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Purposive Approach

A dear friend of mine shared a story of her new venture - she just started a blog and a podcast. "That’s pretty impressive," I said to her. I will someday share with you the wonderful stories about this friend, how we met, and how she, in some profound way, shaped my life. Her modesty is such that she would decline to take any sort of credit for what has become of me. But that’s just her humble nature speaking.

After sharing the news with me, she sent me the link to her blog (she's a lawyer, by the way). I clicked on the link and read it. I have since read it multiple times - mainly for the story about Pedro and Aso, two friends of hers who also shaped her life. But there’s more. Her blog introduced me to a legal principle: purposive approach. That was my first experience with this principle - not that I am familiar with all legal principles, of course.

I later searched Wikipedia to learn more about purposive approach and found out that it is an attempt to go beyond the text of a legislation to determine the purpose of that legislation. In other words, it is about establishing the purpose of a particular law.

It is an approach that judges use in fleshing out the intent of the legislature, what informed the decision-making process, and - to an extent - what type of problem begs for such a legislative intervention.

I asked her if the same approach could be used in understanding scripture. Her immediate response was that yes, it can, and does in so many ways.

The first thought that came to my mind was the story of another lawyer in Luke’s gospel who asked Jesus this nagging question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this, and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus then tells the Samaritan parable to help this man understand what the law invites him to do. The pure reading of the law may not readily reveal to us who our neighbor is, in fact. That is why the lawyer asked the important question, “And who is my neighbor?”

To answer this question, you have to go beyond the text. That may be the only way to chance upon the Unspoken Word of a text.  

In the Samaritan story, Jesus helps the lawyer with a purposive approach to the text. He instructs him with these words: “Go, and do likewise.” In other words, go and be like the Samaritan who wasn’t constrained by any allegiance to a tribe, culture, religion, or even the law. Go and be like the Samaritan who understood what a purposive approach to the law looks like. Go and be like the Samaritan whom Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative meant everything. Go and be like the Samaritan who understood the purposive construct of the law.

Purposive approach feels, to me, like the bilingual language of democracy. For starters, I think that democracy speaks only two languages. It is not English, French, Spanish, Mandarin, or even Fante, my native tongue, but it still is bilingual because it speaks the Spoken Word and the Unspoken Word.

All of us can, like the lawyer who went to Jesus, read and hear the Spoken Word, but someone may have to help us understand the Unspoken Word. And oftentimes, the Unspoken Word is that wound that refuses to heal, that wound which cannot be healed, that wound which only carries bandages that remind us of the tragedies of the past, those tragedies which we would prefer not to revisit.

The Spoken Word of our democracy is our Constitution and the many laws that have been passed by Congress in support of this Constitution. The Supreme Court guides any legislation deemed as not meeting the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.

One of the pieces of legislation in support of the Constitution is the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The plain reading of this legislation - the Spoken Word - may help us understand the curative nature of this legislation. The Unspoken Word is the trauma of Slavery, Jim Crow, and Systemic Racism suffered by millions of African Americans and other minority populations.

To understand the purposive approach of this legislation is to understand that a society or even an individual must embrace corrective measures. To do so is to accept that we are never perfect nor were we created to be perfect; we were created to correct ourselves and each other when we happen to make mistakes - and that the mistakes of Slavery and its attendant evils need to be corrected.

More to the point, those who were denied the right to vote can now vote, and vote freely.

There may be many, but I have yet to find someone who sincerely believes that African Americans and other minority groups do not deserve or have the right to vote. In a few months, we will be heading to the polls to elect a president, congress, state, and local elections. I would hope that if you are eligible to vote, you go ahead and vote.

If we believe that the Spoken Word of the Voting Rights Act is curative, and if we equally believe that the Unspoken Word of that legislation holds memories of a not-too-distant future that we don’t want to relive, how is it that others think that weakening curative legislation serves any purpose?

"Who is my neighbor?" asked the lawyer. Jesus’ response helps us to go beyond the text of the law and determine that neighbors don’t come in categories.

Trust me - we learn something new every day, and reading my friend’s blog exposed me to a principle I never knew could help influence my understanding of scripture.

As Lent slowly winds down and gives way to Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we are confronted with the worst of human depravity. But the joy of the Lenten season is the stark reminder of God’s ultimate purpose for each of us - despite our depravity.

And so, this Lenten season and beyond, it is my prayer that you would embrace a purposive approach to life. For it is only within that purview that you understand why God loves you, and why your value and worth to God is incalculable. 




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