‘Habeas corpus,’ ‘indictment’; vocab list puts big guy in hot seat

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A Tulis boy horses around with a quasi-legitimate good deed of freshening the bird bath, delaying getting to a mowing chore Dad has patiently urged on him.

The elders at church give themselves a break from Sabbath school over the summer months, and dads are strongly urged to undertake memorization work with their younger children, using the last Lord’s Day morning hour at home to tidy up straying recollections.

Twice a day my youngest boy and I meet to work on memorizing parables. This week the lad  learned the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18.

Because of its brevity at eight verses, we started Tuesday morning. For most parables we start Sunday evening, “to get a head start and give us a break at the end of the week, or what if we can’t do it one day during the week?” I tell Jacob, 9. “We don’t want to get behind.”

In the story, the widow obstinately pleads for justice from a judge “who did not fear God nor regard man.” As Christ narrates, “And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” Christ’s point is the power of petition, the grandeur of unrelenting prayer and pleading. His words are intended to comfort “His own elect who cry out day and night to Him” under persecution.

A dark future, or increasing liberty?

Usually the second half of our get-togethers is vocabulary. In June he had a choice between Latin roots or legal terms, and he chose legal terms as less odious. We learn two or three words a day from a three-page glossary of legal terms from the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website.

Today the words are habeas corpus and indictment. They breathe fire, create drama. They are more exciting than arbitration, acquit, change of venue or writ of certiorari because they connect to this Tennessean’s fundamental procedural rights.

A petition for writ of habeas corpus is about a body. Specifically, your body, I tell him. “It means, ‘you have the body,’” I declare.

“Habeas corpus ‘requires that a person be brought before a judge. It is usually used to direct an official to produce a prisoner so the court may determine if liberty has been denied without due process.’”

I look up from the paper and lean forward intently across my part of the table.

“What that means is that here you are, in a jail cell, being held on unknown charges, maybe having been arrested without a warrant. Probably federal. You are being held without lawful recourse, without your due process rights being honored. You have to hold these people to account. They’ve got no authority to hold you, and you have to demand to have all your due process rights honored. That means you have a right to confront your accuser. You have a right to see all the evidence. You have a right to see the charges in writing. You have a right to counsel. They’re not honoring any of these rights. So, look here, habeas corpus forces them to bring you before the judge to make them explain themselves and how they treated you. Do you want to stay in that cell forever? Wicked tyrants hate habeas corpus. Do you know which evil president suspended habeas corpus? Don’t know? It was Abraham Lincoln, who put many people like you and me in prison for holding the wrong opinions. No charges. Just held ’em. And President Bush, also a Republican, I think he did something bad against this basic right of yours, Jacob. ‡ They don’t want you having this right. They don’t like habeas corpus. So, because they don’t like it, you need always to remember it’s your property. Its your right. It’s like your name. It belongs to you. If you don’t know your rights, you don’t have any.”

He stares at me.

Why would he be in a cell anyway? Dad has said more about this term than any other. It’s the first time Dad has put the boy behind bars and, if you will, kept the cell locked. But at least Jacob’s not having to do Latin roots.

The next word is indictment. I say less about it, as it has become familiar under terms such as arraignment, binding over, common law and defendant. An indictment is a thing of which most people would suppose they should be in terror. This process, too, I explain, originates in a grand jury, and is a right.‡‡ You have a right to an indictment. An indictment, or true bill (a word not in the glossary) is when the common citizens of the grand jury say there appears enough substance in the state’s accusations for there to be a trial. A trial on the charges by a petit jury establishes the facts of the case and makes a finding of guilty or not guilty. The petit jury of 12 people, commoners and neighbors, are entrusted with this holy duty, much to the benefit of ordinary justice and the common citizen.

Moral compass

Memory work is something my children have all had to endure. My 18-year-old memorized the first 15 sections of the Tennessee bill of rights as a tyke, and learned the Westminster shorter catechism and about 55 questions in the larger catechism before I consented to let him stop at 15. Jeannette and I were stunned at his capacity. He participated in mock trial for five years, but says he cares nothing for law nor battles one can fight within it.

I accept that. As Christians my wife, Jeannette, and I have worked on instilling a basic ethical orientation in our four children.

Our worldview assumes antithesis — right and wrong, that X and not X are different, a pattern of revealed law, most importantly from God and then from men. It is a man’s duty to study God’s law to know how to please Him. For how can we avoid sin and be holy if we care little for or openly disobey His statutes? Holiness is action. Obedience is action. Righteousness is action. I have a duty to inform my children about God’s ways (church, family worship, lessons) and man’s ways (in Jacob’s case these summer months, legal vocabulary). This duty is mine as a dad.

Lest you suppose I think well of myself, I don’t. My efforts at child-rearing have been blessed of God, but only to the level at which He has made me capable. I am the limiting factor. My sins and preconceptions all take their toll, limiting the lift I can give my children to be better Christians and freer men. I cannot achieve more than what God has circumscribed for me in drive, talent and knowledge. My achievements of mind are slight when compared to classically trained writers even as late as the 1930s. Americans have been in a steady decline at least since then, probably beginning the route of academic poverty at Reconstruction and the war to prevent Southern independence.

Do I want my children to be belligerent claimants in person?

I mirror the shortcomings of my people and nation. My sins and faults are common enough. Still, I have a duty to read, study, prepare to be useful to people around me, particularly in my own house.

The boy is hiding this afternoon in the boys’ office, aka The Lego Room, and he is not inclining himself to do his mowing in the front lawn. I just now check on him. He is in his pajama bottoms, eating an iced yogurt (a custom at 4 p.m.) and listening to a Redwall CD. I tell him he has five minutes before he needs to go out to work, and that I’ll go out with him. He doesn’t want to be out pushing our red mower if no one is around. I’ll piddle about a bit, pull some weeds, and once he’s going duck back to finish the day’s office work.

My children are sinners, and sometimes belligerent, as the boy was earlier today. God reminded me to be patient and extend grace to him.

Jacob has just come into the kitchen that adjoins my office, dropped a spoon clankingly into the sink and tossed his plastic cup. “I’m going to get changed,” he calls out, and disappears. Well, it’s looking up for Dad. Here’s Jacob again. We go outside to start the mower. You just wait. He’ll let it stop in five minutes, and I’ll have to go out to restart it.

I desire my children to know how things work, to see the many blessings we have in systems of courts, law, justice and equity. Of abuses of justice, the law enshrines many, especially in federal jurisdiction. But I want them as general Christians to be equipped to rescue the innocent, defend themselves, show a better way for God’s people, encourage the church, be faithful to her, know the Gospel, testify of God’s goodness in their lives by their actions and by selflessness.

Yes, I want them to know when to fight, to be belligerent claimants in person. Because only such a person as that can overturn an evil law by throwing himself in front of it and being chewed up, ground to mincemeat in the lower courts, where vicious prosecutors and malignant district attorneys hound the honorable plaintiff at every turn with every trick. We don’t live during an apocalypse upon the early church, during the Roman and myriad other early persecutions Christ warned his listeners were imminent. During those, there was no rule of law, just mayhem and arbitrary slaughter of God’s people.

In our day, one unbending belligerent claimant in person can overturn a law, force the legislature to start fresh in a particular area of dispute and perhaps recover a lost liberty or two. Whom these people are belongs to God’s providence.

The dining room where I meet with a 9-year-old boy to learn plain truths about God’s courts and man’s.

‡ Sorry for an oversight, but I didn’t tell Jacob about the National Defense Authorization Act that monkeys with habeas corpus. And I didn’t mention that in late July friends of Arizona pastor Michael Salman filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the state supreme court, a plea over an illegal imprisonment the court rejected.

‡‡ I don’t tell my son, in discussions on indictments, of the Uncle Sam trick of avoiding the grand jury, entering criminal charges via “information.” He’ll find out later how bad things have gotten.