Which Law for the Christian Lawyer?
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” You might have heard that question a number of times in your life, and you might even have asked that question of someone else. But I’d like to suggest that “what we want” should not be our primary focus. Instead, we should ask:
- What gifts has the Lord given me? and
- How can I use those gifts to serve the Lord most effectively in His kingdom?
There are a number of gifts which can helpfully be used in the practice of law. A good lawyer will be assisted by an analytical mind, the ability to communicate (difficult concepts) clearly, the ability to prioritise, to use one’s time efficiently, and the ability to exercise good judgement. Much could be said about each of these characteristics. However, this article seeks to focus on an attribute which is of great importance for the Christian lawyer: namely, to do justice. Micah 6:8 says: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”.
The Lord takes a great interest in justice, not only in the church courts, but also in the secular courts. For example (and there are many others), consider God’s lament regarding the unfaithfulness of Jerusalem in Isaiah 1:21-23: “How the faithful city has become a harlot, she who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, but now murderers ... Your rulers are rebels, and companions of thieves; everyone loves a bribe, and chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, nor does the widow’s plea come before them”. God is lamenting because the city is full of murderers, and it is led by rebels and thieves. The leaders are corrupt, and they do not protect the innocent. God’s concern for justice stems from His own nature, because “The LORD is a God of justice” (Isaiah 5:7), and He says of Himself “I, the LORD, love justice” (Isaiah 61:8).
As we will see, “doing justice” involves obeying God rather than man. To put that another way, a Christian lawyer must “fear only the LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:13). To fear God “only”, means not to fear man, because “the fear of man brings a snare” (Proverbs 29:25). Doing justice involves doing what God wants, regardless of what man wants or might do to you. The remainder of this article explores how a Christian lawyer might be called to “do justice” in a way which might differ from a non-Christian’s idea of “doing justice”.
Do not Condemn the Righteous
I was reading an article on stuff.co.nz this last week, about a South Canterbury mother who had been found guilty of assaulting her child with a weapon after she hit him twice with a fabric belt.1 In the Timaru District Court, the Honourable District Court Judge, Judge Joana Maze, was reported to have found the charge proven beyond reasonable doubt, but allowed the woman’s lawyer to apply for a discharge without conviction.
The brief facts of the case (as reported) were that the primary-aged schoolchild began arguing with his mother when she tried to get him out of bed to go to school. He said he didn’t want to get out of bed, would not get dressed, and was not going to go to school. His mother argued with him for an hour, and eventually told him she was going to take his computer off him. The mother then obtained a fabric belt, and, holding it by the buckle end, she reportedly hit her son twice around the legs, leaving a one-centimeter mark.
The article records that the mother then took her child to school, returned home, and cried before going to work. Somehow, the matter was brought to the attention of a social worker (possibly via the school that the boy attended, although the article does not state this), and the matter subsequently came to the attention of the Police, and eventually before the Courts. The Honourable District Court Judge was quoted by the article as stating in her summing up that the child “was not verbally or physically abusing (the mother) at the time of the assault”. Her Honour described the mother as having “lost control” and being “very angry”. The apparent motivation of the mother was that she wanted to let her child know that “enough was enough”. Her Honour concluded that “The force in this case was not reasonable to use what can only be described as an assault with a weapon”. The charge of “assault with a weapon” carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment.2
What is a Christian lawyer to do, when working in a Justice system like this? The Bible says “Stripes that wound scour away evil, and strokes reach the innermost parts” (Proverbs 20:30). The Bible also says “Do not hold back discipline from the child; although you beat him with the rod (not the “fabric belt”), he will not die. You shall beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from Sheol” (Proverbs 23:13-14).
Again, when weighing up the law of God, alongside the law of man, what is a Christian to do? This can be a difficult question for some lawyers, because some lawyers (called “Crown prosecutors”) are required to prosecute individuals whom the Crown says have committed a crime. But can a Christian prosecutor do this where the Crown calls something that the Lord commands, a “crime”? Can a Christian lawyer expect to prosecute those who have done nothing wrong in the eyes of the Lord, and also earn the commendation “well done, good and faithful servant”? Or would such a Christian be viewed by the Lord as taking part, like Saul, in a “great persecution” against the church? Like Saul, who “began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (Acts 8:3)?
Is it possible to obey God’s law and man’s law, where there is a direct conflict between the two? Would it satisfy the Lord, to stand before Him on the Day of Judgment and say “I was only doing what I was told, Lord, but I love you as well”? I suggest that the answer to this question is “no”.
Proverbs 24:11-12 says,
Deliver those who are being taken away to death, and those who are staggering to slaughter, O hold them back. If you say, ‘See, we did not know this’, does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?
Of course, we understand that these verses speak to our obligations under the sixth commandment – to preserve the lives of others. But we also understand that our obligations under the sixth commandment are broader than that – they also include a duty to “protect and defend the innocent”.3
What would God require of the Christian prosecutor tasked with prosecuting a woman who had disciplined her son with a fabric belt? Prosecutors have a discretion to “offer no evidence” in support of a charge. This is a special phrase prosecutors use to indicate to the Court that the prosecution will not proceed in respect of that charge. “Offering no evidence” can be done for a variety of reasons, but it is a discretion which should be used in circumstances where it is not “in the public interest” to prosecute.
Would it be inappropriate for a Christian prosecutor to “offer no evidence” on a charge against the woman with the fabric belt? This question might be answered with reference to Joab, David’s military commander. After David had sinned by sleeping with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, David planned to murder Uriah, who was one of the soldiers under Joab’s command. He wrote a letter to Joab, commanding him to “Place Uriah in the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). What should Joab have done? He should have obeyed God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Even if it meant disobeying a direct order from the hand of King David himself, Joab was not permitted to disobey God by murdering Uriah. Similarly, a Christian prosecutor must not prosecute the innocent, even if offering no evidence would involve direct rebellion against the law of the land.
Would this frustrate the purposes of the secular law, and be an abuse of the lawyer’s responsibility to the Court? No it wouldn’t. The law of the land says that it stands for justice. So even if a Christian lawyer opposes the justice system in order to do what is right, ultimately we understand that this is what justice requires – it is what God requires.
Do not Justify the Wicked
There is another way that the Christian prosecutor should stand for what is right, and it involves the opposite situation. Prosecutors can be put under pressure to “offer no evidence” on charges that are actually very serious – like “wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm”, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.4 This charge is often used where someone has caused a serious injury to someone else – they might have stabbed someone with a knife or machete, or might have smashed someone’s bones using a blunt weapon like a club. In serious cases, it is possible to wound someone without a weapon, using one’s fists, for example.
Because our justice system is so busy (in other words, because there is so much crime), there is a pressure to “dispose” of cases as quickly as possible. “Offering no evidence” can occur in certain circumstances. But prosecutors also have a discretion to accept a plea to a lesser charge. Where there are many cases waiting to be heard, it can seem “efficient” to “resolve” a case by giving an accused the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge. Sometimes this practice can be appropriate. For example, if two friends are out hunting for deer, and one of them accidently shoots and kills the other, having mistaken him for a deer, it might be appropriate to charge him with “careless use of a firearm causing death”, which has a maximum term of three years’ imprisonment,5 rather than with manslaughter or murder, both of which carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment.
However, the danger in offering a lesser charge is that the lesser charge might not properly reflect the gravity of the offending. To use a well-known illustration, many people wouldn’t have regarded it appropriate if Ewan McDonald were prosecuted with “careless use of a firearm causing death”, rather than with murder. Should Christian prosecutors resist the urge to unjustly “dispose” of cases by offering no evidence or by accepting guilty pleas to lesser charges? Yes.
Proverbs 17:15 says “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD”. Both principles then, should guide a Christian prosecutor to act differently from a non-Christian prosecutor in a range of circumstances.
Are you considering the practice of law? Make sure that, if the Lord calls you to practice law, you do justice, doing your work “heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Colossians 3:23).
“Like a trampled spring and a polluted well, is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked” (Proverbs 25:26), but “Who may dwell on Thy holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth within his heart ... He who does these things will never be shaken” (Psalm 15: 1b-2, 5).