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17 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol'y 521 (2003)


This is part of a broader exploration of the suggestion that

the biblical prophets-Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Nathan,

and the others-are sources of ethical reflection and moral

example for modern American lawyers. The suggestion appears

to be unusual; I am not sure why. The Prophets were, more than

anything else, lawyers-as their successors, the Rabbis of the Talmud,

were. They were neither teachers nor bureaucrats, not

elected officials or priests or preachers. And the comparison is

not an ancient curiosity: Much of what admirable lawyer-heroes

have done in modern America has been prophetic in the biblical

sense-that is, what they have done is like what the biblical

prophets did. Dean Charles Hamilton Houston and the early

civil-rights lawyers come to mind. Both the biblical prophets and

these modern American lawyer-prophets were angry at injustice

and firm, even noisy, as they spoke out against injustice. They

brought prophetic anger at injustice into the public square in


Both the biblical prophets and modern American lawyerprophets

courted danger. Both suffered. For both, things did

not always turn out well, because prophets are not deal makers;

they are stubborn; they demand more than conventional common

sense stands ready to grant them. Maybe one reason they do

not get put in our legal-ethics texts is that they are too stridently

focused, as their biblical counterparts were, on the practice of

law (the practice of biblical prophecy) as communal concern for

social justice. The communal part insists on the "we." The concern

for social justice in part insists on what modem Catholicism

has come to name the preferential option for the poor (and then pays little attention to). Both parts of the agenda (the "we" and

the concern) aim to be relentlessly radical.

Prophets speak to communities as what Professor Milner S.

Ball calls the mouth of God,' because the God of the Prophets

speaks to communities. The Prophets speak for this God and

they speak more to communities than to individuals. It is a matter

of we, not I. The teachers I have turned to in thinking about

the prophets as lawyers-Professor Ball, Rabbi Abraham Joshua

Heschel, Sister Joan Chittister, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Professor

Walter Brueggemann 2 -speak, as all of the prophets, modern

and scriptural, speak, in the first-person plural. It is "we" they

talk about. It is "us" to whom the prophets speak-to "us" as in

"us Americans" sometimes, but more radically to "us" as in "us

believers." (I am thinking here mostly of us believers who happen

to be lawyers.)

I turn, then, to an attempt to develop five observations that

might help focus on this prophetic "we" in the public square: (i)

one of these has to do with community as the anthropological and

scriptural place in which we find ourselves; (ii) one has to do

with the fact that prophetic faith is inevitably about politics, and

particularly (iii) politics as it is discerned and proclaimed from

the communal quality of belief, (iv) one has to do with the restlessness

of prophetic politics; and (v) one has to do with the importance

of beginning at the bottom.



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