This piece is too long. But I can’t help it.
Barry Reed, a highly respected trial lawyer honored in a number of important ways by his peers died in 2002. He specialized in medical malpractice, retired and wrote The Verdict, which was adapted by David Mamet for the screen and came out in 1982 with Paul Newman playing the lead.
Newman plays Frank Galvin, a lawyer who spirals down to being nothing more than an “ambulance chaser” and his wrestle with alcohol was a major factor in that downward plunge. But he gets a shot at redemption when he is offered a case involving a young woman who is given wrong medical treatment and is now in a permanent vegetative state. The medical people are guilty and clear evidence is offered to prove it but the testimony is stricken due to a genuine legal ruling. It seems clear that like countless millions in various situations down the centuries the stricken girl and her family will be denied justice and it’s at that point Galvin, deeply grieved, offers an emotional but accurate summation to the jury. Hesitant and groping now and then for the right words and recognizing the difficulty facing the jury he says this:
“Well…so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.’ And there is no justice. The rich win and the poor are powerless. We become…tired of hearing people lie and after a time we become dead, we think of ourselves as victims. We become victims. We become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs; we doubt our institutions. We doubt the law. But today you are the law. You are the law! Not some book. Not the lawyers. Not a marble statue or the trappings of the court. Those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are, in fact, a payer, a fervent frightened prayer. In my religion they say, ‘Act as if you had faith and faith will be given to you.’ If we are to have faith, faith in justice we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. I believe there is justice in our hearts.” 1
The jury returns and renders a verdict in favor of the patient and her family..
What I find compelling in Galvin’s speech is that the longing for righteousness is not entirely absent from human hearts though as in this movie it isn’t always present—for here the church and the medical fraternity were suppressing it. Jesus would tell you this wasn’t the first time religious people and the powers were united against justice.
Galvin reminds the jury (and us) that the visible structures and written laws bear witness to something deeper. He reminds them (and us) that in a very real sense these things are “a prayer, a very frightened prayer” that our longing for justice will be heard. The structures, the “trappings,” the marble statues and the thousands of law books all speak and they speak falteringly; they speak sometimes poorly and they speak to people who feel helpless and unsure, people who don’t always know what is right or how to bring it about.
Still, in a world, a big round teeming world, where injustice is rampant, where the liars and the powerful hold sway these buildings and judges and trappings and laws continue to protest. And we need to remember that the movie originated in the heart of a real-life Barry Reed and isn’t just a movie—it describes life as it is in this fallen world. And when a movie has the impact that this movie had it’s only an ignorant cynic that dismisses it as having nothing worthwhile to say.
As the visible structures that are part of the judicial system point to something beyond themselves and become a sort of prayer for the best and for what is right so it is that the visible act of Baptism is a profound act of trust and commitment and it’s a prayer that reaches out in trust to Someone who lived, died and lives again for the entire human family. Baptism proclaims and in its very action it images the resurrection of Jesus. In doing that it shouts to an enslaved human family that it has a champion. Baptism says, “The One who lives again and forever is not your enemy; He is the enemy and conqueror of your enemies!”
In Acts 17:30-31 Paul contrasts the years that passed before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ with what is now revealed about God and he speaks of them as years of ignorance. God had never been concerned only about the welfare of a single nation or a particular group! In Christ who died for all in all the ages we learn that all tyranny in all the nations will be taken into account and dealt with. Victims and oppressors will all be treated with fairness, a righteousness that only God can exercise, a righteousness that’s perfectly imaged in the person of the Lord Jesus. “Look at Him, “ baptism says, “That’s the embodiment of fairness and righteousness that will judge the world.”
And our assurance of that is what? Once more, God assures us that this will take place by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. Every man, woman, boy and girl that rises from the watery grave announces the coming righting of all wrongs! The groaning, anguished world needs to hear that truth—all wrongs will be righted—and God appointed baptism as a witness to that truth.
It’s too easy to reduce this true word about judgment and the entire section to threat and ignore the assurance, the promise, and it’s too easy to leave the impression that God is nothing more than a heavenly legalist. The section is not threat so much as it is assurance for it identifies the one true God who will judge the world in faithfulness and fairness as the giver of life and everything else; it tells us that He gives these because we are His children and because He wishes for us to seek after Him and find Him (Acts 17:25,27-29). Seek after Him guided by His abundant provision, seek after Him and find Him! God wants us to find Him; to find Him!
God loves to be longed for,
He longs to be sought
For he sought us Himself
With such longing and love.
He died for desire of us,
And he yearns for us now
To live with Him in love. 2
All the gods in the world’s ancient and modern marketplaces make their claims and offer their credentials and promises but one of them stands out above all the rest. Other than this one, the rest have kept their distance from the human family, living in myths and in imagination on far away mountains and in “once upon a time” periods—playing games with mankind and feasting as the lords they were imagined to be.
Heinrich Heine died in 1856. He was a highly regarded German-born poet, journalist and literary figure and he wrote about his travels in Travel Pictures. In the book he quotes the Homeric description of the feasting gods and then he imagines and says this:
“Then suddenly approached, panting, a pale Jew with drops of blood on his brow, with a crown of thorns on his head, and a great cross laid on his shoulders; and he threw the cross on the high table of the gods so that the golden cups tottered, and the gods became dumb and pale, and grew even paler till at last they melted away into vapor.” (I wish I’d written that!) He goes on to say this.
“Anyone who sees his god suffering finds it easier to endure his own pain. The merry gods of the past, who felt no pain, did not know either how poor tortured human beings feel, and a poor person in desperation could have no real confidence in them. They were holiday gods; people danced around them merrily, and could only thank them. For this reason they never received whole-hearted love. To receive whole-hearted love one must suffer. Compassion is the last sacrament of love; it may be love itself. Therefore of all the gods who ever lived, Christ is the god who has been loved the most.”3
Paul claimed that the one true God permitted the human family freedom to reject Him and go its own way but He left a witness of Himself. He didn’t go into a ceaseless divine sulk and rage, He continued to do good, to give us sunshine and rain, fruitful seasons and to fill our hearts with gladness.4 And the final proof, the climatic proof, the astonishing truth (hard for some to believe) is Jesus!
We must come to understand that it’s life God offers to the world in Jesus Christ. God isn’t like a vain man or woman who is interested only in being told how wonderful He is. He created humans to love and be loved, to live in righteousness and enjoy life in which warm and gladly expressed righteousness prevails.
Those who have little concern about justice for all haven’t yet understood the mission of God. He is about the forgiveness of sins but He is about humanity and about humanity’s needs; He is about dying but He is about living. When He came to us in and as Jesus Christ He not only forgave, He healed and fed and He called on people to do the same (see Acts 10:38). “Religion” that is not “life” is not the religion God is about. The OT is saturated with the truth that God is profoundly concerned about injustice, the deprivation of people, about their hunger and their needs. Because this is so we hear about Him dismantling national and political structures that abuse and deprive the poor and needy [Ezekiel 16, Daniel 4; Amos 7 illustrate].
How people live and die matters to Him! And one vast and complex aspect of His mission to reconcile the world to Himself and to one another is to bring about life and peace and joy under the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ!
All our best dreams in our best moments include life that is joy-filled and with reachable opportunities for all that will permit them to grow and love and live in the fullness of life. Our wise reforms smash on the rock of human wickedness. Despite our best efforts in our best and wisest moments horror stories reach us about cruelty, humiliation, slavery and despair that defy adequate description.
Though it is many things baptism is a confession and a prayer. It is a confession that humans cannot cure themselves and that if a warm justice is to prevail God will have to step in and see it is done.5 Baptism is a prayer, sometimes a hesitant prayer, because we humans are so vulnerable and easily frightened by power that’s demonic; but it is a prayer that what is right will triumph because Jesus Christ who is truth and right has triumphed. It’s a prayer based on the truth that He didn’t triumph just for Himself; He didn’t triumph simply to show how much wiser and stronger God is than humans—He triumphed for us—for His human family, for his Father’s children. 6
This truth is an aspect of the gospel! Whatever else we take to humans that live in distant lands or close to home, and live under oppression or in ceaseless deprivation; whatever we take we must take that truth!
Of course we’ll tell them that they too are sinners but we must tell them that God has sent us to tell them that He sees their pain and suffering and that in Jesus He will right all wrongs and will “restore the years that the locusts have eaten.” We need to tell them that and then we need to tell them that God wills it that they join Him in telling this to their family and friends and enemies and nations. God is more than a judge; He is a Savior who is their Father!
And when they go down into the water and rise again they say to all those powers that oppose Christ and his Spirit, “Your day is coming! You think we’re beaten because you enslave, torment and kill us? You’re wrong! You’ve done that with millions of us but one day you did it with one who had your number! In us, in our faith and our living hope He continues to defeat you even now and He’s returning and will obliterate you!” And to all the victims of oppression, all the multiplied millions that have gone down or are going down under the heel of oppressive governments, under unjust laws and systems their baptism says, “You are not forgotten! All wrongs will be righted and life that spills over with life will go on forever!”
[Holy Father, help us to believe in the Son you love and who simply by being Himself is the Judge of the world. We can’t deny that we believe in Him but there are times when we look inward and around and we know with a disappointing certainty that we desperately need you to help us in our unbelief. Now and then and for a while we realize how difficult faith in Him is for those whose lives are one long experience of rejection or ill health or economic oppression or humiliation or loneliness—they hear His name spoken and sung but they know only hurt and loss and a daily trudge toward old age, feebleness and the grave, while the rich and powerful and their content supporters, the lairs and those that manipulate the truth and control the flow of information are blessed. In truth, at times we wonder how anyone can be saved. In our sinfulness we have helped build a world that has become our master, it frightens us and it is too strong for us. We find our faith is fervent within the walls of a place of public worship but find it listless when intimidated by daily life that confuses and hurts us so that we put our trust in power and shrewdness and lies. We remember sometimes that you will gain your eternal loving purpose even if we do not help you but in our hearts we do not wish you to do it without us. Leave us not, continue your patient work with us and trust in us and equip us better for your service. Though we deserve it not, keep us ever near to your heart that ours might find its rhythm in yours. Deliver us from the temptation to make alliances with the gloomy and savage powers of the world as did your People in ancient times and if need be rip away all the props we use to support ourselves and leave us with no option but to trust in you through Him. Help your Church to remember our Baptism and to daily live its message that poor tortured suffers might hear and be drawn to trust and to live in vibrant hope because of Jesus Christ. This prayer in the Lord Jesus.]
- I’m well aware that that speech will offend many serious church-going people who might mutter, “Humanism.” But I’m not interested at this point in discussing the weaknesses of the “theology” in the speech. I wish only to say before moving on that God does not bring justice about by magic. And he does not bring it about solely through people who have a perfectly worded theology. He does it through flawed humans; humans that are not so flawed that they can’t recognize and long for social justice in this world; humans that God has helped to so shape whether they know it or not and sometimes—as in the situation in view—they that are able to see that it’s done. In this book/movie he does it through a jury of twelve ordinary people.
- The closing verse [last line slightly adapted] of F.W. Faber’s great poem, The Desire of God. Easily found online.
- Archipelago Books, 2008, translation by Peter Wortsman, page 174. 4. Acts 14:15-17
- Baptism calls Christians to live life now in the image of Jesus Christ who is the embodiment of the fullness of life in the final unveiling of kingdom life. We’re not given the right to yawn and say God will make the difference when he comes so noting is asked of us.
- & 6 See Acts 17:23-29