May 28, 2024

politics of law

Politics and Law

Interpretation and the Spirit of the Law

8 min read

Whether one liked President Kennedy or not, few would deny that he was one of the seminal personalities of post-war history. He was the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, and by implication of what some would call the Free World, at a time when international tensions had probably never been greater. Those who remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion will know how fraught relations were at that time between East and West, to a point where many actually feared that an outbreak of nuclear war was imminent.

Probably the most poignant symbol of this tense relationship was the Berlin Wall. Located in the heart of East Germany, many miles behind the Iron Curtain, post-war Berlin was divided at that time into four military zones, administered respectively by France, the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The Russian sector was effectively an integral part of communist East Germany, but the French, British and American sectors formed a kind of Western oasis in the heart of Communist Eastern Europe, and this became jointly known as West Berlin.

Concerned by the number of its citizens who were crossing into West Berlin from the East, and in many cases travelling from there into Western Europe itself, the East German authorities constructed a huge barbed wire fence around the whole of West Berlin to prevent any movement of people into that part of the city. In time the barbed wire was replaced by concrete, with machine gun posts established at strategic points. This became known, famously (or infamously), as the Berlin Wall.

Not unreasonably the people of West Berlin felt themselves to be in a state of siege. There had been a blockade which the Western powers had alleviated by means of an airlift of food and supplies. In June 1963 President Kennedy felt moved to fly to West Berlin, in person, to demonstrate his solidarity, and that of the Free World, with the beleaguered citizens of West Berlin.


When he was there he made a famous speech, heard by some 450,000 people, a speech which would go down in history and be talked about for many years to come. Before the people of West Berlin the world’s most powerful man cried out the immortal words “Ich Bin Ein Berliner!”

Ironically in more recent times we have witnessed an interesting parallel in the words “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – an expression of solidarity with the victims of the horrendous massacre at the offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine. “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”, literally translated word for word, meant “I am a Berliner”. It was a way of saying “I stand with you”, “What you are enduring, we are all enduring”, “I feel your pain”.

That simple slogan – “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” – was greeted with scenes of rapture and astonishment by the multitude that was gathered around. Not least because in spite of the fact that “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” translated literally meant “I am a Berliner” (or a citizen of Berlin) – what the most powerful man in the world had actually said, in the local vernacular, was “I am a jelly doughnut!”.

The German language, like any other, has its own subtleties, which do not always stand the logical test of translation. “A Berliner”, to people in many parts of Germany, is a doughnut filled with luscious sweet jam. What a German would have said was “Ich Bin Berliner” – literally translated “I am Berliner” or “I am citizen of Berlin”. In English it doesn’t make perfect sense, but in German it is the difference between an American President offering leadership to the suffering masses of West Berlin and a man declaring to a startled world that he is a Teutonic pastry.


In fairness some authorities dispute this story. In particular there is some disagreement as to whether the precise words used by Kennedy were in fact correct. But either way it is a useful anecdote which helps to illustrate a point, and that point is that if the President of the United States of America, briefed and well-advised as he must have been and speaking a European tongue not dissimilar from his own, can make such an error (one little word) which so radically changes the meaning of what he has said – how much greater are the pitfalls we encounter when reading through the Bible and trying to be sure what it is that God is trying to say to us?

When we finish our readings in Church we sometimes say “the Word of God”, to remind ourselves that the Bible is indeed his word. The Scriptures contain essential truths, they are not in themselves a Pick’N’Mix from which we can decide which we accept and which we don’t. But, Word of God notwithstanding, they are physically written by human hands, based upon the understanding of the writer, thousands of years ago, by people whose mother tongue was one with which most of us are not familiar, in the context of the times in which they lived, in a land which is not our own.

One simple example will suffice – the word “fulfil”. Often in the New Testament we hear that Jesus did this or that to “fulfil” the words of the Holy Scriptures, which came to us from the Old Testament many years before. The Greek word for “fulfil” is plerosai. But according to Greek scholars, this is a difficult word to translate accurately, and precisely, into English. When we are told that Jesus came to fulfil something it could mean he came to accomplish it. It could mean to bring out the full meaning of it (i.e. the Holy Scriptures). It could mean to bring a thing to its intended conclusion. Or it could mean to emphasise that the Scriptures identify him as the Messiah and are thereby, for this reason, fulfilled in his work. This one word has four slightly different meanings.


Jesus spent most of his time explaining to his disciples what the true meaning of the Scriptures really was. He didn’t have to introduce, or to familiarise, his followers with the words of their prophets. They were familiar with them already, one assumes. At no point did he ever say that the Scriptures (what generally speaking we know as the Old Testament) were wrong. What he did, so often, was to put them into context, in a way that his followers, being simple souls just like us, could comprehend. Rather than just chanting the law at us Jesus explained “why”.

He put the Sabbath into context. He taught us that the laws were there for us, not just to be observed in their own right for no particular reason. God created the world, and gave us laws because he wanted us to live in goodness and in harmony. Jesus implored us to love our neighbour and told us that when we serve our fellow man we serve him. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?” “I tell you this, anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.”

Love is the basis is of the Christian faith. “There are three things that last forever: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of them all is love”. Or as it says in Mark: “Love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than this”.


Why love? Because that is the kind of world that God wishes this to be. There is no academic, no intellectual, no scientific, no scholarly reason why this should be so. Nevertheless it is clear, through every word and deed, that what shines through to us throughout the Bible, throughout God’s message, is that God’s design for this world is that we should love our fellow human beings, and treat them with respect, and with dignity. That is far, far more important – in the overall scheme of things – than thoughts of whether you would rescue your ox from a ditch on the Sabbath.

How often do we hear it said, by non-Christians, that the Bible is contradictory? That in one place it seems to say one thing, and then in another seems to tell us something entirely different? In particular, that the words of Jesus in the New Testament appear at times to be totally at odds with those of earlier writings, those of the earlier prophets? Jesus is careful not to contradict the teachings of the Scriptures, but who can deny that the way in which he interprets them for us sometimes seems to differ significantly from the way that they come across to us in the Old Testament?

Many scholars have spent their whole lifetimes painstakingly dissecting Biblical texts, closely studying the cultures and sometimes even learning the languages in which they were written, in order to iron out any perceived irregularities and to make sense of it all. It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to understand the issues of today without having some knowledge of the events of history which inform current positions. There can be no doubt that an understanding of the geography, and of the people, and of the times in which the Bible is set – probably more so still a familiarity with the language – would give us a much greater insight into what it all says to us.

But the greatest knowledge of all is perhaps a basic, fundamental understanding of the spirit of God’s word. Of why it is that we should love our neighbour, why it is that we should love God, why it is that we should be honest and decent in our dealings with others, why it is that Jesus told us that when we give to our fellow human beings we give to him.


One can understand all the linguistic subtleties in the world, all the cultural nuances and literary idiosyncrasies. One can recite and chant all the laws, all the out-of-context quotations, with appropriate Biblical references, idiot-style, until one’s heart is content, but until one understands why, then there is no comprehension whatsoever of what Jesus is trying to say to us.

When President Kennedy stood before the people of West Berlin and uttered his immortal words, maybe there was the odd fundamentalist in the audience who really thought he was a jelly doughnut because, after all, that is what he had said. Maybe there was no room for interpretation, no possibility that his meaning might have become lost a little in translation. They were the words he had spoken. It had been said. The President is a jelly doughnut.

We as Christians need to make every effort to try to understand God’s purpose. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes it seems we are not supposed to. But to try to make sense of God’s word as well as just reading it and repeating it can be a most liberating experience.

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