Saturday, September 26, 2009

Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story (1996)

When I was taking classes to prepare for my baptism, the leaders at my church kept making references to the teachings and life examples of various saints and some lady named Dorothy Day. I had never heard of most of the saints they mentioned, and I sure as heck didn’t know who Dorothy Day was. One of the lay teachers at my church eventually clued us in a bit, explaining that Day had been a radical left-wing activist and journalist in the 1920s. She led a Bohemian life in New York City, lived with several men, and had an abortion. But in 1926, her daughter, Tamar, was born. Being a mother prompted a spiritual awakening in Day, and it led to her conversion to Catholicism. Her faith was central to her the rest of her life. Day used her talents to write for Catholic publications, and she founded the Catholic Worker movement. Her work with the poor emphasized the social teachings of Catholicism. Day was known for her pacifism and anti-war activism. After her death in 1980, some began to work to have her recognized as a saint.

In 1996, an independent film, Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, dramatized her life with an impressive Hollywood cast including Moira Kelly, Martin Sheen, Heather Graham, and Brian Keith. At the time, some reviews were critical of the script and Sheen’s performance, but frankly I’m not a drama critic and thought the film was good. The filmmakers certainly had strong material to work with; Day lived a fascinating and inspiring life. I personally love to read stories of conversion and human growth. I don’t think we are fully alive if we don’t continue to evolve and grow into the person God intended. I don’t believe we are intended to be stagnant, and I enjoy understanding what led to significant shifts in an individual’s attitudes and beliefs. Others may have a different opinion, but I think Entertaining Angels does a good job of providing that understanding, and it is an amazing journey to observe. Day’s unwavering dedication to the poor and to be the face of God to those without hope continues to be an inspiration.

Deuteronomy 15:4 (New International Version)
“However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow

Not long after reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, I took one of the best courses I have ever taken. At the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. George C. Wright taught a survey course on African American History from 1865 to the present. Despite the fact that it was an early morning class and I was decidedly not a morning person, I don’t think I ever missed a class. I was fascinated by Dr. Wright’s lectures. He taught us aspects of American history—often horrific, violent aspects—that I had never studied in grade school. His lectures opened my eyes like no other course I have ever taken. My recollection is that Dr. Wright assigned more books than my other classes, but I did not mind. Each one was quite different, but I read them all with fascination.

One of the books that Dr. Wright had us read was David Garrow’s detailed biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was quite long, but it was intriguing to learn more about the courageous, imperfect man behind the modern King myth. There were many parts of the book that I enjoyed and found inspiring. To this day, I continue to be awed that in the face of incredibly violent hatred, Dr. King could continue to confidently preach non-violence, as well as to pray for and love those who were oppressing him and his community. Humbly and honestly, I doubt I could muster that kind of love and faith under such frightening circumstances.

One early part of Garrow’s book was particularly influential on my own personal faith journey. In early 1956, as the Montgomery bus boycott dragged on and he was inundated by threats of violence, Dr. King understandably grew frightened and overwhelmed. He had just been released from jail, and was very uncomfortable with his own emergence as the focal point of the boycott. One late night, alone at his kitchen table, he thought seriously about withdrawing from the civil rights movement. He reflected on his relative privilege in growing up in a good family and in the church. He reflected on his great love for his newborn daughter and his wife, as well as his fear that he could lose them at any time due to the threatened violence against him and his family. With his head in his hands, Dr. King prayed aloud to God honestly acknowledging his own weakness. He told God he was faltering and losing his courage. Dr. King later said that at that table he heard a voice he attributed to Jesus; that voice told him to stand up for justice and truth and he would never, never be alone. Dr. King later said that up until that point, his faith had been "inherited" and though it meant something "very real" to him and he was "religious," he had never before had an intimate experience with God. That experience at the kitchen table, however, immediately gave him new strength and courage to continue his leadership in the civil rights movement. Days later, his own house was bombed and his family was nearly killed. But the experience a few days earlier helped give him an incredible peace as he told the angry crowds who came to his home that hate must be met with love. It was apparently a pivotal spiritual experience that steadied his faith for the rest of his life.

I remember that in the context of our class’s study of Malcolm X, Dr. Wright honestly acknowledged to us his own bias with respect to the Nation of Islam. He expressed that as a Christian, Dr. Wright himself had difficulty in fully understanding and appreciating the appeal of Islam. There are several good books about Dr. King, but not all discuss that pivotal spiritual experience in 1956. I’ve often wondered over the years if Dr. Wright’s decision to choose Garrow’s book was at all influenced (consciously or not) by his own faith and the book’s discussion of that 1956 experience.

Genesis 15:1 (New International Version)

“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The internet offers an overwhelming number of resources on many topics. It can be difficult to discern the most helpful from those of marginal value or those that contain only outdated material. I’m certainly not an expert on websites pertinent to the themes of law and progressive Christianity, however, I would like to occasionally share sites that I have found particularly useful or interesting. One such site is

I admit freely that I am horrible at rote memorization. My mind recalls concepts, but often fails to retain precise quotes of text no matter how hard I try. In my profession, being able to do legal research on-line is a godsend! I cannot imagine how lawyers did research before they could search documents electronically by keywords. However, I used to have a sense of how difficult such manual searches must have been whenever I was trying to find a particular passage from Scripture. I have several Bibles that I keep in different places. They contain different translations, and at various times I have underlined and tagged different passages in each Bible. As a result, searching for a particular passage through these various hardcopy texts was a slow, frustrating and rarely fruitful endeavor. Thank goodness for the internet—such searches are no longer necessary!

There are several on-line resources that allow you to search the bible electronically, but my favorite to date is The site offers the option of immediately pulling up a particular passage if you already know the book, chapter and verse where it appears. This is helpful if you see a verse in the Bible quoted but you don’t have a hardcopy handy. But if (like me) you often recall a concept from the Bible, but don’t remember where to find it, the site also offers the options of searching for verses by keyword and by topic. That is the aspect of this site that I particularly like.

Because there are so many different translations of the Bible, I also really appreciate the site’s ability to provide the same verse in a number of different translations (in English, as well as other languages). This can be very helpful because some of us are more familiar with one phrasing than another. Also, some translations are more eloquent than others. It can also be insightful to compare the various translations to get a better sense of what the literal meaning of the original text was, as well as the conceptual gist.

Matthew 7:7 (New International Version)
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Some readers of this blog may not know much about Jesus or Christianity. A basic, working knowledge of the faith that Jesus inspired is key to understanding some of the resources and ideas that will be discussed in this blog. To that end, I would like to suggest as an introductory resource C. S. Lewis’ seminal book, Mere Christianity. It was a book given to me in undergraduate school by a Christian friend who was frankly perplexed and concerned that I did not believe in Jesus. It has now been about twenty years since I first read the book. It is a well-respected book treasured by many Christians.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis succinctly and plainly described Christianity in layman’s terms. You don’t have to have a degree in theology or philosophy to read this book. The text is divided into four parts, each of which is subdivided into distinct chapters. Well-organized, Lewis takes the reader in a methodical, logical way through the basics of Christianity. And he does so from a decidedly non-denominational perspective, which is helpful to many. I found the book to be a very readable introduction to the Christian faith, which was something I had never had previously. It also gave me a lot of food for thought. Indeed, it was very influential in my eventual embrace of Christianity.

For socially progressive readers of this blog, I will warn you that I myself don’t necessarily agree with 100% of what Lewis wrote. His views on women and the institution of marriage immediately come to mind. Nonetheless, it is helpful to remember that Lewis and Mere Christianity were shaped by a very different culture than that of modern American readers. Lewis was British. He was born in Belfast in the nineteenth century, and enjoyed a successful academic career in England. He adapted the book from a series of BBC radio talks he gave in the 1940s. Moreover, when he wrote Mere Christianity, he had never been married. Arguably his writing on women and marriage were beyond his areas of expertise. For these reasons, I try to cut him some slack. In my opinion, the clear and plain-spoken nature of his writing makes up for such biases.

Indeed, even in the context of his writing on marriage, Lewis had intriguing insights on the interplay of religion and secular government. He rejected the notion that Christians should advocate civil laws prohibiting divorce. He analogized that he would not be in favor of Muslims imposing secular bans on alcohol just because consumption of alcohol is prohibited within Islam. Lewis argued that British Christians should recognize that most of their countrymen were not Christians and the faith should not be force upon them. Instead, Lewis advocated that there should be civil marriage laws separate and distinct from church rules governing marriage.

Psalm 86:11 (New International Version)
“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth.”

Saturday, September 12, 2009

About the Blog Editor—Part 2: Professional Journey

Both my husband and I come from fairly humble backgrounds. Our parents were all public school teachers. And as school teachers, they were the professionals in their families. Many of our relatives never had the opportunity to go to college. After undergraduate school, I idealistically followed my parents into teaching. By choice, I taught in schools situated in tough neighborhoods, where students had few prospects. I think that I aspired to live out the film Stand and Deliver, but that did not quite happen. Having grown somewhat disillusioned, I decided that becoming a lawyer would be more interesting. In particular, I was interested in some type of international business law. It was the late 1990s, and my thought was that one could best bring economic justice to the downtrodden by bringing commerce to their communities.

Law school was extremely hard. It was one of the most difficult, but ultimately most rewarding challenges of my life. Had I not gone to law school, I’m not sure who I would have become. My work ethic and my confidence in my own abilities were deepened tremendously. After completing a student clerkship, I was fortunate to get a terrific offer to work after graduation as an in-house corporate tax lawyer for a large multinational in the petroleum industry. The work was fascinating in many respects.

After a number of years, however, I eventually began to feel the pull of academia. I love to write and explore policy issues. But of course one does not get a chance to do that much in the corporate world. I also thought I had a lot I could share with would-be lawyers and could do some good by helping people transition into the legal profession. In 2008, after about eight years of corporate tax practice, I became a professor. I currently teach courses on Federal Income Tax and Criminal Law. I particularly enjoy working with first year students who are getting acclimated to the challenges law school, as well as upper division students who have seen the light and understand the ubiquitous importance of tax law to any legal practice. My scholarship interests include the application of evidentiary privileges in the tax context, children and the law, and the role of religion in shaping law (particularly the scope of criminal law).

1 Corinthians 4:12 (New International Version)

"We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it."

Friday, September 11, 2009

About the Blog Editor—Part 1: Faith Journey

As a lawyer, I am constantly trying to discern an individual’s biases as he or she expresses opinions. This happens when I read a book or an article, when I listen to a lecture or presentation, and even when I engage in casual, one-on-one conversations. I want to identify the life experiences that may have shaped the beliefs that are being shared. As a result of this preoccupation, I know that if I were a reader of this blog, I would be looking for any clues in blog posts that might shed more light on the key aspects of the editor’s faith journey and professional experience to understand better her perspective and biases. Wanting to avoid such distractions for readers of the Progressive Christianity & the Law Blog, I thought it would be helpful to take time at the beginning to shed some light on these topics. I offer the following biographical sketch in that spirit, not because I’m an egomaniac who has a burning desire to talk about herself. Indeed, I am rather a private person, so my initial inclination was not to share any personal information about myself. However, upon reflection, I think that would ultimately be a distraction to some who might be preoccupied with discerning my cultural and denominational biases. Hopefully, the following information will shed some light on those biases so they will not be a distraction when reading later posts in this blog.

I am Caucasian, and my family is mostly Protestant and from the South. I was raised in Central Texas and Northern Virginia. My father’s side of the family is mostly Southern Baptist. My mother’s kin have belonged to a variety of Protestant denominations--Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, etc. As a child, I had more exposure to the Southern Baptists than other denominations, but it never quite felt like home to me. As a teenager, I eventually came to consider myself a staunch atheist, who in essence thought she was too smart for religion.

Nonetheless, Christianity was ever-present in my life. Somehow, in high school and college my closest friends were always Christians. I was also always drawn to the courage and nobility of those who risked their personal safety and their livelihoods as activists in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was a particular hero of mine. It was perplexing to me as an atheist that his life’s work was rooted in his Christian faith. I had tremendous respect and admiration for Dr. King, but at the time my attitude towards Christianity was much less positive. I was amazed and awed that Dr. King told his followers to love those who were treating them with such complete disrespect and inflicting violence on their communities. Around the same time, I had a good friend who was an ardent fan of punk rock and Jesus Christ. She was incredulous that I was not a Christian, and gave me a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which she dared me--the smug atheist--to read. Somewhere in all that, during undergraduate school, I decided that there was something to this Jesus fellow, and I believed what he had said. It is hard to put into words exactly how this came to be. The best I can do is to say that Jesus’ teachings touched my heart and I had a profound sense of truth in what he said.

After that important milestone, I tried out several different denominations. There was a lovely group of Congregationalists near my university, as well as a dynamic Christian (Disciples of Christ) church. But again, neither quite felt like home to me. In different years I attended each of these two churches regularly, but I never became a member. By chance, at the end of my senior year in college, I went to church one Sunday with a Catholic friend of mine. If I had not overslept that morning, I would have never gone to mass. Growing up with Protestant relatives and friends, I had never had a particularly high opinion of Catholics. (All those candles and indulgences!) But to my utter surprise, I loved the meditative nature of the mass. I was a little alarmed by the sanctuary’s graphically violent artwork with bleeding hearts and a tortured Jesus suffering on the cross. Nonetheless, I was interested enough to do some more research about Catholicism and the church’s teachings. Over many months, I learned a good deal about Catholicism, and was deeply drawn to the church’s emphasis on social justice. (As many already realize, Catholics are not at all a homogeneous bunch; I myself was drawn more to the St. Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day view of Catholicism.) The following Easter, after months of preparatory classes, I was baptized a Catholic. It was one of the most moving events in my entire life, and I felt very grateful that God had found a way to speak to my heart. Eventually, I met my husband in the Catholic church. For many years, we were very active in the parishes, in which we lived. We were Eucharistic ministers, ushers, Sunday School teachers, and volunteers in several marriage ministries.

When we became parents a few years ago, we were saddened to feel we were drifting away from the Catholic church. Theologically, we continue to agree with much that is taught in Catholicism. However, for a variety of reasons, for our family, it was no longer a good fit. At the suggestion of (formerly Catholic) friends, we reluctantly tried several non-denominational churches, and ended up attending them regularly for several years. Those congregations were dynamic. Our family learned a lot and experienced tremendous spiritual growth. But again, they did not really feel like home and we never formally became members. Last summer, however, we joined an Episcopal congregation. It has been a good fit for our family on many levels. We feel like we are home.

Luke 15:20 (New International Version)

“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Progressive Christianity?

Readers might be confused by the use of the term “progressive” in the title of this blog, and might question what it means to be a “progressive Christian.” I am confident that many will initially be convinced that the term is simply an oxymoron. Others might question why the term “progressive” is necessary and whether the title shouldn’t simple be the “Christianity and the Law Blog”—period. Still others will instinctively understand the decision to add the term “progressive.” For those who do not, an explanation will be helpful.

Technically, the term “Christian” simply means “a person who believes in Jesus Christ; adherent of Christianity” or “a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ.” However, in the United States in the early twenty-first century, the term has become burdened by connotations that are not necessarily accurate for everyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus and attempts to follow his teachings. I have heard many non-Christians describe “Christians” as a homogenous group that is politically conservative, anti-Darwinist, old-fashioned, homophobic, and/or preachy and disrespectful of other faiths. Sadly, many non-Christians even view terrorists who bomb abortion clinics or who protest the funerals of soldiers with violent, hate-filled anti-gay slogans as typical examples of Christianity. Less extreme, the “Christian vote” is often cited by media pundits as a cohesive block in the electorate that ensures victories of GOP candidates and/or coordinates the passage of ballot initiatives to enact state constitutional prohibitions against same-sex marriage. Indeed, in some circles the term “Christian” has begun to have certain political connotations; it is now being used by some as a proxy for the term “conservative.”

In truth, there is actually a huge divergence in theology, social values and culture within Christianity. There are Quakers, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, nondenominationalists, African Methodist-Episcopalians, Russian Orthodox, Amish and a host of others. There are mega-churches with thousands of members who meet in stadium-like facilities, mid-size neighborhood churches with a modest sanctuary and a few Sunday School classrooms, as well as very small congregations without a permanent church building who meet in homes or school cafeterias. There are Catholic churches whose parishioners are almost all African American. There are congregations of Methodists who have services only in Spanish, and Baptist churches with services in Vietnamese. There are congregations composed mostly of gay and lesbian members. Some churches are composed of members who are very wealthy; other churches are composed mostly of the homeless. There are adherents of Christianity who support the decriminalization of abortion, and others who do not. Some work hard for the abolition of capital punishment in our country; others believe it is an important governmental tool to deter crime. Although in recent years many have viewed Christians as a cohesive voting block, it should be noted not all adherents of Christianity align themselves with the Republican Party.

Because of the modern political connotations, some American “Christians” have begun to distance themselves from that traditional moniker and are beginning to use the descriptive term “Christ follower” instead. Alas, I didn’t think “Christ Followers and the Law Blog” would roll off the tongue very well. But I did want to clarify that this blog will not be an exploration of the role of a particularly conservative view of Christianity on the legal system and the legal profession. I will leave that to others who are better suited to represent that perspective. Instead, I am more interested in an exploration of the rest of the Christian spectrum, which is often overlooked in the media and in society. For those who are not Christ followers and who have been deceived by the popular misimpression of what a “Christian” is, I would like to help raise awareness of the truly progressive nature of Christianity. For those who are Christ followers, but have felt embarrassed and/or alienated by the popular caricatures of our faith, I hope this blog will be a source of encouragement.

A clarification on the title of this blog. I acknowledge readily that the phrase “Progressive Christianity” is imperfect. Unfortunately, it was the best phrase I could evoke. To be clear, by using this phrase, I am not trying to delineate between Republican Christians and Democratic Christians. That sort of delineation would be too simplistic and frankly it would be irrelevant. Jesus Christ was not a politician. I would certainly never claim that Jesus would have us all join and swear allegiance to one political party or another.

To be clear, I also don’t intend the term “progressive” to be synonymous with “liberal.” In my experience, the term “liberal” also has come to have unfortunate connotations. In many segments of society, that term is now often associated with sexual promiscuity, a disdain for any type of traditional faith values, and an inclination to (over)indulge in legal and/or illicit substances. For better or worse, I have observed that many also associate the term “liberal” with a haughty, even dismissive condescension towards anyone who is viewed to be less enlightened on certain hot-button issues, as well as anyone who is viewed as being less educated in general.

In truth, by using the term “progressive” in the title of this blog, I’m primarily trying to distance my use of the term “Christian” from its own unfortunate, modern political connotations. However, in doing that, I do not in any way reject or condemn any of my sisters or brothers who fall on the more conservative side of the wide spectrum of modern Christianity than I do. In a family, disagreements are bound to happen because we are all uniquely made. Respect and love can prevail; unity does not have to be broken due to disagreements.

Because the concept of a progressive view of Christianity is quite foreign to many, this blog will initially spend a good deal of time developing the concept more before exploring the influence of progressive Christianity on secular laws and the legal profession.

Psalm 139:14 (New International Version)
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Matthew 19:21 (King James Version)
“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

Friday, September 4, 2009


Thank you. I’m delighted that you have taken time out of your busy day to visit the Progressive Christianity & the Law Blog. I’ve started this blog as a way to explore the intersection of two important aspects of my life--Christianity and the American legal system.

I am a Christian. My faith informs how I view the world. Because I see the face of God in my sisters and brothers, I believe in the inherent, unalienable dignity and sanctity of all human beings. Related, I also believe in the unique preciousness of the planet our Creator gave us to enable human life. Ideally, my faith guides me as I conduct myself in various contexts. But I humbly acknowledge that I often fall short of that ideal. In a spiritual sense, it is a comfort to know that each of us is a work in progress.

I am also a lawyer. As is true for most adults, my work consumes most of my waking hours. A tremendous amount of my life is spent doing legal work of one type or another. I am very proud of the legal profession. In my experience, lawyers are generally a very intelligent, hard-working, and compassionate slice of society. Nonetheless, I am quite cognizant that the profession suffers from a dearth of positive PR and is much maligned in many quarters. My own belief is that situation is largely due to the high visibility of a few extremely unflattering examples, and a lack of familiarity with the rank and file.

The Progressive Christianity & the Law Blog is an effort to explore the influence of religious faith on lawyering and the law. Specifically, I am interested in the role that Christianity has on those who practice law. I want to explore the influence of religion on law from both a descriptive and a normative perspective. It is my fervent hope that this blog will be thought-provoking and engaging to readers who work in any segment of the legal profession (e.g., paralegals, practicing lawyers, legal secretaries, law school faculty and administrators, law clerks, law students, etc.). However, because the legal system touches everyone’s life either directly or indirectly regardless of their occupation, I would also aspire that this blog would even pique the interest of those whose work is not in any way affiliated with the legal profession.

Again, welcome!

Matthew 7:12 (New International Version)
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Philippians 1:6 (New Living Translation)
“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”