In the movie The Verdict, a washed-out lawyer named Frank Galvin, played by Paul Newman, represents a woman cast into a vegetative state at the hands of two prominent Boston physicians. Against what seem insurmountable odds — a high-powered and unscrupulous legal team, a shady judge, and (spoiler alert) a girlfriend spying for the other side — Galvin rests his case with a “summation” that draws me back to the film again and again. It is Newman at his best as he says to the jury:
“You know, 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; the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time we become dead. We think of ourselves as victims and we become victims. We become weak; we doubt ourselves and doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions and 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 prayer; a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion they say, ‘Act as if ye had faith and faith will be given to you.’ If. If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. I believe there is justice in our hearts.”
That haunting soliloquy, delivered in a film made 36 years ago, provides a fearsome primer for the year 2018. It not only articulates us as a country but also as a church, at least certain segments of the Body of Christ that seem a long way from what the New Testament calls koinonia. (By the way, the earliest Christians often found themselves a considerable distance from such communal fellowship.) On the cusp of 2018, I confess to what Attorney Galvin called a fervent and a frightened prayer for the days ahead.
Regarding the national scene, I’m praying frightened prayers in response to terrible voting laws; revived white supremacy ideology and action; injustice to the poor, often at the benefit of the rich; collective acquiescence to “alternative facts”; a culture of sexual harassment; an opioid epidemic, and a renewed threat of nuclear war. Sometimes praying for strength simply to navigate the unpredictability of daily life retains a frightening tinge!
These anxious supplications are also directed toward a church beset by closures of congregations and theological schools, aging memberships, and declining attendance, diminishing historical consciousness, and the departure of the unaffiliated “nones,” now at 25 percent of the American religious populace. Yet I refuse to blame those ecclesiastical realities on secularization, the media, an increasingly antagonistic anti-Christian society, pollsters, or Donald Trump. Rather, I wonder how we Christians have contributed to our own current dilemma.
That’s when my prayers turn from frightened to fervent, invoking Divine assistance in “meeting Jesus again, for the first time,” to paraphrase the late Marcus Borg. If “the Church’s one foundation” remains Jesus Christ (and it does), then might we:
- Pray fervently to rediscover religious experience, not as mere salvific transaction, or some sort of Jesus vaccination that settles salvation once and for all in this world and the next, but as life journey — transforming, overwhelming, messy, sometimes hesitant, frequently mundane, and everlastingly daily. In 2018, instead of asking, “Have you had an experience with Jesus?” let’s inquire: “Has Jesus had an experience with you?” Then see what happens. (Read the Gospels’ lakeshore encounters if you question this option.)
- Pray fervently that amid all our theories of biblical inspiration and authority — from the Jesus Seminar to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy — we refuse to let presumptions about the text distance us from the text itself — life-changing, challenging, sustaining, radical, unpredictable, and yes, messy. As those 17th century Particular Baptists declared in the London Confession of Faith, 1688: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for Salvation, are so clearly propounded, and open in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.”
- Pray fervently for enough faith in God and in ourselves to act with and for justice, believing that by grace there really is “justice in our hearts,” and beseeching God for the courage to stand for justice when we must. At this moment in both our national and ecclesiastical life, the pursuit of justice is not merely possible but essential, moments that unite us in fervent and frightened prayer. And leaning into justice is always fearsome.
Not long before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. remembered a day, June 21, 1966, in Philadelphia, Miss., when he and Ralph Abernathy led a march protesting the murder of three civil rights workers. From the courthouse steps King proclaimed: “In this county Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner were brutally murdered. I believe the murderers are somewhere around me at this moment.” An antagonistic sheriff’s deputy standing near him answered back: “You damn right, they’re right behind you.”
King recalled, “I just gave up — I wouldn’t say I was afraid; I just gave up. I yielded to the real possibility of the inevitability of death. … And we had to kneel to pray. Did I pray, or did Ralph? Ralph prayed that day and we had to close our eyes and I just knew they were going to drop on us. Ralph said he prayed with his eyes open.”
In 2018, let’s meet Jesus one more time, ready to act for justice should the times demand — praying fervent and frightened prayers. Eyes wide open.