Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Strong Words

I am an ethicist because I enjoy exercising my feelings of righteous indignation from time to time.

Usually, this leads me into trouble. I hear about an issue, a case, an action, a legislative agenda, and I immediately take a stand, pronounce judgment on all who are in obvious and morally culpable error, and then stand around somewhat shame-faced and backpedally when the situation proves more complex than I had initially understood.

In this case, however, I don't mind taking righteous indignation out for a spin.

Tweets, Facebook posts, and bumper stickers now bandy about a prayer, ostensibly wishing for a change of administration come November 6, 2012, but literally wishing, in the words of Psalm 109:8, for the shortening of the President's days so that "another" will "take his office."

First and foremost, this is a plain and embarrassing example of the biblical illiteracy of the church.

That Christians are passing along this verse without understanding the context in which it appears is a testament to how little and how poorly Christians read scripture.

Few of those who pass along this meme take the time to read Psalm 109 in its entirety. The psalm is one of the "cursing" psalms--prayers that God punish the wicked or defeat the psalmist's enemies.

This particular gathering of curses is impressively specific and thorough: the psalmist wishes upon his adversary vicious enemies, financial ruin, death, poverty and homelessness for his children, and permanent damnation upon his soul.

It is an embarrassment to the church that so many people are passing along a verse whose context they don't know; it is an even more troubling embarrassment that they are not curious enough to find out.

But one doesn't need to know the context to know that this verse has no innocuous intent. "I'm just praying for someone else to become president! Like, next Election Day!" comes the quick response to any perceived question or correction. "I'm not praying that anything bad happen to him!"

This response betrays nothing but splendid, willful ignorance--not only of the context but of the plain sense of the verse in question.

To pray that someone's "days be few" is to pray that they die. Soon.

(I recommend that you ask people who disagree with this statement whether they believe in the literal interpretation of scripture. If they really do take scripture seriously, they will squirm. If they don't squirm, call them theological liberals.)

There is no possible alternative interpretation of the literal meaning of that phrase. This verse wishes for someone's early and imminent death. To advocate using this verse in prayer is to advocate praying for someone's death. There is no way to sidestep this issue. And there is no excuse for allowing people to try.

Some people with no particular interest in Jesus, no habit of prayer, and no substantive commitment to Christian scripture, are passing along this meme because it seems cute and funny to them. Delighted to find such an apt expression of their own sentiments in an otherwise charmingly old-fashioned book, they pass it along as if passing along a useful and attractive sweater that doesn't happen to flatter their particular figure.

They are abusing and deriding scripture, albeit unknowingly, but one can't expect otherwise from people who have no reason to take scripture seriously.

Many of the people who are passing it along, however, are people of prayer and professed biblical faith. They claim, in other parts of their lives, to take scripture seriously. Their participation in this meme needs to be named as the insult to scripture that it is. People who claim to value biblical faith must be called to shun vacuous and unserious uses of scripture. It is an embarrassment to the faith that Christians can be so publicly ignorant of their own scriptures and can permit or perpetuate sloppy interpretations of it.

If such displays of biblical illiteracy are an embarrassment, how much more shameful is the actual content of the meme.

One would think it should go without saying that praying for a political adversary's death is unbecoming to a Christian.

One would think it should go without saying that even if one admits that there might be circumstances in which praying for someone's death could be appropriate--say, under conditions of extreme persecution, inescapable abuse, or unrelenting tyranny--that even the worst of the current administration's failures and policies hardly rise to this level.

One would think it should go without saying that if one ever found oneself in a such circumstances, casual or triumphant pronouncements of one's tragic prayer are hardly the order of the day.

But if one thinks those things, one has not sufficiently reckoned with the doctrine of total depravity. Pace dear Thomas Aquinas, who is otherwise my guide in all things ethical and ecclesial, human reason and intellect bow to the deformed will with alarming consistency. One sees what one has willed to be there; one investigates as one intends to conclude; one reasons as one wills. Once one has cast one's lot with those who find nothing wrong with praying for the death of a political enemy, one is emotionally committed to reason that one has done rightly, even in the face of the plain sense of scripture.

The level of self-justification that arises in the face of any attempt at biblical correction is disheartening.

All the same, the effort at biblical correction is not wasted. It may be unsuccessful, especially in this particular instance. Once one is raised to a level of hypocrisy in which one can publicly pray for the death of a president with whom one disagrees after spending eight years arguing that the office of president must command respect irrespective of its holder (because that was just about the only refuge left for persons of a certain political persuasion), one is most likely immune to fraternal correction, no matter how gently or lovingly offered.

But it is not wasted.

I understand that some issues are too complex, too nuanced, too fraught to speak strongly or decisively. There is a reason that the General Conference of the United Methodist Church cannot offer clear and conclusive admonitions on such topics as abortion, homosexuality, or war.

But even Methodists can find a few topics on which to speak clearly and strongly. (I might wish that abortion, rather than gambling, was such a topic, but at least we picked something!)

Even ethicists who've learned to temper their strong words with the knowledge of previous missteps can and should find a few topics for which strong words are required.

It is my sincere hope that all Christians who take scripture seriously will object, publicly, to its public abuse. I hope all Christians will call other Christians to account for perpetuating this shameful meme and will call non-Christians to understand how poorly it represents the Christian faith.

4 comments:

Tinman said...

I'm linking to this in Facebook. Thanks for putting words to what I've been thinking. I can only add a hearty AMEN!!!

Peace and Good,
J

Sarah said...

Thanks, J, for your kind words!

bnsmom1 said...

Actually Sarah, in the newer translations all of the spouting is a quote by the psalmist of his enemies and what they are saying about him (verses 6b-19 are all under quotation marks in the newer translations and even in KJ it appears to be repeated by the psalmist because it switches from plural to singular.) His only request is verse 20, "May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord,of those who speak evil against my life." The psalmist biggest request in this psalm is for the Lord's deliverance, help, and blessing. And I as a Christian am appalled by all of the hatred being spewed by the same people who called those who said anything minor against the last administration unAmerican and unpatriotic. Sorry about the length of this post but it is getting old and I am distressed.

Sarah said...

bnsmom1, YES!! Adding that interpretive layer in only makes it more despicable--if even the psalmist can only bring himself to ask God that God repay his enemy according to his enemy's own prayer, how dare we toss it about so flippantly?

I saw an interview with . . . somebody . . . Francis Schaeffer's son, I think, and the interviewer asked a very intelligent question: whether the verse itself meant what it appears to mean on the surface. I wish he had answered with your observation--it would have helped.