Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Why Are We So Litigious?

Why do we Americans sue each other so much?

That question came to the fore tangentially in a comments discussion on Ann Althouse's site this morning.

It's become cliche to refer to America as a litigious society and for good reason: It's true.

There are any number of reasons for this:
  • The United States has far more lawyers per capita than any other country in the world. Those people have got to find something to do.
  • And because those who sue others incur no loss if their suit is tossed out or they lose (other than the money spent on hefty legal fees), the incentives to sue, for both lawyers and complainants, are usually too powerful to resist.
  • And, we have increasingly become what I call a "rights oriented" culture.
In the early years of the Republic, for example, the defining document of America's national identity was not the Declaration of Independence, but the Constitution. The Constitution, with its emphasis on the social compact of "we the people" was and is a more communal document--in spite of its tragic countenancing of slavery--than the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution, in its original form is more interested in our mutual responsibilities than the Declaration, which is more interested in individual rights.

Of course, both of these elements--mutual responsibility and individual rights--are part of the American tradition. The brilliance of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is that the President who initially insisted that the war was only about maintaining national unity--in other words, about mutual responsibility--finally came to portray it as also being a struggle for individual rights, namely those of the slaves and of all who wanted to live free. Lincoln saw the need to work both great themes of American history.

But our national life veers off course when we tilt too far in one direction or the other.

The tilt toward obsessions with individual rights has been quite pronounced in recent decades. There are several reasons for this, I think:
  • One is the Civil Rights movement. The movement is, of course, a bright spot in US history. But nations are as prone to "fighting the last war" as generals. The struggle for rights has become one of the prevailing motifs of our politics and culture, even when dealing with issues where such questions are tangential at best. This only encourages the very human impulse to "look out for number one" and "to shaft before you get shafted."
  • Another factor is our access to technology. Through technology, middle class Americans are capable of doing more than ever before. That's good. But technology also can, and often does, make us more insular, seemingly more self-sufficient--though this is clearly a delusion, and less communal. We have become less practiced at dealing with others.
  • Another factor is the emergence of gigantic corporations with few ties to communities or nations. They are so driven by the bottom line that they often are contemptuous of consumers, rights, or governments. Some of these impersonal behemoths seem almost constitutionally incapable of benign behavior or of admitting their deficiencies. They make the "little guy" feel very little indeed. David is thus incentivized to find some rocks to cast Goliath's way.
  • Another reason is our society's almost pathological refusal to accept personal responsibility. This means that hordes of people who may or may not have a beef bring suits.
The popularization and perversion of Freudian psychology has a role here. There's a scene in the movie, Spanglish in which Tia Leone's character, Deborah, sits with her mother, played by Cloris Leachman, on the night Deborah may have wrecked her marriage through her extramarital affair. There is something, Deborah earnestly tells her mother, that she must say. "You are an alcoholic and were a wildly promiscuous woman when I was young and it's because of you that I'm in this situation now," she says.

I laugh every time I watch that scene. For a grown woman to blame her actions on the bad example of her mother is, when you think about it, patently absurd. There ought to be a statute of limitations on how much we can blame our parents for what we do.

Yet, we live in a culture where it's perfectly acceptable to blame everybody else for the troubles we bring on to ourselves. Get burned by coffee just out of the pot? Sue the restaurant. Get overweight from too many fat-burgers? Hey, it's not your fault.

In the end, I feel that our litigious society is one manifestation of a profound spiritual crisis in America. In spite of our religiosity, we're not in touch with some fundamental elements of the Judeo-Christian heritage:
  • Our highest calling is to love God and love neighbor. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says that we should allow ourselves to think and live more like Jesus, "Who, though He was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited." Instead, Paul said, we should think of others' interests ahead of our own. That's countercultural!
  • We're called to make a fearless inventory of ourselves. In Psalm 139, the writer asks God to "search me, Father, and know my ways." And it further invites God to show him whatever is displeasing to God in his life so that he can turn away from the sin (repent) and receive forgiveness and the power to do better.
This motif of repentance and renewal, of turning from sin and receiving forgiveness and the presence of God's Spirit in one's life for living rightly, is seen from page 1 of Genesis to the last page of Revelation. A gracious God wants to help us to live life optimally.
  • When we do have disputes with others, the New Testament emphasizes making every attempt to resolve them quickly. "Be angry, but do not sin," the apostle Paul writes. We're not to be doormats. But we are to attempt to resolve issues.
Some lawsuits are both inevitable and necessary, of course.

But I honestly believe that if there were a spiritual awakening in America, we would be less litigious.

I'm not talking about adopting the agendas of religionists of the Right or the Left. Often, it seems to me, they're only interested in imposing their own versions of Christianity on the rest of us through the law.

By spiritual awakening, I'm talking about communities and individuals daring to surrender to Jesus Christ, allowing Him access to their wills, minds, and souls. I'm talking about allowing Jesus Christ to unleash His Spirit within us so that we become part of His new creation (Second Corinthians 5:17).

Nobody perfectly reflects Jesus Christ in their life, of course. There are, as the saying goes, only two kinds of people: forgiven sinners and unforgiven sinners.

Perhaps if more of us could make the healthy admission that we are sinners, as prone to wrong as others, and if we could ask Christ to bring forgiveness to us, we would be far less critical of others, far less inclined to shaft our neighbors, far more prone to taking personal responsibility, and so, far less likely as a society to play that game George Harrison once called "the sue me, sue you blues."

9 comments:

A Christian Prophet said...

Bravo! "Before you take your brother to court...." Over on the Holy Inheritance blog there is a seemingly very healthy view of Jesus and His blessings.

Mark Daniels said...

Prophet:
Thank you for your kind assessment of what I've written on this subject. I appreciate that.

Blessings!
Mark

Charlie said...

This is excellent, Mark. We have become a collection of rights-seeking individuals rather than a community, and I think you get to the heart of the cause when you put Jesus up as an example, "He who did not see equality with God as something to be grasped..."

We mortals tend to be graspy. But the transformational work of Christ does incline our hearts more towards humble gratitude for God's mercies towards us, which in turn causes us to become more merciful and gracious in our dealings with others. Or it should, anyway.

Your illustration from Spanglish is perfect. Modern psychology encourages us to find someone to blame for our troubles, and we really don't need much encouragement to go there -- who wants to blame himself?

I suspect this is one of those areas where Christians are not very distinguishable from "ordinary people," but we should be. If the mark of the Christian is the love we have for each other, taking our neighbor to court will be a last resort.

A final remark. A few years back I needed to discuss a fence with a neighbor. It was on my property, but the area hadn't been surveyed until I had a need to and discovered the problem. I went to talk to my neighbor about it. I smiled. I was friendly. I was gracious. His response was "you'll hear from my lawyer." And after that, the whole thing had to be negotiated like some kind of nuclear disarmament treaty. Sheesh.

Mark Daniels said...

Charlie:
Thank you very much for your interesting comments and for your generous affirmation of the original post.

What you've written here is so good! I think these comments represent the kernel of a post on the subject on your own excellent blog.

God bless you, my friend.


Mark

jan@theviewfromher said...

A great post, Mark. And like Charlie, my thoughts immediately went to "and why do Christians sue each other so much?" After all, I think there is some scripture that's pretty clear on that subject ( 1 Cor. 6). Now you've got me chewing on some thoughts that may turn into a post of my own. Thanks for challenging and stimulating my thinking, and such is the purpose of great blogging! :-)

Mark Daniels said...

Jan:
I'm glad that Jesus' admonition to not sue fellow Christians is coming up in the comments like this. That is yet another dimension of this issue.

I look forward to reading your thoughts on this subject on your great blog!

Thanks for dropping by and for your comments!

Mark

Deborah said...

It's about the love of money. Period.

Nothing in this life has surprised me more than the extreme lengths some people will go to obtain more money; how some people evaluate others on the basis of how much money and material goods they posses; and how some people literally use money as a scorecard of success.

Like all middle-aged Americans, I have seen people destroy families, friendships, marriages and their own health over money.

That's the main reason for the vast majority of lawsuits: the pursuit of money and/or goods.

Mark Daniels said...

Deborah:
Yes, I think that perhaps all these other things I mentioned in the oroginal post aid and abet the major culprit: the love of money. And that, of course, is a deeply spiritual problem. Money is the deity of choice of most people. To correctly quote a New Testament passage usually inaccurately cited: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."

Thanks, Deborah, as always for great comments!

Mark

Charlie said...

FYI - I linked to this post here. Thanks.