I Was Wondering About A Couple of Things
By JIM NICHOLS
As I was leaving for the office on a recent morning, I noticed two workmen-type individuals carefully walking across the front yard of my immediate neighbor. They seemed to be doing some measuring and placed small hot pink flags in the ground in a few places. Trying to look as if I were not watching, I attempted to figure out what was occurring. Soon, they walked through the gate into the neighbor’s back yard. I wondered if I should phone my neighbor but passed on the idea. The following day my neighbor and I were both in front simultaneously and I asked him about the flags. He explained, logically, that they were in the process of re-financing their house and correctly identifying the boundaries of the property was a necessary piece of information.
It reminded me of a time years ago when we were preparing to move from one house to another. Our oldest child was about eleven then and she asked what those men were doing with little flags in our yard. I explained that part of selling the house involved noting exactly where our yard ended and where our neighbor Bill’s yard began. As children do, she asked a perfectly reasonable and unanswerable question, “Why don’t you just look at where you stop mowing the grass and where Bill starts mowing? That’s where one yard ends and the other begins.”
This has made me consider how important property boundaries seem to be to us Americans. Maybe not just property boundaries, but all kinds of boundaries. There seems to be a lot of energy and money spent by us as individuals and as a nation to identify and guard our boundaries. I can certainly see some value for at least some appropriate boundaries, but I am wondering if our emphasis on them undermines our sense of community, a clearly Christian concept. I am not sure if boundaries are all that big a deal to God, but community is.
Somewhat related to that “wondering,” I am listening carefully to the way language is used regarding the U.S. Constitution and the Bible. Or more specifically, the way language is used in the interpretation of those two documents. Frankly, I do not believe we are being honest enough about what is actually occurring. The punch line is that we are interpreting each but we do not readily admit that.
In the discussion about the appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice, she is being described as a “strict constructionist” or an “originalist.” This is certainly not my field of expertise, but my understanding is that this means the laws and Constitution should be interpreted based on what they were understood to mean when they were written. However, none of us was there when they were written, so I sense what could be a large gap with a 2020 interpretation of a document written over two centuries ago. As an example, consider the “right to bear arms” concept. Despite the fact that a twentieth century court has given its interpretation on the meaning, there is no assurance that that is what the original Constitution writers meant. What we have is simply a best sense of its meaning. It seems to me that we need to be clearer about what we are doing rather than just saying, “the Constitution says” and ignoring the assumptions we have made.
Much of the same language of positivity is used as we read the Bible. There are some of God’s people who are more “originalist” than others. Clearly, there is a spectrum of understandings and interpretations of scripture. You and I have a faith that is to a certain extent shaped by our traditions; some of those traditions may have a biblical basis, but others do not. I take the Bible seriously as a communication from God; I suspect you do too. We take our own experiences and thoughts of other thinkers and through the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit integrate them with our reading of scripture to try to be functioning followers of God. This is a complicated task and, clearly, different followers of God come to some different conclusions even though they might all claim to be originalists. As much as we might wish it were so, we were not there when scripture appeared. I propose that honesty requires we admit our interpretations of scripture, as important as they are to us, are in fact interpretations. This will allow the religious community to stop playing “small ball” so much and focus better on God’s love and desires for the world.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain