From the First Letter to the Church in Corinth:
In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – I Corinthians 6:7a (NRSV) – March 19, 2014.)
This may be the simplest, truest, most profound thing Paul ever wrote. No flowery language, no showing of his erudition and knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures or of Greek philosophy, no convoluted logic, no run-on sentences. Just a simple declaration: if you are in litigation, you’ve already lost.
For nearly 20 years I was involved in a litigation law practice. First as a paralegal, then as a law office administrator, then (after going to law school myself) as an associate and later partner of one of the largest personal injury and malpractice defense firms in the state of Nevada. Somewhere along the line I learned a statistic that 95% of all such claims are settled before any complaint or petition is filed in a court of law, and of those cases were litigation is instituted only about 3% ever end up actually going through a trial, and of trials that begin at least 50% are settled before being submitted to the judge or jury for a decision. (Those statistics are at least 20 years old and, of course, 47% of all statistics are simply made up, so don’t quote me on this.)
Only a tiny fraction of personal injury or malpractice claims are litigated. I don’t know of the statistics regarding civil suits for breach of contract or other transactional litigation, but I suspect that it is the same. Nearly all disputes are settled in some faction before a lawsuit is initiated. If a complaint, information, or petition is filed, it means that other, less disruptive means of resolution have failed; it means that the relationship between the parties is almost irretrievably broken; it means that both have lost something precious.
This (I believe) is Paul’s point: litigation demonstrates the defeat of relationship. Modern psychologists have discovered that the end of a relationship, especially a romantic linkage or deep friendship, affects the human psyche in much the same way as a death. Years ago, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified the five stages of grieving a death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Movement through these stages is not neat and clean – different stages may take longer than others, some may be repeated, they may be experienced in a somewhat different order – but this progression is predictable. The same process occurs when a relationship ends. Litigation, which signals the irrefutable breakage of a relationship, is like death: to have lawsuits at all with one another is a defeat.
What relationship is deeper or more important than one’s brotherhood or sisterhood with another member of the church, someone to whom one is related as the parts of the body are related? To have lawsuits between church members is like the cutting off of body parts! (Jesus’ hyperbolic parable of cutting off body parts which cause one to sin has no application here.)
We live in a litigious society; lawyer advertising encourages lawsuits. Every perceived wrong, however slight, is portrayed as reason to seek redress in the courts. Where I live, I see at least five personal injury lawyers’ advertisements on television every evening, including one whose annoying slogan is “I’ll make them pay.” I suspect that a larger percentage of disagreements and grievances are litigated now than when I was in practice. I am convinced that our politics have become more fractious and hostile and that our social fabric is fraying, and that this is symptomatic of the same ill that increased litigation points to. Our society is losing, has already lost, a cohesion it cannot afford to lose.
It is one of the callings of the church to demonstrate the needlessness of this, to be a sign that reconciliation is not only possible but desirable, to witness to Paul’s simple profound truth that ” to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat.” The Catechism of the Episcopal Church says as much:
Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
(BCP 1979, page 855)
I loved courtroom work! To be in a trial was great fun; it was a game and I was very good at it. Life, however, isn’t a game, and to the extent it may seem like one, to be in a trial is conclusive evidence that we have already lost it.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.