Sir Jeremy Cooke thinks it is vital for Christians to live in the world – “in all the grittiness and grime of life,” he says. As a British high court judge Sir Jeremy sees a grittier side than most. But he wants all Christians to make the leadership of Christ count in every area of their life. And that is why he is working with Cross-Current, helping a group of young lawyers from across Europe and Eurasia integrate their faith with their working life.
“Many people ask ‘how can you possibly be a Christian and a lawyer?’" he says. “Lawyers tend to be thought of as cold, analytical, and perhaps grasping, devious, not to be trusted. Perhaps not as far down the scale as bankers or estate agents but not far off. But actually the legal profession is an area that God is very interested in. In biblical thinking, justice is part of God’s character and He provided a model of a legal system for His people. Justice will ultimately only be done when Christ comes again, but our job is to do it as well as it can be done here.”
For the last three years Sir Jeremy has led the Cross-Current law group of graduates, meeting twice a year in different European cities – most recently in Berlin. The group members receive teaching, wisdom and practical advice from the Bible, think through issues together, and pray for each other.
The discipleship programme is hugely appreciated by the young lawyers who give up weekends and holidays to travel across Europe to come. Blessing Enejo was born in Nigeria, moved to the UK when she was 13, and now works as a commercial contracts manager for a local council. She says it is rare to meet other lawyers who are Christians. “In my professional life the Christians I come across often separate their Christianity from their work,” says Blessing, 29. “Here I can be open and talk about my faith and work with others. It is also amazing to have the example of Jeremy Cooke who shows that you can be a Christian and still get to the top of your profession.”
For Sir Jeremy, 65, a grandfather of six, the Christian faith became real as a teenager, when he was impressed by the commitment and dedication of those he met on a Christian camp. He studied in Oxford where the Christian student work made a big impact on him, and worked as a solicitor before becoming a barrister in 1976 and Queen’s Counsel in 1990. After being made a High Court judge in 2001, he has presided in various high profile cases including the 2007 royal blackmail plot and the 2011 Pakistan cricket spot-fixing scandal, as well as what is probably the largest claim ever to have been brought in London’s Commercial Court. He specialises in “heavy” crime (mostly murders) and commercial work.
Sir Jeremy’s model for working life came from his father, a committed Christian and family solicitor, who clearly saw his work as his ministry. Sir Jeremy hopes that Cross-Current can help provide similar inspiration for the young lawyers involved.
He says one of the most striking outcomes has been the resolve of a group of Ukrainian lawyers not to pay bribes. They are often asked by clients to pay a bribe to the judge, to “assist” in the judge’s decision making, and know that a refusal to pay may count against them and their clients’ case. Yet as a result of their Cross-Current meetings, these lawyers have decided to make a stand against it. “That's a powerful witness - one which may be very costly for them,” he says. “But they are all still in practice. The older generation are so entrenched in bribery that it is hard for them to change, but the younger generation sees where corruption leads. It's easier for them to change than for the older generation who were under the Soviet regime. Influencing young lawyers can make a real difference for the future.”
Sir Jeremy says many of the structures in the Old Testament are a model to the world of how a legal system can work. The group has studied “Old Testament Ethics for the People of God” by the Rev. Dr. Chris Wright and discovered rich material on contemporary issues including economics, the state, the rule of law, separation of powers, the welfare system, workers’ rights, honest trading, judicial integrity, the penal system, defence of whistle-blowers and race relations.
The group then looked at how these ideas were amplified or modified in the New Testament. In studying Jesus’ parables, for example, it is possible to see his attitude to various issues in the world he lives in, including economics. In the parable of the talents Jesus appears to approve of trading for profit and the idea of investing to earn interest – a commercial loan.
Another area of study is constitutional law, asking whether democracy and separation of powers are Biblical. “These questions are very important for people in countries undergoing upheaval,” says Sir Jeremy. “For Ukraine and Georgia, the whole question of government is up for grabs. So giving Christians an idea of what basic principles come intoplay is very important. Lawyers are involved in setting up constitutions and many go into politics.”
Practical issues are also tackled - how to deal with a difficult client or how to conduct a cross-examination. Treating other lawyers, witnesses, clients and the tribunal in a way that brings honour to Christ, really matters. “When you cross-examine someone and you have to accuse them of lying, how do you do that in a Christian way?” asks Sir Jeremy. “You may not think the person is lying at all, but your job is to put to the person that in fact maybe they aren’t telling the truth.”
Internal pressures like money and status can also be a challenge for young lawyers. Sir Jeremy says the need for peer approbation is often the biggest temptation. “We ask what you are living for as a lawyer, who are you trying to please,” he says. “We talk about making your life count for Christ as a lawyer.”
For Sir Jeremy himself, the way he does his job on the surface may not be very different from other judges. “Most judges are not Christians but have a strong sense of justice – although in my opinion they have no logical basis for that,” he says. “Where does their notion of justice come from, and why does it matter anyway?”
Yet there are time when, as a Christian, it seems right for him to refer to the underlying moral basis for law and justice. In 2010 he presided over the trial of a young Islamist woman who said she had been influenced by extremist Islamic preaching, and had stabbed a Christian Member of Parliament in revenge for him voting for the Iraq war. “In sentencing her, I drew attention to the Christian values which professedly hold sway in the UK, in contradistinction to the notion of Jihad,” he says. “Ipointed to the faith of the victim and the requirement in Christian thinking, based on the Old Testament, to love God, love one’s neighbour, love the foreigner in the land and even the person who regards himself as your enemy, as opposed to teaching that holds up hatred and murder as a holy way of life.”
Sir Jeremy is also careful in the way he phrases his judgements. Although many judges freely denounce the wickedness of the guilty party when pronouncing sentence, he avoids this. He is happy to describe what people have done as wrong, but does not feel he can make a personal condemnation. “People need to take responsibility for what they have done – otherwise you are treating them as less than human,” he says. “But although this is a person who has done wrong, we have all done wrong of one kind or another and are in the same boat. I will be judged for what I have done, and will be judged for the way I am judging. It is only by the grace of God and in His mercy that any of us can stand.”
Two weeks before he received the call from the Lord Chancellor asking him to be a judge, Sir Jeremy read a verse from 2 Chronicles 19. He now keeps it in the box of pens and pencils that he takes to every court case. The verse reads: “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment.”
Sir Jeremy says he find this verse both encouraging – God is with him to help him – and challenging, because He is watching what he does and will hold him to account. Before every court case he prays that justice would be done and that he would honour God in all he does.
If Cross-Current provokes the same sort of daily prayers in the lives of its members, as they practice law across Europe, then Sir Jeremy will be content.