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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Playing Word Games

Keeping laws cannot save us, as we were reminded earlier this week. God gave his law to Israel for the purpose of demonstrating to mankind our total inability to consistently abide by whatever rules we might make for ourselves, not so that we could accumulate sufficient spiritual brownie points to inspire St. Peter to open the gate of heaven just a crack and let us squeak through.

That being understood, laws still serve a very useful purpose. They cannot by themselves reclaim a single lost human heart, but a society in which the majority of citizens recognize and respect the rule of law will do notably better over the long term than a society that operates only on the principle of the will to power.

We are currently observing the abandonment of the rule of law south of the (Canadian) border.

Reframing the Framers

Law is ever and always about the original intent of the lawgiver(s). It is utter nonsense to suggest that only the currently acceptable technical construction of words on a page matters. When we deliberately sever legal language from what we know of the minds and hearts of the people who penned it, we are engaging in a kind of fraud. At its most innocent the resulting interpretation of the text is logically incoherent; at its most malignant it can be treasonous.

Now of course everyone in the U.S. still pays lip service to rule of law as a concept, but in practice it has been discreetly abandoned. This has largely been accomplished by ignoring the ample historical evidence testifying to the intentions of the founding fathers responsible for the framing of the U.S. constitution. We can only understand what men of other generations meant by the words they used if we take the time to look at the other things Franklin, Hamilton, Washington and the rest of the Framers wrote. Supplying our own politically-charged modern redefinitions of their terminology might get us what we want, but we cannot in honesty claim constitutional authority for them.

The Will to Power

The Left would argue that in employing the executive order as his primary means of enacting his democratic mandate, President Trump is not respecting the intent of the Founders and the systemic checks and balances they set in place in the best interests of the American people. They might even have a point if their own president had not set Mr. Trump the convenient precedent of doing precisely the same thing. One must play the game by the rules as they are currently being interpreted, right?

Meanwhile, the Right correctly points out that the 9th circuit judicial ruling that quashed the president’s order for a temporary travel ban is even more egregious, and that no lower court has the legitimate constitutional clout to defy the president on this particular issue.

In such a context, appeals to the precise language of the constitution are meaningless. Both sides are really just playing politics, not seriously seeking to discern authorial intent. It is not law or truth but the will to power that is at work here ... and I believe we will shortly see whose will is most powerful.

Technical Compliance and Murder

Israel found itself in the same boat at many points in its chequered history. Nominally, they were a nation subject to the law of God. Even the king was required to respect the written opinion of Heaven in his dealings. King Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard for a vegetable garden, but rule of law stood in his way, so he went to bed and sulked. He rightly understood that even the king serves the written word.

I guarantee President Trump is not sulking in his bed this morning, but that is neither here nor there. We live in a different age.

But Ahab’s wife Jezebel was not from Israel. She was a Sidonian princess who worshiped Baal. The law of Moses meant as little to her as the intent of the Founders appears to mean to Judge James Robart. She very efficiently arranged to have Naboth falsely accused of cursing God and the king and stoned to death. She used the technical mechanism of the law of Moses to accomplish what she was unwilling or unable to do with her own hands. There was the appearance of justice: two witnesses were found in compliance with rule of law, and the legal penalty for cursing God was meted out on Naboth, the alleged lawbreaker. It was all technically above board.

But the spirit of the law had been crushed like a bug. Its intent had been thwarted, though its letter had been respected.

The Inexorable Logic of Power Politics

From a Sidonian perspective Jezebel’s thinking was perfectly logical. Her metric was nothing more elegant than this: “Do you now govern Israel?”

Who’s on the throne? Who’s got the clout? That’s all that matters.

Will to power.

God’s opinion on all this? “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel.” Judge Robart may come to a less grisly ending. We’ll see.

Servants and Shepherds

What can we learn from this? As Christians we are not subject to the law of Moses. As Gentile Christians we are definitely not under law — read Acts 15 if you have any concerns about that. Even if we were, it would be unhelpful to treat the New Testament as our own legal document or “constitution of the Church”, picking away at the technical definitions, deconstructing the Greek syntax and finding for ourselves convenient penumbras and implications entirely foreign to the spirit of its Writer.

The spirit, you say? That’s awfully tricky to discern, isn’t it?

Not really. Ahab was a wicked man, and had no interest in inquiring of the oracles of God in his day to understand what God wanted from the kings he allowed to occupy the throne of Israel. But had he done so, he would have found quite easily that the kings of Israel were never intended by God to behave themselves like they saw the kings of the nations around them doing. Their authority simply did not operate that way. Their job description was something else entirely: they were servants of the law and of the people. They were shepherds of the nation, put in place to lead God’s people out and bring them in safely again.

Discerning the Spirit

If Ahab had wanted to know the will of God with respect to Naboth’s vineyard, it was easily accessible. Kings have no greater right to any particular plot of dirt than anyone else. And hey, if Ahab couldn’t find his answer in the writings of the prophet Samuel, he could certainly find it by asking the prophet Elijah, who made frequent appearances in Samaria and never failed to have a godly opinion about the goings-on in Ahab’s palace.

It was not hard to find the will of God if Ahab had been willing to look for it, and it isn’t really that tough for us either. If we insist on reading the New Testament technically and pedantically, we will always be able to find some clever way to get what we want out of it. If we keep our eyes on the character of God, however, some interpretations are a great deal more in keeping with God’s well-established character than others.

Asking “What exactly do these words say?” is never enough. We need to ask what God intended by them. Otherwise we’re just playing word games.

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