Making an oral argument before an appellate court is one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of the practice of law. You’ve got fifteen minutes, give or take, to convince a panel of judges that your side is in the right. The judges will know the record of the case. They, with the help of a staff of bright, young law clerks, will have studied the transcript of the proceeding below and the briefs filed by the parties – you and your opponent. They will know the law, as well, since they will have in large part made it. That is, the court to which you are addressing your argument is often the same court that wrote the decisions on which your argument is based.
Everything is at stake here. If you won below, then you are at risk of having the decision in your favor set aside and being told to go back to square one and do it over, this time according to proper procedure. If you lost below, this appeal is probably your last bite at the apple. If you lose here, your loss is generally final.
And so the preparation for such an argument is exhaustive and intense. It involves committing a good deal of the transcript of the proceeding below to memory so that you can, on a dime, direct the court, chapter and verse, to those parts of the record that support your argument. And you must have read the applicable precedents so thoroughly that you understand their rules and every implication that might flow from each ruling.
And so, the saying is that every lawyer who argues an appeal has three arguments: the one he plans to make; the one he actually makes; and the perfect, insurmountable argument he thinks of while he is driving home from the courthouse.
That sort of thing can happen to Sunday School teachers, as well. I think it may have happened to me this past Sunday. The advantage I have over the appellate advocate, though, is this blog. I can, at my leisure, attempt to correct or bolster here what I said or at least meant to say in class yesterday.
You may have guessed where I think my effort failed. Our New Testament lesson yesterday was Revelation 6: 1-8, the so-called “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
In the last two lessons that I have taught, we’ve been studying the life of Whittaker Chambers through a reading of his autobiographical book, Witness. Chambers was a Communist in the 1930s and worked with an underground “apparatus” consisting of himself, numerous highly-placed government employees in Washington, D. C., and a Russian Colonel in New York City. This cell operated to spirit documents and other information out of government agencies – one member of the apparatus was an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State and another was an Assistant to the Attorney General – to be photographed and then sent to party headquarters in Moscow, all in preparation for the revolution that Chambers and his comrades thought was inevitable.
In time, Chambers figured out that what he was doing in collaborating with the Soviet Union was a colossal evil and he thus left the apparatus, deserted the party, converted to Christianity and became a witness against those other traitors with whom he had worked.
All of that is very interesting and gripping drama. There is more than enough here for a whole semester’s worth of classes, but this past week we focused particular on two statements of Chambers; one concerning how it is that rational men – like himself – could become Communists, knowing full well the violence of the party’s operations. Chambers had this to say about that:
“Sooner or later, one of my good friends is sure to ask me: How did it happen that a man like you became a Communist? Each time I wince, not at the personal question, but at the failure to grasp the fact that a man does not, as a rule, become a Communist because he is attracted to Communism, but because he is driven to despair by the crisis of history through which the world is passing.
I force myself to answer: In the West, all intellectuals become Communists because they are seeking the answer to one of two problems: the problem of war or the problem of economic crises”
Dr. S. Robert Weaver was the man to whom I owe my understanding of the Scriptures. He was a graduate of Princeton University, having received a Th.D. there in the 1940s. He served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of St. Albans, West Virginia for some 22 years. I became a member of that church upon my baptism there (I was then 12 years old) in about 1964. I listened to hundreds of his sermons over the years and was privileged to be a part of a bible study class he conducted for young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He spent a good deal of time on the Book of Revelation. He told us that this book was “the least read and most widely misunderstood book in the Bible.”
I don’t know about the “least read” part, but it is very easy to see that the book has been grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted in our day. You can start with Hal Lindsay. His book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, ostensibly based on New Testament prophesy, first predicted that the world was going to end sometime before December 31, 1988:
He cited a host of world events — nuclear war, the communist threat and the restoration of Israel — as reasons the end times were upon mankind. His later books, though less specific, suggested that believers not plan on being on Earth past the 1980s — then the 1990s and, of course, the 2000s. But Lindsey did more than just wrongly predict the end of days; he popularized a genre of prophecy books.
Dr. Weaver saw the Book of Revelation not as a “blueprint of the future,” but as a message of hope to beleaguered Christians in the first century who were about to suffer persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. He taught that the “four horsemen” were not to be singularly identified with any particular historical events but, rather, were symbols of the recurring evils that would have sway during the era of the Church, that is, during the time between the Ascension of Jesus Christ and his return. Those evils included war and economic woes.
Thus, when I read Chambers’ explanation of why men become Communists, my mind went directly to this passage from Revelation. But here is the problem: no one else’s mind did! When I asked at the end of the hour what connection there might be between Chamber’s explanation of why men choose Communism and this passage of scripture I could hear crickets.
But there are connections. Big time, important connections.
In fact, I would argue that if Chambers had had a true understanding of this passage, he would never have joined the Communist party.
In his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers was confronted again with this question:
“THE CHAIRMAN: What influenced you to join the Communist Party originally?
CHAMBERS: It is a very difficult question. As a student, I went to Europe. It was then shortly after the First World War. I found Germany in chaos, and partly occupied; northern France and parts of Belgium were smashed to pieces. It seemed to me that a crisis had been reached in western civilization which society was not able to solve by the usual means. I then began to look around for the unusual means. I first studied for a considerable time British Fabian socialism, and rejected it as unworkable in practice. I was then very much influenced by a book called Reflections on Violence, by Georges Sorel, a syndicalist, and shortly thereafter I came to the writings of Marx and Lenin. They seemed to me to explain the nature of the crisis, and what to do about it.
We might say that Chambers’ motivation was a moral one. We might have some sympathy for a young man who looks on destruction and then looks for a way to do something about it. But what Chambers was missing and what we in our day very much need to have as we look at the convulsions of current events is a biblical perspective.
The Book of Revelation tells the reader that the history of this world will be marked by evil. By just the kind of destruction and turmoil that Chambers witnessed on his trip to Europe. Thus, the situation Chambers saw there in the 1920s was not unique, but only one more chapter, one more manifestation of the strife that the Apostle John wrote about in his message to the churches in Asia Minor.
Another thing that Chambers was missing and that an understanding of the Book of Revelation would have given him is this: the evils in this world are spiritual. They manifest themselves in material ways – war, famine, civil strife – but their origin is spiritual. These evils are the deliberate workings of an evil, spiritual power and, thus, they cannot be solved by man’s devising, by a merely material response. Man’s “five year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains” will not, cannot, meet the needs of the day.
Chambers finally figured this out. Tomorrow I’ll write about the second point from yesterday’s lesson: what we might learn from Chambers’ failure to make his first break from the Communist party a permanent break.