Sunday, July 31, 2005

Confession

I realized a little something this morning in church. While studying furiously over the past 2+ months for the bar exam, I hardly realized that my faith and God-seeking were put on the back burner. No, I wasn't out causing trouble around town nor did I take leave from trying to stick up for the "least of these" -- my moral convictions didn't flinch. I realized this morning, however, that while drowning myself in secured transactions, real property and criminal law for the past 2 months (along with moving back to Texas beforehand), I wasn't actively seeking God --- I was too caught up with myself.

Therein, I think, lies the danger of living life solely by a moral code. It's easy to establish patterns of behavior and beliefs - a moral compass if you will - to guide you through life's trials and tribulations after you've fought the intellectual battles and decided what it is that you are going to believe. After the dust settles, however, and especially at times when we have so much going on in our lives that we can't seemingly take a breather, it is easy for us to neglect just where it is that the guiding compass comes from in the first place. When this happens - and it does to all of us - we stop actively seeking God and instead fall back on the laurels of where we think God is. In other words, we start living by what is in effect OUR own morality, not God's morality.

I think this problems manifests itself in the bodies of many churches today. How many people out there do you know that are following their pastor's morality, not actively seeking God's own?

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Life, post bar exam

I had always wondered whether or not lawyers hyped the bar exam as being so hard in part to make non-lawyers feel like they were smarter, more talented, more distinguished people. Having taken the bar exam now, I think only one generalization about lawyers is fair: anyone willing to take a three day test is crazy, per se.

Then again, maybe I'm just another new lawyer already telling stories to make us look better...

A full response to my off the cuff criticism of some modern churches coming soon...

Monday, July 25, 2005

Here we go...

Infission and I sit for the Texas Bar Exam starting tomorrow (through Thursday). Three days of testing is an intimidating task, to be sure. While we don't ask much out of y'all besides a little patience now and then, my current stress level allows me to be a little more selfish.... your thoughts and prayers are definitely appreciated, for us and for all of those taking the exam in Texas and across the country.

See you on the other side.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sunday Comment: Reverse Psychology

Dear Mr. Dean, Sen. Reid, and Rep. Pelosi:

I am a concerned citizen who ordinarily votes Democrat, writing to you - the leaders of the party - about my concerns regarding the President's nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. As a result of my current work schedule, I have not been able to take in as much of the media feeding frenzy as I would like, but it does not take a political expert to see that the nomination spells trouble for your party. But not in the way you probably think.

Upon President Bush's announcement that Roberts was the nominee, Mr. Dean immediately declared his "disappoint[ment]" and implied that Roberts was an "ideological judicial activist." My concern with this type of reaction is not so much that it's untrue - and it does appear to be false - but that it is playing right into Mr. Bush's hands.

It is surely true that Roberts is a conservative. It is also true that he spent most of his career representing business interests. But it is also true that Roberts is intelligent, well-qualified, and highly respected. Moreover, his previous confirmation testimony for and service on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit indicates that he takes the judicial role seriously and distinguishes his own positions from the law.

Let's get real here. Roberts is not an unqualified extremist. He will undoubtedly be confirmed. So the question has to be, given that, where do you go from here strategically?

My suggestion: covertly attack Roberts from the right. That's right, a little reverse psychology might make the social conservatives realize that they're getting screwed by this nomination.

Roberts has not taken a personal, public position on any of the day's hot-button issues. As far as I know, he hasn't come out against Roe v. Wade, hasn't come out against gay marriage, hasn't come out in favor of school prayer. So how in the world can Bush nominate him without risking the wrath of Christian conservatives. Answer: he can count on you guys to paint Roberts as an extremist, thereby satisfying the Christian right.

Yep, I can already see it now. Roberts will be grilled on those two briefs he signed while working in the Solicitor General's office - one urging the Court to overrule Roe and a second urging the Court to uphold prayer in schools. He'll be attacked on this issues even though your Senators will know good and well that Roberts was just a lawyer doing his job. Roberts, working in SG's office, was simply representing a client. He didn't get to decide what position to take. He was told what the President wanted and exercised his professional skill in making the best argument on behalf of that position.

There's a perfect analogy to be made here with military personnel. Do you blame the military - the generals and soldiers - for invading Iraq? No. They were just doing their jobs carrying out the orders of the President. The same goes for attorneys in the SG's office. There's nothing there - no real hay to be made - over the two briefs Roberts signed.

And here's where we get back to playing into Bush's hands. Most ordinary voters won't clearly understand the distinction I've made above. So if you treat Roberts as if he is someone that wants to overturn Roe and institute mandatory school prayer, the Christian right will believe you. And they'll love Roberts and Bush because of it.

What if instead, you said "We're pleased that Mr. Bush has selected such a well-qualified and moderate candidate to succeed Justice O'Connor. We understand that, in Mr. Robert's previous confirmation hearing, he recognized Roe v. Wade as good law and binding precedent. We believe that Mr. Roberts will support a woman's right to choose and preserve the separation between Church and State."

This would undoubtedly drive the Christian right nuts. They'd realize that Bush hasn't given them what they demanded: someone "solid" on the hot-button issues.

Bottom line: Roberts is going to be confirmed no matter how much you kick and scream, and the more kicking and screaming you do, the more you endear Bush to his base.

Sincerely,

Infission

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Wednesday Meditation: Specks, Beams and Creeping Moral Relativism

Today's thoughts are inspired by the thoughtful criticism of 42's last post (below) regarding Lakewood's new Megachurch.
Shane Raynor over at Wesley Blog offers the following response to 42's admittedly (and intentionally) provocative criticism of Lakewood:
Tony Campolo preaches a sermon called, "Would a Christian Drive a BMW?" The answer, of course, is supposed to be no, but I'm afraid that if we expect BMW drivers to be content with Hondas, then that same reasoning will require Honda people to switch to Fords, and so on, until we're all condemned unless we're riding bikes. Then the pedestrians will blast the bike riders for not taking such an "obvious opportunity" to sell those bikes and help the poor. When we head down the road of condemning specific churches (or individuals) for how they spend their money, we open ourselves up to judgment. I'm not saying it should never be done, but we need to know what we're getting ourselves into before we do it. Sure, Jesus preached strong words to the wealthy, but he was also essentially homeless with few, if any, material possessions. Condemning the wealthy is, quite honestly, hypocrisy for most Americans, because we live in a country where even many of the poor among us are obsessed with materialism.

Raynor's argument against "calling out" Lakewood's extravagance has substantial appeal at first glance. It powerfully combines a biblical injunction against judgment - which I firmly believe dates back to Jesus - with a straight up reductio ad absurdem proof. Since none of us will (or should be reasonably expected to?), sell all we have and give it to the poor, we had all better tread lightly in our criticism of wealth.

First off, let's look the reductio ad absurdem aspect of Raynor's argument -- assuming I'm not imagining it. We SHOULD all sell our Hondas, our Fords and, yep, even our bikes and give the proceeds to the poor - as Luke's gospel unambiguously requires. Jesus is the Great Example, and Raynor is right: He was legitimately destitute. So, to be clear, this stereo that I'm listening to right now (and probably this computer that I'm typing on) should be immediately sold with the proceeds given to the poor. So, the argument against Lakewood's extravagance doesn't lead to an absurdity - at least I don't think it's absurd. Tough, yes. Absurd? Not unless Jesus was absurd to ask us to do it.

Second, what about the hypocricy and injunctions against judging others? Can we carry Raynor's concept of avoiding judgment out to its logical conclusion while retaining any moral foundation whatsoever? Let's say that my next door neighbor commits rape. Can I come out and say, "what that guy did was wrong"? What if I've had pre-marital sex (assuming rape is a sexual-type sin) or gotten into a fight (assuming rape is a crime of assault)? Wouldn't I be, under Raynor's logic "estopped," as we lawyers say, from pointing out that the rape was wrong?

If so, this looks a lot less like trying to be non-judgmental and a lot more like de facto moral relativism.

So how do we uphold the sanctity of Jesus' moral commands -- such as "not storing up our treasures on earth" -- along with the injunctions against judging others. Well, first with an unambiguous admission that Paul's observation that "all have sinned" is fully applicable to us. I'm a sinner and a hypocrite. We all are. We also might do well to heed the admittedly trite traditional advice to "hate the sin but love the sinner." As applied to Lakewood, this would mean I could assert that the church's extravagance is, in my opinion, unambiguously wrong. But that doesn't mean that I think Lakewood's administration or membership are bad people. It doesn't mean I bear them any ill will. How could I? "We all have sinned"!!!

This is my attempt to reconcile both upholding moral absolutes and refraining from judgment. I'd love to hear others' thoughts.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Lets see now...

I have millions of dollars - say $75 million - and I hold myself out to be a model of Christianity. What should I do with my money?

(A): Be a good steward of my money and make sure that all my needs are taken care of.
(B): Store up my treasures in heaven, not on Earth.
(C): Build the country's biggest church out of a former basketball arena
(D): Help feed, clothe, and medicate starving children across the globe or, if feeling really generous, give them some education too.

Well, if you're one Texas church, (C) is the correct answer. How lewd.

Does no one else see the hyprocrisy in building massive temples for the comfort of those who attend? Isn't Christianity about alleviating other's suffering, not making one's own life more convenient or comfortable? Guess what Christendom, building such massive churches in your own backyard is prima facie selfish in my book.

Now I've heard all the "we do it to minister" rhetoric, but lets be honest - that's crap. If you're so interested in ministering, why don't you invest in areas NOT in your backyard, a place where you can best minister to people by living up to the standards you champion at no additional cost?

Ask yourself: do we really need racqetball courts, gyms, basketball ARENAS, etc. to minister to people when all it would take half a world away is a loaf of bread, some medication, and a hug from someone that cares?

Sunday Comment: Is it Unconstitutional to Execute an Innocent Person?

You might think that this is a silly question - that the answer must be "yes." You might think that, if your rights to due process and equal protection and against cruel and unusual punishment mean anything, surely they must mean that the government can't kill you unless you've committed a crime. But in fact, you'd be wrong. In 1993, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision (Herrera), flatly rejected the proposition that "the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution prohibit the execution of a person who is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted." Specifically, the Court held that the Constitution did not require the state of Texas to afford a convicted murderer a forum in which to assert his claim to actual innocence based on newly-discovered evidence.

The Court essentially reasoned that the defendant got a trial and was found guilty: evidence of innocence discovered after this point, if not accompanied by some procedural error such as the state's failure to disclose it, is basically irrelevant.

The Court didn't rule that he was guilty; it ruled that whether the defendant was guilty or not made no difference.

Justice Blackmun, writing for the dissent, expressed what must be the intuitive feeling of many on the issue:

"We... are being asked to decide whether the Constitution forbids the execution of a person who has been validly convicted and sentenced, but who, nonetheless, can prove his innocence with newly discovered evidence. Despite the State of Texas' astonishing protestation to the contrary, I do not see how the answer can be anything but 'yes.'"

Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court agreed to review a case, House v. Bell, that provides it with a forum to reconsider the issue. Defendant House claims that newly discovered DNA evidence - that semen found on the victim was not his, but the victim's husband - demonstrates his innocence. The question is not whether House is innocent, but whether House should even be given an opportunity to prove that he's innocent.

The Court should overrule Herrera and adopt the position of Blackmun's dissent: "nothing could be more contrary to contemporary standards of decency or more shocking to the conscience than to execute a person who is actually innocent."

Juries make mistakes. Some Justices apparently believe that willful blindness to this fact is necessary to preserve confidence in and respect for our criminal justice system. If a convicted killer can prove that, more likely than not, he did not commit the crime, he must be set free. This Court should worry less about confidence in criminal justice than about justice in criminal justice.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The "Reverse Litmus Test"

This post from Yale Law professor Jack Balkin, convincingly articulates what both of us have been feeling for a long time re: Roe v. Wade. Abortion will definitely influence the president's choice to succeed Justice O'Connor, but not in the way you might think.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Wednesday Meditation: Sacrifice, Strict Equality and "Necessity"

My topic today is Anglo-American Criminal Law. Now, this may seem more like an op-ed, commentary-type topic at first glance -- that is, until one realizes that the Criminal Law principles I will be discussing have been around for about 500 years. In reviewing my Criminal Law materials for the bar this week, I was particularly interested in the doctrine of "necessity." This doctrine provides a defense to what would otherwise be the crime where committing a crime is the only real alternative to preventing a much greater harm. Consider committing the crime of trespass to prevent someone from drowning. Necessity is not merely an "excuse" defense (as are insanity and duress). It's considered a full "justification."

What's most interesting to me about the doctrine of necessity is one of its express limitations: you can't use it as a defense to killing another to save your own life. But, one might ask, why is this limitation necessary? If an element of the general rule is that the harm prevented must be much greater than the harm of committing the crime, then wouldn't killing another to save yourself always fail the general rule? Well, from a utilitarian standpoint, the answer is definitely not.

Consider the famous 19th century case of Dudley and Stephens. Dudley, Stephens, and a seventeen-year-old cabin boy were shipwrecked a thousand miles from land. On the eleventh day, they ran out of food. On the thirteenth day, they ran out of water. They drifted five more days with neither food nor water. By this point, all three were on the brink of death and there was "no reasonable prospect" that they would be rescued any time soon. Then, under the influence of this severe deprivation, Dudley and Stephens decided to kill and eat the cabin boy. While quite disgusting, cannibalism is not unheard of in such situations.

From a utilitarian standpoint, their necessity defense was flawless. If one of the three was not killed, all three would die within the day. The murder would prevent a much greater harm -- three deaths being a greater harm than one. As the court found, "there was no appreciable chance of saving life except by killing some one for the others to eat." Furthermore, the cabin boy was in the weakest condition of the three (likely to die first) and had no family to speak of - while Dudely and Stephens each had a wife and kids.

These facts undeniably established necessity under the general rule. But the court found Dudley and Stephens guilty of murder nonetheless. It found them guilty even though it found that they were subjected to "loathsome" and "harrowing" "sufferings which might break down the bodily power of even the strongest man." Necessity never, under any circumstances, justifies taking the life of another to save your own.

In finding no justification for the murder, the court appealed to the great principles of equality and sacrifice. First, the court created an "irrebuttable presumption" (a rule of law that applies no matter what the facts are), that all people's lives, no matter how short or insigificant, are strictly equal. Second, the court articulated a principle of sacrifice. It construed the fact that the cabin boy was the weakest and youngest of the three against rather than in favor of the defendants. In doing so, the court (before constitutional principles separating Church and State were well-established) appealed to "the Great Example whom we profess to follow."

I applaud the limitations imposed on the justification of necessity by equality and sacrifice. When our legal system employs these ideals, it more closely approximates the Kingdom of God.

But I can't support the ultimate outcome of Dudley and Stephens. Saying that killing the cabin boy was not "justifiable" is one thing. But holding that Dudley and Stephens had no "excuse" that might at least mitigate their crime to manslaughter is quite another. Ultimately, Dudley and Stephens were hanged. In ordering their deaths, the court upheld two great principles - equality and sacrifice - while forgetting a third that is equally important: compassion. I do believe that sacrifice and equality require that we follow the Great Example and give our lives for others if the circumstances call for us to do so. I don't think, however, that someone's failure to live up to such a superhuman standard should result in capital punishment.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Thoughts and Prayers from Across the Pond

As two former residents of New York City that frequently took advantage of the city's wonderful mass transportation system, we here at the Social Gospel Today are left in shock at today's terrorists attacks in London. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of London, especially those who have been hurt or have lost loved ones.

Terrorism has no place in a world committed to social justice and the brotherhood of man.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Wednesday Meditation: Why Parables?

I'm stealing an idea from my friend over at Progressive Christian, who has given himself a detailed and ambitious "editorial schedule." I think this is a good idea for three reasons -- it provides motivation, keeps me on topic, and lets readers know up-front when the next installment will be. So, starting today, I will post a meditation every Wednesday: a discussion of scripture, theology, ethics, etc. Basically, something that transcends current events. Also, starting July 17, I will post a comment every Sunday: commentary on a weekly news item from a Social Gospel perspective. Note that this new schedule does not mean that I won't be posting blurbs at other times.

Now a short meditation to kick off the schedule. This Five Gospels that I've been reading has got me thinking not only about what Jesus taught, but how he taught. Why did Jesus teach in parables? Wouldn't things have been much easier if Jesus more often laid down clear rules of ethical doctrine? Consider the preface to Donald Morgan's (famous?/infamous?) list of "Biblical Inconsistencies." While acknowledging that many of the difficulties listed could be resolvable on certain interpretations, Morgan asserts that "a perfect and omnipotent God could, should, and likely would see to it that such problems did not exist." In other words, God has the answers, so why doesn't God just come out and tell us already?!

My tentative answer to Morgan, and to the question of why Jesus taught in parables, is twofold. First, Jesus taught in parables because He wants us to think for ourselves. God did not intend us as automatons. God created human beings, with free will and curious (and at least sometimes rational) minds. It should not be surprising therefore, that Jesus' teachings are more than simply a laundry list of commands that we are supposed to "download" and follow like robots. They invite creative thinking and critical discussion.

Second, parables are more powerful than abstract doctrine. It's great artists like William Shakespeare and not academic Psychologists and Sociologists who provide us with the greatest, most memorable insights into the human condition. Similarly, Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan provides us with more powerful moral insight than could any abstract discussion of ethics.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The next Justice

Remember me? Yeah, I post here too. I've got a lot that I need to blog (personal health issues, family employment issues, etc), and I promise to get to them sooner rather than later.

On a seperate note, I wanted to speculate on who President Bush will nominate to be the Supreme Court now that there is a vacancy...

My guess is that Alberto Gonzales will be nominated to the Court. Why? From what I have heard, Gonzales is a MODERATE on social issues like abortion, and WOULD NOT likely overturn Roe. Doesn't sound like a Bush appointee, you say? In the words of my favorite college football analyst, "Not so fast my friend..."

Ask yourself what single issue has been uniting the Republican base for years, and you'll soon realize that overturning Roe could be devasting to the Republican Party. As soon as conservative "Christians" get what they want (i.e. a pro-life justce to overturn Roe), abortion will no longer be their litmus test in voting. Republicans would no longer be able to count on their votes merely by claiming to be "pro-life."

The Republican Party has no intention of overturning Roe, just making people think they do. Don't get me wrong, I know and respect that many - if not most - social conservatives in office want to see Roe done away with. In fact, I wish they would succeed. My contention, however, is that the highest members of their party are unwilling to make that happen, knowing just what is at stake for their base.

Appointing Gonzales, someone Republicans could justify as the first Hispanic on the Court (to replace the first woman), could be just want Karl Rove is looking for. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Attorney General Gonzales in Iraq encouraging our troops as we speak.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Happy Birthday to SGT

This blog celebrates its one-year anniversary this weekend. Thanks to everyone who reads and comments! Expect even better content in the year to come.