Christ and the Cosmic Conflict of Interest

November 8, 2004 | 14 comments
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We lawyers have several disadvantages in trying to live the gospel. For one, everyone seems to hate us. However, there is one perk that almost offsets all the drawbacks of being a lawyer/disciple. That is that we have greater access to legal metaphors for the atonement. I do not mean to incite enormous amounts of envy among the readers here, but it’s true– lawyers usually have a host of personal experiences on which to draw in filling in the details of all the countless legalistic frames of reference we use to understand the sacrifice Jesus made for us.

I’d like to elaborate on two of those metaphors by laying out for the lay-reader what happens in one common legal proceeding: the mediation. A mediation takes place outside of a court, and is usually optional (no one can be forced to mediate) and non-binding (once there, no one will be compelled to accept any distasteful result). The two disputing parties get together, often with their lawyers, and tell their stories to a neutral party, the mediator, who is usually also a lawyer. Mediations I’ve seen start in one room, with the parties taking turns telling the mediator their side of the story. Typically, the parties are then split into separate rooms, and the mediator spends the rest of the time going between the parties, passing offers back and forth, giving his opinion about the strength of the respective positions, and prodding a little bit when one side isn’t giving enough. The goal is to allow the entrenched parties to see what the respected neutral thinks of the case, and allow that central position to soften the stance of each side. Again, this can only work if the mediator is both neutral and at least somewhat trusted and respected.

As I mentioned, often in mediation, the parties will bring their attorneys. As opposed to the role of the mediator, the attorney is charged with the zealous representation of the interests of the client. The attorney is there to advocate the position he or she represents, doing everything ethically possible to get the best result for the client.

The different roles of the mediator and the advocate bring to light an interesting problem in the legal metaphors applied to Christ, who is often portrayed as both. Of course, in the scenario I’ve just sketched out, if one person were to be both the mediator and the advocate for one party, the entire process would break down. No person could be expected to mediate a case against a party represented by the ‘neutral’ mediator, because of the inescapable conflict of interest.

And yet, Jesus plays both roles. He is our “advocate before the father,� and “the mediator of the new covenant.� If we accept the premise of both, we must also accept the fact that there is some cosmic conflict of interest created, wherein Christ serves two masters (neutrality, as a mediator, and me, as my advocate). And yet we are constantly told of the demands of cold, eternal justice. Would such justice ever accept the terms of this mediation, against such odds?

I think the fact that both of these roles are laid out for the Savior hints at the answer: judgment under the rules of the “new covenant� of the atonement is actually a bifurcated affair, consisting of two separate “legal proceedings.�

Let’s break down the elements and parties at play in each role. Jesus is the advocate for the righteous (you and me, the defendant), before the Father (either the law embodied, or the judge– the dutiful enforcer of the law, depending on your point of view). In this scenario, justice is the concern of the Father, and my interests are the concern of the Savior, meaning that he seeks mercy for the accused. His objective is to find some way in which the requirements of justice can be fulfilled, without my having to do it myself, which would be an awful sentence for me. Fortunately for me, Jesus is a gifted advocate, and is able to clear me by virtue of his reputation, experience, and proffer of himself.

But under what circumstances did he become willing to make such an offering before the Father in my behalf? He does not advocate for everyone. How did I convince him to take my case?

I believe this took place in an earlier transaction. Prior to being called before the judgment bar, I signed up for a free mediation to try to settle my claims out of court. Justice, the prosecutor, showed up and stated all of his claims to Jesus, the mediator. Jesus asked me if it was all true, and I said it was. But, in my defense, even though I had committed all those sins, I had also been baptized, received the other saving ordinances, and lived a Christlike life to the extent I was able.

Understanding that Justice would certainly win the case at court, but taking pity on me, Jesus decides to mediate a deal. “Justice, if I can find a way for you to get everything you’re asking for, would you drop the charges?� Justice would eye his lawyer, wonder what the catch is, but finally say “sure, I guess,� and throw up his hands, glad to move on to bigger, sexier cases to prosecute, like that of Harry Reid’s indiscreet home teacher.

Then he’d come to me and say “I’ve worked out a settlement, which I don’t do for everybody, but I’m going to mediate a new covenant, because of the life you led.� While Jesus knows I’m not worthy to win my case at law, he also knows that my life fulfills the requirements of a lower standard– qualifying me to be his client. So, he give justice what he’s demanding, a perfect life and a universal sacrifice, and for me, he agrees to represent me. He has mediated a new covenant as a neutral third party, and found a way to please both sides. The saving ordinances and commandments, plus the atonement are the covenant.

It’s that proceeding that seals my fate. If you win the mediation, you win it all, because that means you have Jesus as your advocate, instead of having to go before the Father pro se. And, as everyone knows, Jesus never loses a case.

Thus, Jesus acts first as the mediator of the new covenant, working out the terms of his deal with us. Then, when he’s convinced we’ve kept that covenant, he becomes our advocate with the Father. This is a perfectly good way to avoid a conflict of interest, and thus he avoids an investigation by the ethics panel. Next post: How the atonement acts like a motion to compel discovery within a federal bankruptcy stay.

14 Responses to Christ and the Cosmic Conflict of Interest

  1. Clark Goble on November 8, 2004 at 7:07 pm

    Aren’t at least some of the mediator metaphors more military in nature? Also, out of curiosity, isn’t there a rather big difference between law in the ancient near east and more modern assumptions about law? It seems this is a place where one might accidentally read the text anachronistically, much like many Mormons read back into the BoM modern notions of freedom and democracy.

  2. Rosalynde on November 8, 2004 at 9:53 pm

    I really like your thoughts here, Ryan. Almost thou persuadest me that I should have gone to law school.

    At our recent stake conference, Elder Terry Smith gave a very moving account of Christ as advocate. He asked us to imagine the dossier we might put together for Christ to review before the judgment: ordinances, mission service, family service, callings. We give the dossier to Christ, who thanks us for it and reviews it briefly. Then he stands before the judgement bar, and says, “Father, I am thy Beloved Son.” The dossier doesn’t enter into the exchange at all; Christ’s mutual relationships with us and with the Father yield our salvation.

  3. marta on November 8, 2004 at 11:21 pm

    Beautiful, Ryan. You include, but don’t list, a third role for Jesus which obviates the conflict of interest, as you explain at the end of your post. He mediates and advocates,yes, but he also pays There is mediation, but there is no free mediation, no more than there is *free* agency. It is all paid for. Christ did and does pay for it; as you say, this is the new covenant. Also, perhaps, Christ is not neutral as a mediator, and we and God the Father are not in opposition. We are all three on the same side, seeking the same goal: the best for us, eternal salvation. They just understand it hugely better than we do. There is only opposition between our bahavior and the rules, which we daily break even in our best efforts to live the most Christlike lives we are able, but which God cannot break or he ceases to be God.

  4. Larry on November 8, 2004 at 11:27 pm

    Marta,
    You said,
    “There is only opposition between our bahavior and the rules, which we daily break even in our best efforts to live the most Christlike lives we are able, but which God cannot break or he ceases to be God.”

    I’m not clear on what you meant by that.(And that’s not your fault)

  5. Larry on November 8, 2004 at 11:40 pm

    Rosalynde,

    If you ever get a chance to visit with Elder Smith and really discuss the atonement you will come away marvelling. He is truly one of the most Christlike individuals I have ever met.

  6. marta on November 9, 2004 at 12:59 am

    Only that our best efforts are never good enough (without the atonement), and that we are frequently not actually making our best effort. We’re too tired. We always fall short. We are always sinful, by omission if not commission. Frankly I don’t have many days that I am not committing actual sins because I must include the ever present problems of disinclination to read scriptures faithfully, failure to pray sincerely (it is so easy to fall into repetitive patterns of prayer, especially when life tends to fall into repetitive patterns for us feminist mormon housewives), dishonesty, pride, anger, sloth, gluttony, etc. in varying and fluctuating degrees. You know, human stuff. By the rules, I mean the commandments we are given as well as eternal laws which bind God.

  7. Larry on November 9, 2004 at 1:35 am

    Marta,

    Good points but was that not known before we came here? If it was, then what is the point of beating ourselves up over it. Wouldn’t we be further ahead if we acknowledged our weaknesses, laid claim to the atonement, expressed our gratitude(and I don’t mean to trivialize this) and then displayed the joy that Nephi said was ours? (2Ne. 2:25) Then maybe our light would shine.
    In other words I doubt that you are anywhere near as bad as you write. I think the Lord is well aware of what is going on in your life and what is in your heart. The gratitude you show Him by the way you live makes all that He has done sufficient
    reason for Him to forgive you and save you after you have done all that you can do – which in my mind is what the temple is all about.
    Other than that there is nothing that you or I could possibly do that would get us in the Celestial Kingdom.

  8. Ryan Bell on November 9, 2004 at 11:20 pm

    Clark, I confess I have no idea what the military connotation of “mediator” would be. I’ve never heard the word used in that sense. Help me out. Besides, if you remove the analogies from their legal frames, where does that leave me and my lawyerly superiority?

    As to your second point, I’m not sure I agree. No doubt you are correct that scriptural references to ‘mediator’ predate our current framework for mediation. Still, that doesn’t convince me that we shouldn’t do with it what we can based on our current understandings. I think that’s a very different project than imputing our modern democratic ideals on the Nephites of old. Taking terms used in the scriptures, and fleshing them out based on our own understandings of those terms is the heart of what ‘likening’ means. The alternative is to hand the scriptures to experts in ancient languages and cultures and give them sole control over interpretive territory.

  9. Ryan Bell on November 9, 2004 at 11:26 pm

    Rosalynde, I like the dossier idea. I agree that once Christ has passed on it, it doesn’t come up again, indeed, once he’s accepted us, it’s irrelevant. That makes the trial all the more tolerable– it’s actually Jesus on trial, so I, and he, have nothing to fear.

    Marta, I agree, it’s not free. It’s pro bono. In other words, it costs me nothing (okay, it costs me some very basic requirements), but the giver of the gift makes an enormous sacrifice to represent me. That’s the eminent beauty of the plan.

    I wouldn’t say that the Father is neutral, but his stance in relation to me is very different than that of Christ. He wishes the best for me, but cannot wish for it in contravention of the law. Thus, just as a judge might take personal pity on the criminal defendant before him, he must exercise the law upon the defendant, regardless of personal feelings. In Mormon doctrine, as opposed to so much you’ll find elsewhere, posits that God will actually impose that sentence, painful as it may be for him (of course I’m not actually sure it’s God that imposes the sentence, only that he will not contravene the law if it cannot otherwise be fulfilled).

  10. Larry on November 9, 2004 at 11:57 pm

    Instead of “free” or “pro bono”, how about a “gift” (D&C88:33). We need to accept the gift or else we are subject to justice. Accept the gift and v.34 comes into play; don’t accept the gift and v35 comes into play. From v34 go to v21 and we see how far mercy can be extended.

  11. Preston Regehr on November 17, 2004 at 12:39 pm

    I don’t think any one ends up pro se before the Father as Ryan Bell suggests.

    The Father has commited all judgment unto the Son. (John 5:22) So, the Mediator is the Judge. And He is “our Advocate with the Father” in that it is the Father’s interest to redeem all of His children, and see that all of the demands of justice are met else God would cease to be God. The beauty of this situation is that only the Atonement can satisfy all of justice’s demands and extend sufficient mercy to the penitent for our salvation.

  12. Ryan Bell on November 20, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    Preston,

    I can’t agree with you. You certainly agree that some of us will be judged on our own merits, rather than on those Christ offers, do you not? How will I be judged if I reject the gift of the atonement? Won’t that mean that justice will be brought to bear over me, and that Jesus will be unable to represent me at God’s pleading bar?

  13. Preston Regehr on December 29, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    Ryan:

    Rejecting the atonement requires some knowledge of it. I think if you think through your response to me, you might conclude that your category represents a small group, perhaps at most some who might be called sons of perdition. Even this group receive some of the benefits of the atonement, e.g. resurrection. Excluding that group, I think the Savior represents and judges all. And perhaps he even represents or mitigates effects on that group. But I’ll have to think about that further.

  14. Anonymous on January 9, 2005 at 12:21 pm