Story idea: Gospel Justice Ministry

It’s been a while since my last post, and that’s partly because I’ve been pursuing a story. I’d like to outline that story here, and get feedback or suggestions as to how to improve it. I’ll start with some market research, then my goals or objectives in telling the story, and finally a description of the story arc itself. As an appendix, I will also include a theological discussion of what Christian legal aid should be about.

Market Research

Okay, maybe the following is actually more anecdotal than true market research, but it’s insightful nonetheless. According to Law Professor Deborah Rhode, Director of the Stanford Center on Ethics:

“With respect to civil legal assistance, the public is … supportive, but … misinformed. Although the vast majority of Americans favor providing legal assistance for the poor in civil cases, most would rather see it come from volunteer attorneys than from government subsidies, and 40 percent want to support only advice, not litigation. For many claims, such as those involving challenges to welfare legislation or prison conditions, one Denver legal aid attorney aptly noted that “[t]he only thing less popular than a poor person is a poor person with a lawyer.”
Not only are Americans ambivalent about ensuring legal assistance, they are ill informed about the assistance currently available. Almost four-fifths incorrectly believe that the poor are now entitled to legal aid in civil cases, and only a third think that they would have a very difficult time obtaining assistance. Such perceptions are wildly out of touch with reality. Legal services offices can handle less than a fifth of the needs of eligible clients and often are able to offer only brief advice, not the full range of assistance that is necessary. Wait lists of two years for non emergencies are common, and entire categories of the “unworthy poor” are excluded from federal support, such as prisoners [and] undocumented immigrants….”

Story Goals

I want to make three relatively simple points, but make them convincingly.

1. Help the public understand the need for a Gospel Justice Ministry

Big picture:

There is a justice gap in the United States

  • For every one person who actively seeks and obtains assistance from legal aid programs, one is turned away because of limited resources.
  • Only a small fraction of the legal problems experienced by low-income people (less than 20%) are addressed with the assistance of either a private attorney (pro bono or paid) or a legal aid lawyer.
  • There are more than ten times as many private lawyers providing services to those above the poverty threshold as there are legal aid attorneys helping those below.
  • State courts are being overwhelmed by a rising tide of unrepresented litigants, many of them low-income people eligible for legal assistance who have been unable to obtain an attorney.
  • Contrary to the understanding of most people, Americans are only guaranteed an attorney for criminal, and not civil, matters.
  • There are several factors making the picture worse:
    1. The economic crisis
    2. Specifically the housing crisis
    3. The impact of natural disasters like Katrina
    4. State budget cutbacks that reduce legal aid
    5. All of the other factors leading to the significant increase in the number of people living below the poverty level
  • Relying on private attorneys to give away pro bono publico all of the needed legal services to the 54 million people below 125% of the poverty level is a little bit like expecting the 46 million Americans without health insurance to get all the care they need through private physicians offering charity care.

Small picture:

Individuals are suffering unfairly and deeply in painful ways

  • A woman who wants to protect the assets of her father suffering from dementia
  • A woman trying to protect her children and herself from abuse
  • An ex-offender trying to reenter society, who needs a driver’s license so he can find a job
  • An immigrant being taken advantage of by local employers
  • A homeowner about to lose his house due to medical debt
  • A tenant whose possessions were confiscated to pay the rent

2. Explain why we should have hope for the future

Big picture:

This year a group of attorneys is developing a plan, tentatively called the Gospel Justice Initiative, to plant seeds for the creation of 1000 Christian legal clinics throughout the United States. The group plans to announce its initiative publicly in October of this year.

Small picture:

Individual attorneys at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis are helping individual clients in profound ways. The clinic’s aid, though, is different from traditional legal aid in that it is Christ-centered, and shares the hope that Christ offers. At the beginning of this post, volunteer attorney and retired Brigadier General Art Johnson counsels women in jail regarding issues such as bankruptcy so they can get their affairs in order upon their release.

3. Offer people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, and whole churches ideas regarding how they can get involved.

What can Christians offer? The following are a few examples.

  • Legal help (licensed attorneys) to address the needs, including
    1. Counseling to help the client understand the legal requirements (education)
    2. Counseling on the client’s obligations
    3. Counseling on the client’s rights and how they can help themselves
    4. Drafting and transactions, e.g. living wills, power of attorney, etc.
    5. Mediation of disputes—bringing two sides together
    6. Representation in proceedings
  • Prayer, in person and remotely. In person means, perhaps before, during or after meeting on their earthly needs.
  • Administrative support for legal ministries—wide range of services from typical office tasks to paralegal work
  • Translation services as many of the clients do not speak English
  • Crown Ministries. Many need counseling on the proper use of resources.
  • Poverty ministries
    1. Food
    2. Help with training and other activities that will lead to a job
    3. Housing to address homelessness
    4. Medical help
  • Marriage and parenting counseling
  • Prison ministries for those still incarcerated, and prison release ministries.
  • Protective ministries for victims of abuse.
  • Immigrant services mission.
  • Fundraising to support the Gospel Justice mission.
  • Leadership and advocacy for the cause of Gospel Justice

So How Do I Tell the Story
In An Engaging Way?

Multimedia Slide Show

The story arc.

i. The beginning

The story has to begin by conveying in some manner the real human impact that these ordinary legal problems have on the low income people who must suffer through them.
Some ideas include:

  • The simple lack of a driver’s license for someone recently released from prison.  How do they get and hold on to a job?
  • Someone who has been very sick, and faces enormous medical bills. How do they cope with the financial ruin?
  • A woman who has been abused by her husband, and must leave him. How does she cope with starting her life perhaps without an independent legal identity?
  • A person who lost his job, missed a few mortgage payments, and now faces foreclosure.

ii. The middle

Enter the clinic. How does the clinic help? A few messages to keep in mind.

  • It’s important to convey that it takes a village to help a client.
  • Avoid portraying the attorney as some sort of hero, a warrior on noble white steed wearing brightly polished armor, waiving the swift sword of justice. Instead, present the attorney as a caregiver, gently sharing Christ’s love with both friend and foe, conscientiously following the Bible’s guidance regarding the settlement of disputes.
  • This is not about litigation. This is not about helping a person seek revenge, or redress some slight the client has suffered.
  • Sometimes this is about tough love, telling the client things the client needs to know and understand, whether popular or not.
  • This is not about pushing social causes like fighting abortion or even using litigation to change the fundamental balance of power. This is individual caring and justice.
  • This is about relationships, and how the attorney and others on the team can use their relationships with the client to show God’s love and help them improve their lives.

iii. The end

Certainly the legal outcome in some sense will be interesting. But far more important will be an assessment of how the clinic’s work changed the client’s life humanly and spiritually.
The multimedia presentation will not be able to include very much on the big picture elements of the goals outlined at the beginning.

Written essay with accompanying photographs.

The written essay will give me the chance to tell much more clearly the story of the big picture, the statistics that illustrate the justice gap, the societal forces that are exacerbating that gap, and the recent movement among a small group of attorneys to launch an initiative designed to nurture 1000 Christian legal aid clinics. Through that written essay, I can also tell the individual stories that would be the same as the multimedia piece. The photographs would include a combination of big picture and small picture photographs.

Any thoughts regarding how I can improve this story?

Appendix A
Defining the Mission—
What Christian Legal Aid Should Do and Should Not Do

The specific organization through which the gospel justice ministry is offered must define itself, partly because there is not a well accepted model for what this ministry does.

Potential principles include:

  • We seek to be mediators, bringing parties together.
  • We hate litigation, and use it only as a very last resort. We promise to avoid it wherever possible, never letting it become a significant part of our practice. (See Appendix A)
  • We support clients who are trying to live by Christian values, and will not aid in any effort that does not comport to those values. But the client need not be a Christian. Examples might be:
    a. Christians are called to turn the other cheek and not seek retribution
    b. We believe in the sanctity of marriage, and the need to try reconciliation.
    c. Honesty in all things. We believe in the truth.
  • We seek to be counselors, helping the client understand what he/she should do, whether the advice will be popular or not. Our advice is informed by the law and our Christian values.
  • We will not take a case that private attorneys might take profitably or that other attorneys are already available to take. This includes:
    a. Criminal case, as public defenders handle those
    b. Cases to address broad wrongs, as class actions might be available
    c. Cases seeking social security benefits, as attorneys are available for those
    d. Victim compensation cases
    e. Any personal injury
    f. Child support defense where the court offers such defendants counsel
  • Cases with a social or political agenda, or where the case is motivated by a desire for publicity, for example prison condition cases. We do not handle such cases individually or through lobbying for collective reform.
  • We seek to live in the light, among other things setting an example even for those who oppose our clients.

With that broad set of principles, let me try to articulate the case against Christian attorneys using litigation as anything other than a matter of last resort, especially as a plaintiff. There are two themes running through the Bible that seem relevant.

1. Christians should Avoid Litigation

1 Corinthians 6:1-8
If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another–and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.
Matthew 5:23-26
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Matthew 18:15-20
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Biblical Dispute Resolution

  1. Directly communicate with the person whom you have a dispute with.
    - Matt. 18:15
  2. Take two or three [mediators] with you, and try a second time.
    - Matt. 18:16
  3. Bring the dispute before your church (arbitration).
    - Matt. 18:17a
  4. Seek resolution through the judicial system.
    - Matt. 18:17b

2. Let evil be evil, and bear your cross of suffering

Romans 5:1-5

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Hebrews 12:3-11

3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Matthew 5:39

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Revelation 22:11

Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.”

Conclusions

Based on those passages, I surmise:

  • Don’t seek retribution.
  • Don’t sink to their level. Rise above it.

But, does that mean an attorney should stand by and permit a person to suffer? Not at all. We are called to help where we can, consistent with those principles.

Broader Theme

We are directed to feed the poor. The point is not getting them food. The Lord could do that with manna from heaven. The point is to have a heart for feeding the poor.

Likewise, in a justice ministry, the point is not some earthy justice. God never promised earthly justice, nor is earthly justice ever pure. And frankly God could provide justice in a heartbeat. Rather, the point is to have a heart for giving justice. And a defendant forced by a court to give justice does not achieve that.

God never said “force others to feed the poor!” Likewise, He also never said “force others to give justice!”

Look at the references to justice in the Bible.

For judges-
Exodus 23:6 NIV
“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.
Deuteronomy 27:19 NIV
“Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Bottom line: if we can encourage others to give justice or if we can produce justice through our counseling , we are pleasing God.

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