Melissa Wiginton: Lawyers as leaders

Tempting as it is to “kill all the lawyers,” as Shakespeare said, some of them are faith-inspired leaders in their community, including one recently deceased judged and another newly minted law school graduate.

Tempting as it is to “kill all the lawyers,” some of them are faith-inspired leaders in their community, as one recently deceased and another newly minted lawyer show.

Shakespeare’s famous line from Henry VI, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” needs no interpretation. We English speakers love to hate lawyers –those holders of privilege, manipulators of words and purveyors of power. Christians are called to the opposite: lowliness, speaking truth in love, emptiness of self. Can a Christian even be a lawyer?

Oh yes. They can participate in God’s healing of the world just like the rest of us, and because of their access to knowledge and position they can do it in particularly potent ways on behalf of the least of us.

Retired Judge Mace B. Thurman died recently at the age of 91. If you aren’t from Travis County, Texas, this probably doesn’t mean any more to you than the death of the rock mason listed before him in the obituaries or the homemaker listed after. He was buried at Tarrytown United Methodist Church.

For more than 35 years Judge Thurman adjudicated criminal cases where, as one lawyer quoted in the obituary put it, “you have a steady diet of the worst of human conduct.” But he added, “Judge Thurman was still able to see into the people." Thurman tried to keep people out of prison—but was never accused of being soft on crime. He “tried like hell” to get people on the right track, especially young people. He intentionally groomed a generation of young lawyers—prosecutors and defense attorneys—not only to become judges, but also to be leaders and models of integrity. Judge Thurman said that as a boy he had aspirations to be a street-car conductor, a garbage collector or a preacher. Citizens in Austin are grateful that he went the way he did: we need judges who care about our community with their actions and not just their words.

Judge Thurman is not the last of his kind. A new generation of lawyers also includes agents of God’s care of the most vulnerable and the shaping of the powers for the common good.

Hannah Miller, who graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 2009, has been credited by one judge with leading “triggering a potential paradigm shift” in the juvenile justice system. Reforms she advocated for are already in place in more than 50 Texas counties. When she witnessed the hellish conditions inside our maximum-security prisons as part of a law school clinic, she decided to focus her career on policy issues affecting prisoners, particularly youth and death-row inmates. Ms. Miller says “I believe that everyone has basic worth as a human being and the potential for transformation.” Perhaps it is no accident that she spent a year at Harvard Divinity School before starting law school.

We need more lawyer leaders like Judge Thurman and Hannah Miller, and they are sitting in our congregations right now. They may not know how badly we need them. They may be twittering or have tattoos. And they may be aching with what to do with their lives and have no words for it. They may graduate from church after confirmation if we don’t see who they are, if we don’t pay attention and talk together about important things—like God’s dream for healing, wholeness and reconciliation and the call they have to make that dream come true.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Ministry Programs and Planning at the Fund for Theological Education.