The Kingdom and the Law: Who Would Jesus Sue?

After what was probably an unnecessarily long trip, which I summarized in my last post, I’m now ready to talk about something that is a little more pragmatic: under what circumstances should a disciple of Jesus become involved in civil litigation?

The discussion today starts with an angry brother’s encounter with Jesus:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

I love this story more and more every time I come back to it. It is exactly what you would expect to get from Jesus – by which I mean, Jesus says to this guy exactly what no one would expect him to say.

Jesus is not in the business of meting out justice. If justice is what you want, he is happy to refer you to the proper authorities, who will take care of the matter for you (though, as I’ve already pointed out, you may not like the result). But don’t bother him with your complaints about how you are getting the shaft from your brother, your business partner, or the guy who ran a stop sign and hit you last year. He is not worried about your legal rights. He is worried about what the pursuit of your legal rights is doing to you.

If Jesus is in any business, it is the business of redeeming people from greed. And, having spent almost a decade and a half, now, dealing with things that happen at courthouses, I can tell you that it isn’t a coincidence that he ends up addressing the whole issue of greed in the context of the administration of civil justice.

Discipleship to Jesus isn’t about getting what you are legally due. To the contrary, if the sermon on the mount is to be taken in the least bit seriously, it is about doing exactly the opposite thing: willingly surrendering your rights to those who seek to take them from you.

I’ve read the gospels very closely for many years now looking for Jesus’ advice about the courts, and I can find nothing that he has to say on the subject other than this: stay out of them. Again, as I’ve already said, lawsuits, just about any lawsuit of any nature, is a breeding ground for anger, greed, uncharitableness, and deceipt.

Can you survive a lawsuit without succumbing to any of those things? I suppose so – in the same way that you could walk through a porn shop without experiencing sexual temptation. You can make it (maybe), but its not the best place for your spiritual health to begin with, and you’d better have a very good reason for being there.

Am I advocating a wholesale abandonment of the judicial system by all Christians? Not really. The reality of the world is that disputes develop (especially in business contexts) and that sometimes – by choice or not – you end up in a situation where you are in court.

I am, however, saying three things:

1. I can think of very few situations where it would be anything other than an act of Christ-likeness to give up one’s interest in a lawsuit – wholesale – to one’s opponent for no purpose other than to make peace. I’m not dissing people who make other choices. I’m just saying that this choice will always be a choice that follows in the Way of Christ. Especially when the stakes are high.

I have yet to see someone liquidate their business to compensate someone else for an alleged wrong that may or may not even be recognized by the court system. But such an act – if done in the name of Jesus – would be a powerful testimony about the nature and presence of God’s kingdom – a kingdom that values peace with one’s enemies above one’s own interests.

2. If you do choose to press forward into litigation, you should have a very good reason for doing it. And – as Jesus made clear repeatedly – the need for justice for yourself does not qualify. Nor, I might add, is the bare belief that someone else should’t be allowed to “get away with” some deception or false claim.

3. If you do choose to press forward into litigation, you need to be prepared to deal with some seriously difficult temptations.

Accountability – especially for Christian businesspeople in business litigation contexts, but also for individuals who are asserting or defending personal injury claims – is a key component in my mind. Is there someone who knows what is going on to whom you have to answer? If not, you’re in a particularly vulnerable place.

Up next: how liablity insurance changes the landscape (sort-of)

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