose friend” who adopts the client’s interests as his own.

[27] In a Lutheran doctrine of vocation, the lawyer in this joke may not exactly be the hero, but he’s far from the villain that the joke makes him out to be. Lutheran theology recognizes that our vocation is always, always, always (and we cannot say that enough times) for the neighbor. It is never to fight for the unchanging truth of 2 plus 2 or any other unchanging truth or abstract conception of justice. It is never protect the majesty of the law, the inviolability of rules, against the situation of the human being. Lutheran theology rejects the idea that justice can be measured solely by how precisely consistent our justice is from one case to the next, because cases are people, and people and their situations will always be different. Just as it rejects the idea of a “purely” pious lawyer, Lutheranism rejects the idea that pure justice will ever be accomplished in this world, because every act of justice is done by the hand of a sinner, so trying to protect the inviolability of the law is a futile exercise. Thus, the emphasis is not on principles or even on getting the best results, but on how our calling from God is a calling to hear and respond to the need of the neighbor.

[28] Thus, the good judge (or the good lawyer) is not the most logical or consistent, but the judge who exercises practical wisdom about what justice requires, justice as measured by hearing and responding to the need of our neighbor. In fact, Luther exhorts the lawmaker or judge:

If we do not make exceptions and strictly follow the law we do the greatest injustice of all. . . .FN2081

He cannot govern who cannot wink at faultsFN2082

Where wrong cannot be punished without greater wrong, there let him waive his rights . . . to punish too little is more tolerable [than punishing too much] for it is always better to let a scoundrel live than to put a godly man to death.FN2083

[29] So the main complaint Luther would probably have against our 2 plus 2 lawyer is that he asked the question, “so how much did you want it to be?” when he should have asked “so how much did you need it to be?” For if we are not driven, as lawyers, to act according to the other’s need, we are not being lawyers at all.

[30] A second kind of virtue required in exercise of our vocation is uncommon courage, not only in accepting the fact that we cannot simply put our trust in legal rules but in risking ourselves for even the neighbor that threatens our daily lives. In another famous tract, Luther was asked whether godly people in public office could escape the plague. While Luther, again quite practically, said that there’s no point in people risking themselves unnecessarily just to prove a point where others were already there to help, he told the mayors and judges that they had to remain in the plague community along with the pastors giving spiritual care for plague victims: “To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots and every imaginable disaster is a great sin.”9

[31] Such advice might seem positively medieval to us until we hear Luther’s words: to abandon our communities to – murder, riots, fires, and every imaginable disaster – is a great sin. Most of us called to be lawyers exercise our responsibility in communities that experience these very things – domestic and public assaults as well as murders, farm families and poor people whose homes are taken by eviction as well as fires, streets that are unsafe to walk as well as riotous.

[32] And every imaginable disaster. To us, Luther replies, “no one should dare leave his neighbors unless there are others who will take care. . . we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.”10 For Luther, the neighbor is the neediest neighbor, the one we dare not drive by bleeding by the side of the road, nor drive by his neighborhood bleeding by the side of the interstate.

[33] Americans have learned again, in the wake of 9-11, that men and women of common courage will not walk away in time of uncommon tragedy or disaster. But Christians are called to uncommon courage-to be there for the other not only in these extreme situations, but in the daily ones as well. These daily needs are the ones that test our ability to give up the relative comfort of a predictable life and enter into the lives of those who are not anything like our friends and family, not to save people, but to use the gifts which we have been given to be there.

Vocation: words, power and re-imagining our station
[34] Then, of course, there are those jokes about what exactly it is that we are good at doing:

Q: How does a pregnant woman know she is carrying a future lawyer?
A: She has an extreme craving for baloney.

Q: What is the definition of a lawyer?
A: A mouth with a life-support system.

[35] Lutherans have always emphasized that the way God works in the world is through us and with us. We are cooperators, co-creators, co-workers in the social as well as physical garden set before us. As Lutheran ethicist Gustav Wingren puts it, “God himself will milk the cows through him whose vocation that is. He who engages in the lowliness of his work performs God’s work, be he lad or king. To give one’s office proper care is not selfishness. Devotion to office is devotion to love. . . . Care for one’s office is . . . participation in God’s care for human beings.”11 When I am a lawyer, I am up to something as a partner with God, just as when I co-chair a trial or work with a human partner on a big merger or contract negotiation, and just as much as when I coach Little League or change my child’s diaper.

[36] What does the conventional wisdom of these jokes say about lawyers? They are smart, clever, well-educated people. But they are people who don’t get physically dirty, so they couldn’t be doing any real work. They’re people whose primary task in life is just words – and mostly using words to say nothing, or what nobody can trust, baloney. They don’t make anything. They don’t create capital. They don’t heal or educate or do anything that’s useful. They charge to listen to us, and to talk to us and everybody else about us. (I will skip those jokes for now.) Just mouths with a life-support system.

[37] Once more, the Lutheran doctrine of vocation overturns the conventional wisdom that someone whose stock in trade is just words is probably more a troublemaker than anything else. It is not just, as Bob would say,FN2087 that the very concept of vocatio is about words: God’s call, and our response are just words, and yet, thereupon hangs the whole world. We must also confess that there is nothing God gives human beings the ability to do that is not permeated with the creative power and the love of God – even the task of making words. Those of us who are especially gifted at words – who are called to make words to the purpose of earthly or political government – are doing a critical work of God, according to Luther.

[38] But there is a catch for people who have the power of their vocation, as we have the power of words. Power does not just corrupt, as everyone who talks about lawyers is quick to point out. It also burdens. One of the hardest things about being a lawyer is the heavy responsibility we bear combined with the realization of how little power we have to change people’s lives. On one hand, according to our ethical codes, lawyers can’t afford to make even one mistake: they can’t miss even one filing deadline, neglect one case, or otherwise slough off on the very serious responsibility they have been given for critical matters of importance to clients.

[39] On the other hand, lawyers often have a tremendous sense of powerlessness: it is very difficult, many times, to see how lawyers have made their clients’ lives better. Sometimes, that’s because their clients are far removed from them: for example, when they are writing what seems to be just paperwork for a corporation, without being able to see its real impact on shareholders, or customers, or the public. Sometimes that’s because they don’t get to see what difference it meant to a client to win or lose a case, because when the case is over, the relationship is often over.

[40] And sometimes, that sense of powerlessness is real, because the client’s problems are so much larger than their legal case, so it’s not clear that even winning their legal case will be much help. As a poverty lawyer, for example,. I might have helped a client to get a divorce, or get the Social Security Administration off her back, but I sometimes felt that I was helping to empty out Lake Michigan with a spoon, in terms of making a real difference in her life. And yet, I was responsible for making sure that this particular case brought as much justice and relief to my client as possible.

[41] When I hear about lawyer malaise these days, I hear only rarely that lawyers are quitting the practice because they believe that, on a day to day basis, they are asked to engage in acts that they think are morally wrong. Rather, most lawyers, whether they work for corporations or individuals or in the public sector, describe a tired-out sense of meaninglessness of the kind I just suggested. They have tremendous responsibilities, tremendous workloads, but no sense that they are making a difference in the lives of individual human beings, that they can see the light at the end of their clients’ tunnel.

[42] Some lawyers respond to this dilemma by quitting and going into another line of work that does not insist on such responsibility coupled with such powerlessness. Other lawyers respond to such great responsibilities by coming to think of themselves as more important or more powerful than the average person, a self-regard that sometimes creeps up on them like a thief in the night. They may come to see themselves as superior because of what they know, what they can do, who society says that they are, who their friends are, or even what kinds of toys they have (cars, cell phones, country clubs, etc.) If you doubt me, think about the kowtowing to legal royalty that went on at the last state or national bar association meeting you attended.

[43] It might not seem that the self-involved better-than-thou lawyer and the well-meaning worn-out lawyer share anything; but they do. To the lawyer full of him or herself, of course, the Lutheran doctrine of vocation announces loudly that we lawyers are no higher or better in the social pecking order than anyone else. But that doctrine makes the same point to the worn-out responsible lawyer. As theologian Marc Kolden says, the refusal to trust God comes in two distinct flavors – one is found in the self-congratulatory lawyer who tries to achieve security by becoming a little god of these goods – power, riches, status; but the other one is giving in to our finitude, to resignation, addiction or “some other form of self-hatred.”FN2088

[44] To the worn-out lawyers who are in despair about how little difference they can make and how ill-equipped they are to respond to the needs they see, the Lutheran doctrine of vocation is a clear message of hope. The doctrine really does mean that lawyers are no more responsible for the outcome of our client’s lives or the world in general than anyone else: our power to create and preserve the world as a partner with God is no more than the power of a garbage collector or a tax collector to do the same thing. We are responsible to carry out our vocation, but our vocation is not to save the world or even individual lives, but to practice the law as a co-preserver with God and all of our fellow human beings.

[45] It’s perhaps easy to get confused about how big our responsibility as lawyers is, because we have Lutherans often used the word “station” to describe where God puts us to live and work in this world. Yet, in English, the word “station” has problematical connotations. One is that there’s some kind of a hierarchical pecking order, in which some people are more important or more responsible in society than others. And the word “station” reminds us of “stationary” – a place that we’re put in, stuck in, and can’t move out of – a fixed location with fixed rules of behavior and reward. If we’re lucky, we get “put” into a “good” station in life; if not, we take our lumps.

[48] Let me suggest some other metaphors Lutherans might play with to explain what it means to be called to a station or vocation, and what that might mean for lawyers in particular.

[49] First, a metaphor others have used, but lawyers tend to forget: we are all God’s orchestra. Of course, we lawyers know which ones we are – we’re the violins. The orchestra would certainly be in trouble without the violins. But when we are tempted to think we’re more important than other vocations in terms of preserving the world, we have to confront the fact that violins can’t play the other parts, much as they might try. Nor can the violins make sure that the other instruments come in at the right time, even though they can lead the way: the violins simply don’t have that much power. In fact, there may be whole sections of the piece we’re playing that don’t call for violins at all, much to our chagrin; but without those sections, we violins can’t get from one movement to the next. As violins, we need to understand the limits of our contribution to the music, but we can similarly never forget that it’s our responsibility to do our part, and to pour our heart and mind into doing it well.

[50] Or, to get at the concerns I was raising in a more direct way, imagine that God has thrown all of creation (or at least us humans) into a big ocean. Some of us are good at figuring out when the next waves are going to hit, some how long we can last in the hot sun, and some how far it might be to dry land. Some have the strength to grab onto pieces of flotsam, and others can figure out how to make them into a raft. Some can organize people into buddy systems to hold the others up when they get tired of treading water, others can sing or joke to keep people’s spirits up, and some have the lungs to call out to people to join up. Others can convince people that the buddy system is better than going it alone, and still others are good at stopping the fights between people who think if they can get the floating lumber away from the other guy, they might survive. And some are so physically weak or emotionally spent by just being thrown in that if nobody pays attention to them, they are going to drown immediately. On the other hand, nobody is going to make it to dry land by himself, and we’re not sure if we’ll make it even if everybody helps.

[51] We lawyers can identify what roles we play among the people thrown into that ocean. But we’re apt to think that whether everybody gets to dry land is largely up to us. Some lawyers might think we’re so great that we can get everybody to make it if we just figure out a good system – in fact, it’s that attitude that all of the “isms” have come from – communism, fascism, socialism, imperialism, but also our very own worship of democracy. But if we are good and humble lawyers, we’re likely to despair at how big an ocean it is and how little power we have as individual lawyers to get everybody to work together to make it to dry land. In fact, we’re likely to despair at how really hard it is to get the two guys next to us to quit fighting over a floating log that both of them are gon’na sink. And just when we get them to cooperate, someone else who’s scared comes up and tries to take it away.

[52] We may even feel guilty about the fact that we can only seem to help the people around us get organized, when there’s a whole sea of people out there just about ready to drown. It’s a big ocean, and some people are going to be lost because we’re not strong enough and tireless enough and clever enough to figure out the one plan that will avoid that. And we may also have to confront the reality that we’re constantly pushing people’s heads under the water so we and ours can survive, and survive in style.

[53] Here is another foolish thing the Lutheran witness tells us when we confront the futility of our work in the ocean where everyone is drowning, and admit to ourselves that sometimes we are willing to turn our backs on the other swimmers, or sometimes even do what’s wrong to make our chances better. It starts with our remembering what theologian Gerhard Forde says: God is a trickster:FN2089 God hides from us, just as we think we have found God; and God is there just when we think we have lost God. Just when we think we’re alone in this ocean, up bobs a mask of God, a neighbor who helps us or needs our help. Just when we think we know God’s rescue plan for the world, down it goes.

[54] Thus, the paradox of being Lutheran lawyers faced with a sea of needy swimmers with just the skills we have: we are never closer to God than when we live in the isolating torture of our guilt about what we have done, or left undone, how we have failed as lawyers or in our other vocations as children, parents, lovers, friends. We are never closer than in our deepest moments of meaninglessness. And God plans it that way.

[55] Go back and live in the worst moment of guilt and shame you have ever experienced as a lawyer, because of your selfishness, your laziness, your limitations, or maybe even things that you think are morally reprehensible. In that moment, Lutherans say, God comes face to face with you, holding the law that condemns you up to your very heart. We want to imagine the moment of closest connection with God in this world to be a fairytale moment of peace, beauty, love and all that fluffy stuff.

[56] But in fact, the closest we get to God in this life is our worst nightmare. The Lutheran witness tells us that we are never so far from God as when we are satisfied with ourselves, our works, and our world; and never closer to God than when we throw down our (self)-defenses and acknowledge how worthless and broken our lives have been and how horribly we have wronged others. For that is the moment when we can be folded into the arms of Christ. The Lutheran witness tells us that we are never so far from God as when we think we are bringing in the kingdom of God by our own accomplishments, and never closer to the face of Jesus than when we break down in the utter isolation and meaninglessness that each of us experiences occasionally as lawyers and human beings. For our weakness is the home of God.

Q: Why do they have to bury lawyers 24 feet under ground.
A: Because deep down, they’re not so bad.

End Notes

[1] Lawyer jokes are reprinted from several on-line Web sites, such as www.nolo.com/humor/jokes.cfm; www.exlawyer.com/jokes; www.allisonlaw.com/legally/jokes.html; www.expertlaw.com/humor/; www.lawyer-humor.com/and members.tripod.com/~Bad-Apple/lawyer_jokes.html.

[2] Thomas L. Shaffer with Mary M. Shaffer, American Lawyers and Their Communities: Ethics in the Legal Professions 212 (1991).

[3] Robert W. Tuttle, “Whether Lawyers, Too, Can Be Saved”, www.elca.org/jle/articles/vocation/article.tuttle_robert.

[4] Martin Luther, “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved” (tr. Charles M. Jacobs, 1526) in Luther: Selected Political Writings 101, 102-103 (J.M. Porter, ed. 1974).

[5] Ibid, 101.

[6] Ibid, 105.

[7] Martin Luther, “On Temporal Authority”, Part 3, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings 699 (ed. Timothy Lull, 1989).

[8] Ibid, 698.

[9] Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”, in Lull, supra note 7, at 738-39.

[10] “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”, supra note 9, at 739.

[11] Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation 9 (1957).

[12] Robert Tuttle, “Whether Lawyers, too, can be Saved”, supra.

[13] Marc Kolden, “Work and Meaning”, para. 7, www.elca.org/jle/articles/vocation.

[14] Gerhard O. Forde, Naming the One Who Is Above Us in Speaking of the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenges of Faith 4 (Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., ed. 1992).

Marie Failinger

Marie Failinger is a Professor of Law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, St. Paul, MN. She is a lifelong Lutheran, and earned her B.A. and J.D. at Valparaiso University and her LL.M. at Yale Law School. She was the long-time editor of the Journal of Law and Religion, and has co-edited Lutheran Theology and Secular Law: The Work of the Modern State and On Secular Governance: Lutheran Perspectives on Contemporary Legal Issues with Rev. Ronald Duty, along with other articles on Lutheran theology and secular law.