Thanks to my local public library, I'm listening on my iPod to an audiobook version of Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton's modern classic novel about crime and justice in South Africa. The book is excellent, with a compelling storyline and also a lot of depth and spiritual content. As I listened to actor Michael York gliding through a variety of accents and voices for the characters in the novel, I was struck by a phrase Paton used.
In the story, a young black man, the prodigal son of an Anglican priest from Zululand, has murdered a white man during a home invasion in Johannesburg. Another Anglican priest in Johannesburg arranges for an attorney to meet with the young man and decide whether he will represent the accused in court. After hearing the situation, the attorney agrees to take the case, "pro Deo."
The term was unfamiliar to me, but I kept listening. The city priest, Father Vincent, tells Kumalo, the father of the boy:
"You may thank God that we have got this man. He is a great man, and one of the greatest lawyers in South Africa, and one of the greatest friends of your people."
"I do thank God, and you too, father. But tell me. I have one anxiety, what will it cost? My little money is nearly exhausted."
"Did you not hear him say he would take the case pro Deo? Ah yes, you have not heard of that before. It is Latin and it means for God. So it will cost you nothing, or at least very little."
"He takes it for God?"
"That is what it meant in the old days of faith, though it has lost much of that meaning. But it still means that the case is taken for nothing."
Kumalo stammered. "I have never met such kindness," he said. He turned away his face, for he wept easily in those days. Father Vincent smiled at him. "Go well," he said, and went back to the lawyer who was taking the case for God.
We are used, of course, to hearing the phrase pro bono. According to Wikipedia, pro bono is shorthand for pro bono publico, or "for the public good." But I rather like this other phrasing, the one that has fallen out of use. I found a reference to it on the Christian Legal Society's web site, which encourages its members to take cases pro bono AND pro Deo.
Pro Deo just seems so much more appropriate, especially when one considers that God is the creator of human society, that He orders all things, and that He is the very essence and definition of justice. And we know that God is not only just, but He is also infinitely merciful. We might decide to do an injustice to an individual or a group for the sake of the greater good, but God always perfectly balances justice and mercy -- a delicate balance that any human court of law ought to strive to emulate. And I wonder how attorneys, especially Christian attorneys, might approach legal aid differently if they did so with an attitude that it was pro Deo, not just pro bono. It certainly is a call to a higher standard and a more important Client.