It’s Up to Us

In the Sidney Lumet film The Verdict (1982), Paul Newman plays an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck lawyer, Frank Galvin, who gets the case of a lifetime, an open and shut suit of malpractice. But from the beginning nothing goes his way. Someone keeps buying off his witnesses, the defense attorney is the “prince of darkness,” the judge merely a “bag man for the boys downtown,” and even Galvin’s girlfriend turns out to be working for the enemy. Someone has stacked the deck. Things look so bad, at the last minute he tries to cop a deal to settle the case out of court, but that boat sailed long ago. At last, he finds the witness he’s been searching for and puts her on the stand. She tells the jury what really happened in that operating room, a story of gross negligence and an even more monstrous cover-up. But the corrupt judge won’t allow this new testimony to stand and has it stricken from the record. This is the final blow. His last weapon broken in his hand, Galvin has nothing left. In his final summation to the jury, all he can do is appeal to their indignant sense of justice:

“You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.’ And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead… a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims… and we become victims. We become… we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You ARE the law. Not some book… not the lawyers… not the, a marble statue… or the trappings of the court. See those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are… they are, in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, ‘Act as if ye had faith… and faith will be given to you.’ IF… if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.”

Something in that speech moves the hearts of the jury to reject the judge’s attempt to throw dust in their eyes and all that they’ve been so carefully instructed to disregard, and to act on behalf of Justice. The doctor and hospital are found to be negligent, and the patient’s family awarded an astronomical and punitive sum. Suddenly, this dark and brooding film becomes the classic story of the underdog who takes on the Goliath of power, corruption and greed, and wins—amazingly, unbelievably, he wins. But Galvin and his client are not the only winners. It is society, the people who really win. Casting off the chains of apathy forged by generations of impotent rage, they at last stand together as one man to chase the bully out of town and take back “the system.”

But this is just a movie. Things like this don’t happen in real life, do they? I mean we all know that politicians lie and lie and line their pockets all the while. The big guys always win; the small fry get pummeled, and justice can be bought by the highest bidder. Well, we say, why doesn’t God do something? But he is asking us the same question.

“The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene….” (Isa.59:15,16)

“I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one.” (Ezek.22:30)

You see, health care reform is not merely a partisan issue. At least, it shouldn’t be. A public option for the uninsured is not a Democratic or Republican ideal. It is a moral one. As God’s people we are called by Christ to stand up for the little guy; conservative, moderate or liberal, we are commanded to defend the weak against the strong, to denounce the powers of greed and privilege that prey upon the poor and disenfranchised, to attack the bastions of injustice with the weapons God has entrusted to us: with prayer, sweat, and the Word of God.

We must not give up; we must not grow tired or cynical in the cause of justice. If the church spoke with one voice, it would shake the earth. If the church returned to her true calling, as an instrument of reform, not a lapdog for the status quo, the principalities and powers that arrogantly hold sway over this nation would tremble. As Jesus prophesied about his church, the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. Do we believe that?

If so, then keep speaking out. Tell your elected officials, your neighbors and friends why you are for health care reform that is based on truly biblical values, such as equality, compassion and brotherly love (not the American gospel of unbridled greed, free market capitalism, self-reliance and social Darwinism that has replaced the commands of Christ in the hearts of so many).

Puritan Governor Jonathan Winthrop put it eloquently in his 1620 sermon “A Model of Christian Charitie,” a treasure of Americana often quoted but rarely read or understood:

“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck [God’s judgment], and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, do love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.”

This is what it means, Winthrop said, to be a “city upon a hill,” an example to all nations. And we will be an example, one way or another. Which will it be? It’s up to us.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us….So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

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  1. I too was moved by Newman's closing argument to the jury. However, in my limited experience as a juror I can tell you that the jury verdict would've been null and void. However corrupt the process had been, the plaintiff did not meet the burden of proof required.But of course that was not your point, Steve. I agree with your conclusions, but confess I am not so optimistic as you. The gates of hell are calling out and I fear we are speeding up towards them.May God have mercy upon all our souls.

  2. Well, I confess I'm an idealist. We always see things as they could be or should be. That's why we're so neurotic. You're probably more of a realist.

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