Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Ps 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; 1 Pt 3:15-18; Jn 14:15-21
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed legal representation to those men and women who are charged with a serious crime and are too poor to afford a lawyer. The Court determined that a right to counsel is “fundamental” in a system that strives for justice and equality. How well our nation protects this fundamental right is no trivial matter. It is estimated that 80% of state criminal defendants are too poor to hire a lawyer and must depend on court-appointed counsel.
The reality of so-called indigent defense in the United States is beyond disturbing. Budgets are inadequate and caseloads are inhuman. Some public defenders handle 500-700 cases a year. Defendants may spend mere minutes with their attorney. And then there are the stories of incompetent counsel. In one egregious case, a lawyer slept during the death-penalty trial of his client (and the death sentence was upheld despite this).
Our current justice system is failing miserably when it comes to providing effective advocates. And this failure is all the more stinging when we consider the role of the advocate from a theological perspective. This Sunday, the first reading from Acts turns our attention to the Holy Spirit, but it is in the Gospel from John that we find the Spirit specifically described as “Advocate.”
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate- to be with you always. (John 14:16)
The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. (John 14:26)
The original term in Greek, parakletos, means “one who is called or appealed to” (from parakalein, “to call to one’s assistance”). The Spirit is an “advocate-defender” who comes to our aid. It is a striking characterization when one thinks of it. Why not describe the Spirit as the one who supplies the assistance – more of a “provider-helper” kind of role? The idea that humans require an “advocate” indicates something significant about our need for God. It is a relational need and not merely a transactional one. Our capacity – indeed, desire – to trust another to take up our own interests is woven into the core of what it means to be human and is therefore key to our dignity and flourishing.
To have an advocate is not simply a matter of gaining access to greater knowledge or power. Rather, there is an essential message of relationship that is communicated by the advocate’s presence. The Gospel of John describes the “the Spirit of truth, – which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. It will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:17-18). This promise not to be left as orphans is an important one. To have an advocate is a clear reminder that we are not forgotten. Our case is worth pleading – regardless of our guilt – because our cause, our life, is of value and never beyond hope.
The Catholic moral tradition has been clear in its assertion that humans are fundamentally social beings. Typically, this notion is expressed in terms of the importance the community, including the concept of participation and the interdependence of individual and communal flourishing. But we can also think about our social nature in terms of our need for advocates. Regardless of the challenges we face, there is a fundamental desire to have another at our side who can be relied upon to give voice to the words and interests at our very core. The Gospel of Matthew fills out this vision of the Spirit’s work as parakletos: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:19-20).
As a volunteer lay minister at a detention center, I regularly encounter men who feel abandoned and who wonder out loud about their worth. Often their prayers of petition ask for God to be present to those who will argue and decide their case in the courtroom. For them, it is no stretch at all to think of the Holy Spirit as parakletos. And given that many of these men are too poor to post a couple hundred dollars of bail, let alone hire a lawyer, the Spirit may be their only effective Advocate.
Ultimately, the work of the Spirit will not be frustrated by an underfunded, overburdened public defender system. But leaving members of our community without sufficient human advocates is a profound scandal. And our nation sends a relational message of a negative sort. Our community turns a deaf ear to the fundamental need to have another take up our case. It is not simply that there is a transactional failure in delivering access to legal counsel. A poor defendant in the U.S. legal system suffers a relational failure as well, receiving the message that his cause is of little consequence and calling into question the nature of his very membership in our community.
All of us are desperately in need of an Advocate who comes to us as the Spirit of truth. While no human legal institution can provide this sort of parakletos, our justice system can, in a very modest way, respond to the fundamental human need to have another take up our case. To the extent we continue to tolerate leaving poor defendants as orphans, it suggests we have not yet taken to heart the message of the Gospel.