I know that our lawmakers from local to national (and global) regularly get criticized for doing nothing or doing the wrong thing. Often the criticism is deserved, but have you ever tried to write a law that functions as desired, or a rule that works for every possible case? Even doing so as a thought experiment can be challenging.

I have read rule books for various organizations and sports. What is certain is that for every rule -- even the most obscure -- there is a reason for it. Something happened, or someone anticipated something happening, that caused the rule to be there. Sometimes they are there because of the unpredictability of a game (baseball rulebooks are notoriously complicated). Sometimes they are there because of people attempting to gain unfair advantage or not following the best practices. For every law there is a story.

But the opposite is also true. For every story there is a law. It is not necessarily written law, but an understood moral or legal context. Stories have meaning because we have expected standards of behavior and we also fail to live up to those expected standards. The best stories have some element of failure on the part of one party or group which is counterbalanced by another going beyond what is required by law or morality setting things right. This is called sacrifice, or character, or courage.

Without a moral or legal context our stories will not make any sense. This is the reason some stories fall out of favor -- because the moral context has changed so much that they become either offensive or meaningless. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it is not. And sometimes we can't agree on whether it is a good thing or not. This is one of the reasons that it is challenging for us to interpret documents written hundreds (U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights) or thousands (The Bible) of years ago.

What may have been morally acceptable or assumed (this is different than being morally right) when a document was written can change. This creates some dissonance between the law and the story. When this happens, we have some decisions to make. We can read our context into the document or we can attempt to understand the context in which the document was written to gain what the writers intended. We can stick to the original story and explain it, or we can change the original story to fit our context. Of these choices, the easiest is to take what we have at "face value" and read our context into it. This is also the choice that can lead to the most inaccurate and misinformed conclusions.

It happens in politics, it happens in education, and it happens in religion. There are no shortcuts. In my opinion, if we are to treat our lives and policies with the gravitas deserved, it is important to learn both law and story to the extent that we can. And when we can't, at least admit the limitations we have.

For people who think through such things, this leads to humility and grace toward others. It need not reduce strong opinions or tenacity, but it should reduce personal attacks on character and name-calling. No one has enough knowledge or wisdom to dismiss another's well-thought-out opinion. What is often missing from those who are leaders and teachers is humility and graciousness. This is true in religious and secular environments.

I am one who attempts to live according to the story given to us in the Bible. This should make me tolerant of others, gracious toward those who disagree, tenacious in my convictions, and at peace with as many as possible.

The Bible is law and story interwoven in a fascinating tapestry containing every genre of literature. If I had to choose, I would say that the story comes first. It is an idyllic story of beauty and harmony among God, creation and mankind. Then someone did something to knock it out of balance and found others to cooperate. That is when law came into the picture in the form of exile and curses. The interplay between story and law has been going on ever since.

There is an antidote to law -- it is called love. I Peter 4:8 puts it this way, "Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins." (RSV). Three of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) combine Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 and say in some form, "The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind. The second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself." May we all strive to allow this to guide our story and be the context in which we interpret the rules of life.

Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at sean.niestrath@outlook.com.

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