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The Spirit and the Letter

You’ve probably heard of these two terms: Spirit and Letter. Depending on how you understand these two terms, each may be so distant from the other or just the opposite. I argue that each represents one concept from the other but can only realize its true meaning if taken into context with the other. And here in this brief essay, I attempt to rest my case. Allow me to first define each and then argue my case.

First, Letter refers to the legal and literal meaning of what is stipulated in whatever context or form. Spirit, on the other hand, denotes the unseen spaces between the Letters and what are inherent in them. For instance, the Ten Commandments literally tell us what to do and what not to do. But The Beatitudes and Jesus’ two main commandments seem to say more as they try to articulate not just the Letter of the Commandments but their Spirit as well. Risking going too far with this, I argue that the distinction is similar with trying to separate Moral from Legal, and the Church from the State. I am not saying that we go back to the monarchical system. We do not even ever wish to repeat the 30-year war between Catholics and Protestants that led to the separation. All I am saying is that the problems of today’s world started when we reinvented the world under these two seemingly distinct realities that are actually one and the same. The main thing that really stood between the two was the disappearance of Integrity or Truth.

I now turn to my favorite industry for my argumentative illustrations. I served in the AFP for close to thirty years and in private security for twelve years so the security industry is closest to my heart. The industry is apparently my comfort zone when it comes to arguing issues that I am passionate about, borne out by years of trial and error. I saw corruption when I was in government service. High-ranking officers demanded absolute obedience to saintly rules and regulations from subordinates while they practiced hidden corruption. The Spirit of the rules was therefore demanded of the subordinates by the superiors who merely observed the Letter of the same rules. In private security, some security service providers merely adhered to the Letter during audits but neglected the Spirit of compliances mandated of them outside the audit periods. Even ordinary security officers and guards do the same. There are those who merely perform according to prescribed rules when someone is looking but totally neglect the same if left on their own. Performing only when being audited is a clear illustration of adhering to the Letter of what needs to get done. While performing according to standard even when no one is looking is being cognizant of the Spirit of what one is engaged in.

We can now expand our horizons to the larger environment as security practitioners are likewise husbands, fathers, and citizens. A married but philandering husband adheres to the Letter but not the Spirit of his marriage vows. His transgression is even made worse if he got married in Church because then he would not merely be lying to his wife but to God Himself who is the Third Person in his wedding. A father who does not practice what he preaches does the same. He may say all the good things to his children but if he cannot even stay away from other women or vices lives not according to the Spirit of his fatherhood. A citizen who does not pay the correct amount of taxes he owes lives merely according to the Letter of his citizenship. Government officials who get rich in office while preaching good governance live not according to Spirit but merely the Letter of their oaths of office. Their statements of assets and liabilities may pass legal scrutiny but not moral accountability. To those with faith, it can be said by them that such may escape public wrath but not divine wrath.

Now I think we are getting the real issue between Letter and Spirit. The former is shallow while the latter is deep. One is merely legal while the other is moral. One is truth. One is false. One is positive, the other negative. One is right, the other wrong. One cannot be construed without the other. In fact, the Letter is meaningless without the Spirit. The Letter is intended for the benefit of the Spirit. It is meaningless and useless otherwise.

In today’s world, we have gotten used to populist tactics that merely utilize the Letter precisely to malign the Spirit. This is the opposite of what the Letter is intended to animate. Such tactics are those of hooligans who used to be the objects of Spirit-filled Letters designed for the common good. Now it appears that it is the hooligans who are in charge as the Letters imposed supposedly for the common good instead have the effect of maligning the Spirit. For instance, we saw this during the atrocities of the martial law period and later the EJK era of the current administration. When before, Spirit-filled Letters encouraged coming up with the truth, today Spirit-less Letters are issued not necessarily to bring out the truth but merely to pacify an agitated public with administration versions of the truth. These illustrate the now common chasms between Spirit-filled Letters and Spirit-less ones.

I hope one is getting my meaning when I argue that this growing chasm between Spirit and Letter is adding, not detracting from effective public-policy formulation and implementation. What needs to be done? Regardless of the growing complexities in the world’s operating environment, the need to close the gap between Spirit and Letter is needed now more than ever. In a world that is decaying faster than it can develop for the common good, the need for truth has only become more keen than ever before. In a quagmire of falsities, one does not need another falsehood to clear up the stable but rather a new dose of truth to even begin to unravel the mystery that led to the quagmire. I argue that it is time to bring back Spirit-filled Letters to our governance of law or none at all. Letters however voluminous are useless if filled only with legalisms that lost their common good intentions at the time of writing.

Spirit and Letter are as basic as arithmetic and the alphabet. A Letter is written because there is a Spirit that inspired it. That Spirit often desires the good of others. A Letter written devoid of any inspiring Spirit has only itself for an inspiration and is therefore self-serving. It is merely a Spirit-less Letter that has no place in the hearts of men as it desires no common good but only a selfish one.