a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

law school

by Jeremy Kessler

When I began law school in 2008, both evangelicalism and law school attendance were on the rise in the United States. Though these trends generally got covered in different corners of the newspaper, I came to suspect a secret connection. A year or two at a fine American law school can leave the most hard-bitten among us longing for rebirth. St. Paul once wrote: “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.” It will come as no surprise to even the most unbiblical law student that Paul was once an attorney himself. Law school can cramp, as stilted policy discussions and four-hour exams chock full of outlandish narratives of wrongdoing seem unequal to the pleasures and pain of being human. Who we are gets buried beneath what we do. Pressed upon by prescribed forms, the doubtful legal journeyman or woman longs to break on through, to speak in tongues, to be born again.

Thanks to Paul, law students can rely on a strong precedent should they have a change of heart. If my generation seems to have a particular passion for law school, that may disguise a deeper passion for conversion. Late-night dive-bar conversations with dissatisfied summer associates are never fully consigned to hopelessness. In the complaints of the soon-to-be-professional, there always remains a glimmer of expectancy: Perhaps I will be transformed. Perhaps the law is not the final form my life will take—it may only be the shaping flame. Such a wayfarer takes the bar and trusts in grace.

Betting on epiphany is an old American tradition. From the one-time minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, to the tortured academic Thomas Kelly, to the mercurial insurance man Wallace Stevens, some of our greatest voices have used the grayscale world of professionalism as the background for their kaleidoscopic experiments with the spirit. Yet there is something cartoonish about turning the black-letter law-book into a springboard toward the Ultimate.

William Stringfellow, a great American lawyer and theologian, offered plenty of ammunition to the spiritually-dissatisfied law student. Yet he also criticized the flight from reality that frequently accompanies frustration with legal drudgery. On the one hand, his descriptions of his alma mater were unrelenting: “Initiation into the legal profession, as it is played out at a place like the Harvard Law School, is … elaborately mythologized, asserts an aura of tradition, and retains a reputation for civility. All of these insinuate that this process is benign, though, both empirically and in principle, it is demonic.” On the other hand, as much as Stringfellow condemned the cult of success and power he found at law school, he was also unimpressed by quick-and-dirty spiritual evasions. “Contemporary spirituality,” he explained, could only offer cheap escape from the here-and-now, not an alternative response to the human complexity with which legal systems must struggle. Where both legal education and contemporary spirituality went wrong, in his mind, was their idolization of personal efficacy at the expense of the true effectiveness of the Word of God.

Stringfellow was a Rhode Islander, and true to that state’s noble birth, he lived his own religion. He was an early adopter of the civil rights revolution; in the late 1940s, he sat down with some black students at a lunch counter in as-yet-desegregated Maine. After graduating from Bates College on a scholarship, he studied in London and briefly joined the Army. Stringfellow often said that by the time he enrolled in Harvard Law School, he knew he would never have a profession, only a vocation: to live in accord with the Word.

Throughout his life, Stringfellow contrasted “legal” advocacy with “biblical” advocacy, and “contemporary” spirituality with “biblical” spirituality. Biblical advocacy and biblical spirituality were really one and the same thing—a form of politics that recognized God as the only legitimate actor on the world stage. This form of politics was anathema both to the law school of Stringfellow’s youth and the modern spiritualisms he saw gaining in popularity all around him, from yoga to televangelism. What both realms had in common was their commitment to personal prowess through self-discipline. Where the law student was most exacting, where the modern spiritualist was most dedicated to “self-denial,” Stringfellow saw only “a matter of self-indulgence, a vainglorious idea.”

After Harvard, Stringfellow followed the Word of God to East Harlem, where he offered his legal services to penniless tenants and sex offenders, among other citizens of Babylon. Amidst the black-and-white 1950s, Stringfellow, a closeted gay man, made a lonely home for himself in a gray space beyond the margins of polite society. In 1962, however, Stringfellow met the love of his life, the poet Anthony Towne, and they moved into an apartment on West 79th Street. Stringfellow continued his legal work on the behalf of the urban poor, even as he extended his advocacy to the underground culture of gay New York.

However much the law provided an arena in which to intercede in the suffering of others, Stringfellow continued to find it a stumbling block. Legal advocacy was forever bound up within an “adversary system, with all its implications of competitiveness, aggression, facetious games, debater’s craft, and winning per se.” Late in his life, Stringfellow wrote, “I continue to be haunted by the ironic impression that I may have to renounce being a lawyer the better to be an advocate.”

Biblical spirituality demanded both self-sacrificing involvement with the world and an avoidance of the world’s emphasis on achievement, efficacy, and power, an emphasis particularly acute in the courtroom. Perhaps to ease the “relentless tension” between the words of the law and the Word of God, Stringfellow and Towne moved from the city to Block Island. While their departure from urban life may have looked to some like a flight from trouble, Stringfellow and Towne saw their new home, which they named “Eschaton,” as another station on the apocalyptic road. Far from the secular center of things, Stringfellow and Towne used Eschaton’s isolation to engage in new forms of biblical politics.

In 1970, they sheltered the Catholic poet and war-resister Daniel Berrigan. Two years earlier, along with eight others, Berrigan had entered a selective service office in Catonsville, Maryland and burned over three hundred draft cards with homemade napalm. Following his conviction for destruction of government property and interference with the draft, he went on the lam, denying the authority of the court to convict or imprison him. After a months-long search, the FBI arrested him at Eschaton.

Subsequent to the arrest, the government kept watch over Stringfellow and Towne’s modest island home and interrogated Stringfellow several times. During one interview, an FBI agent confronted Stringfellow with Chapter 13 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Christians frequently interpret as a command to obey legal authority. At the time, Stringfellow was at work on a book—Conscience & Obedience—that would challenge this standard reading of Paul. The agent apparently got an earful. Stringfellow explained that Romans must be read in concert with the Book of Revelation, which pictures the demonic growth and final destruction of all worldly authority. Authority, Stringfellow assured the G-man, must only be obeyed to the extent that it cooperates with the Word of God.

Stringfellow returned to this story several times in his writing; he clearly felt it was a moment when he had struck the right balance between biblical and legal advocacy—speaking the Word of God to a government official. This strange balance, standing both inside and outside the law, speaking to one authority on behalf of another, was Stringfellow’s vision of authentic spiritual practice.

Currently, I am neither representing poor tenants nor sheltering fugitive war-resisters. Reading Stringfellow has in some ways been an escape for me, a hopeful daydream. His life is a hero’s journey. In law school, courtrooms, hospitals, churches, city streets, Stringfellow challenged authorities unmoored from God’s simplifying command. He once performed an exorcism of Richard Nixon on the Washington Mall. Behind my fascination with this crusading and converted lawyer lurks the question that occupies many law students: What am I doing here?

The fear, and the thrill, that something you are doing right now could be the first step of a glorious, or at least fulfilling, journey, puts a spring in the law school student’s step. Ever- expectant, my gait marries reaching for a prize and ducking a blow. Stringfellow’s way of dealing with this domination of the present by the future was in his account of ceaseless work of the Word of God. There are no ladders to climb, no lesser authorities to appease. As long as you recognize the presence of the Word of God the only thing to do is obey its command. Such higher obedience can be a spiritual and a legal decision, influencing one’s lawyerly practice as much as one’s inner life.

A new movement called “religious lawyering” is looking to bring something like Stringfellow’s biblical outlook to the halls of law schools and governments nationwide. The trans-denominational movement emerged in the 1990s, and there are now several professional organizations (such as the Christian Legal Society and the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists) and institutes at Pepperdine and Fordham Law Schools devoted to integrating individual faith with legal practice. No longer does Paul need to leave his career behind. Religious lawyers, however, are not missionaries; they do not seek to propagate religious observance through their legal work. Rather, they hope to bring the moral sensitivity they cherish in their faith traditions to the complex human relationships that structure their professional lives. In the words of one of the movement’s eloquent defenders, the law professor Robert Vischer, “The concrete differences religious lawyering will make will tend to involve relational differences—i.e., seeing the client not simply as a source of predetermined legal instructions, but as a fellow human faced with circumstances brimming with moral significance.”

Though Stringfellow would have applauded this emphasis on the richness of human relationship, he might have questioned the relative ease with which some religious lawyers propose to negotiate the competing sovereignties of God, the state, and the marketplace. Stringfellow was anxious enough about the conflict between biblical and earthly advocacy when representing poor tenants. The religious lawyer’s search for God’s blessing in most any legal arena—whether corporate boardroom or prosecutor’s office—is probably a more liberal one than Stringfellow’s demanding Christ could allow.

Despite their differences, both Stringfellow’s biblical advocate and today’s religious lawyer come into the legal world ready to obey the Word. Their struggle to reconcile faith with worldly practice is one thing. The struggle to hear the Word to begin with is quite another. It would have been great if I could have gotten the major soul-searching out of the way before entering law school. Although a legal education can serve the young crusader well, it is better at inducing spiritual crises than resolving them.