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Thanksgiving, Madonna and Thomas More

November brings our national holiday of Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is a time when we express our appreciation for the many things we take for granted.  Although we are grateful for our material abundance, at Thanksgiving we often delve much deeper into blessings of a spiritual bent.

A while ago Larry King asked Madonna what was important to her since she had achieved material abundance that gratified her physical “needs.”  To put matters in focus, King asked her what her remaining “wants” were since her “needs” were satisfied.  Madonna replied that regardless of material wealth, she wanted to satisfy her soul; quite a revelation from the “material girl”.

Centuries before Thomas More satisfied his soul but lost his head. In his time More enjoyed unparalleled power and success. He was a wealthy barrister, revered judge, Renaissance author, ambassador, secretary to the King, Speaker of Parliament, and ultimately the Chancellor of England. Yet he was tried for treason, convicted, and then beheaded by King Henry VIII because he refused to swear to an oath.  Taking such an oath would have betrayed his soul.  Robert Bolt memorialized this man’s courageous life and death in the play, “A Man for All Seasons“.  In 1967 the movie of the same name garnered Academy Awards.

As a young man pondering a legal career, the play’s dialogue between More, his wife Alice, his daughter Margaret, and her suitor, William Roper, influenced me greatly. The colloquy focused on the bastion of law against those who seek empowerment to punish “evil”:

Margaret: Father, that man’s bad.
More: There is no law against that.
Roper: There is!  God’s law!
More: Then God can arrest him.
Roper: Sophistication upon sophistication.
More: No, sheer simplicity.  The law, Roper, the law.  I know what’s legal not what’s right.  And I’ll stick to what’s legal.
Roper: Then you set man’s law above God’s!
More: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact – I’m not God.  The currents and the eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate.  I’m no Voyager.  But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester.  I doubt if there’s a man alive to follow me there, thank God….
Alice: While you talk, he’s gone!
More: And go he should, as if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So now you give the Devil benefit of the law!
More: Yes.  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh?  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?    This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s laws – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I‘d give the Devil benefit of all, for my own safety’s sake.
Roper: I have long suspected this, this is the golden calf; the law’s your god!
More: Oh, Roper, you’re a fool, God’s my god…. But I find him rather too subtle…I don’t know where He is or what He wants.
Roper: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else!
More: Are you sure that’s God?  He sounds like Moloch.  But indeed it may be God  -And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law!  And I’ll hide my daughter with me!  Not hoist her up on the mainmast of your seagoing principles!  They put about too nimbly!

More was the second most powerful man in England when he refused to take an oath – a decision that proved fatal. But he sacrificed all rather than betray his soul. Preservation of material abundance never challenged More’s fidelity to his conscience.  His last, albeit unsuccessful refuge, was within the “thickets of the law” that he so deeply loved. He recognized that law was the last shelter from tyranny, whatsoever its source. He sought, in vain, to shroud his spirit with whatever protection the legal system could muster (a system he ably strengthened both as barrister and judge).

So what’s this have to do with Thanksgiving?

This Thanksgiving, let’s embark upon a much more soulful journey akin to that taken by Thomas More. Let us reflect upon the incredible privilege bestowed upon us as lawyers “foresting” in “thickets of the law” that have been cultivated, thatched, regenerated, and enhanced over centuries.  We have been blessed by the fateful act of being born in a country where these embryonic thickets of 16th century English legal process evolved into a democratic Constitution, a Bill of Rights, and a Declaration of Independence. Such introspection will hopefully rekindle sparks of gratitude for an inheritance too easily enjoyed to be fully appreciated.

Too philosophical, archaic, impractical you say! Then you have forgotten the vulnerability of other legal systems. Let’s recall September 11 and the tyranny of the terrorists. Soon after the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, it wasted little time “cutting a great road through the law” – using governmental power to subjugate women, to assassinate opponents, and to provide a training ground for terrorists. All terrorist acts against the United States were justified because, like Roper, the Taliban perceived themselves as in pursuit of the Devil.  No Bill of Rights to assure separation of church and state. No constitutional “thicket“ to prevent a maniacal faction from gaining and abusing powers of state. No limits on the pursuit of “holy war” because a fanatical sect married government to religion. Not unlike Henry VIII, the Taliban “put about too nimbly” with the “laws all being (laid) flat” by radical, Islamic fundamentalist principles and with devastating consequence.

Thomas More’s query of Roper is worth revisiting this Thanksgiving:

Are you sure that’s God?  He sounds like Moloch.  But indeed it may be God  -And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law!  And I’ll hide my daughter with me!  Not hoist her up on the mainmast of your seagoing principles!  They put about too nimbly!”

The “thickets of the law” were insufficiently developed in 16th century England to save an admirable, powerful, wealthy barrister from death by a tyrant. The laws of Afghanistan, unprotected by a constitutional legal system and its lawyers, did not prevent the tyranny of the Taliban. Unlike them, we have inherited a system envied by the world. But Thomas More’s fate should remind us of the fragility of legal systems. We are the privileged custodians of Thomas More’s “hiding place”. Today, what we do and how we do it as lawyers secures the haven.  

Indeed, those of us who simply view the profession as a means of acquiring wealth will never venture beyond the periphery of a truly satisfying, professional life.  Instead, we will become fodder for pollsters verifying the public perception of lawyers as a group of “corrupt, greedy, and manipulative” shysters.  None of us can compete with Madonna’s financial success.  Why dedicate an entire professional life to such a second-rate endeavor when we can employ our legal skills to satisfy the more spiritually rewarding dictates of our hallowed profession? Madonna entertains; we preserve and protect our institutions. Madonna writes thought-provoking songs that instigate the soul. As lawyers we craft innovative remedies for those suffering civil wrongs, prosecute and defend those accused of crimes, and work pro bono for impecunious clients whose just cause would otherwise pass without a fair hearing. Viewed from a higher plane, the conscientious pursuit of the just result feeds our soul no less than Madonna’s musings. We are the anointed caretakers of the rights, privileges, and liberties of our citizens.  Rights, privileges and liberties are the heart and soul of this country; and as their guardians, this Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for this grand, honorable calling, which we, and the public, so easily take for granted.

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