The politics and prayers of death

June 10th, 2016

Speaking at the Faith and Family Coalition’s Road to Majority conference this morning, Senator David Perdue (R-GA) referenced a psalm while speaking about President Obama. The beauty of the Book of Psalms is that they cover the broad range of human emotions, giving us words to hold close whether we’re angry, peaceful, grieving, scared, joyous, thankful, or any combination thereof. So it’s particularly troubling, then, that a powerful public official would use his platform to quote the particular verse he did. It’s especially troubling that it was directed at our highest civic leader. So what did he say, exactly?

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “Well that’s not so bad. Maybe he shouldn’t be using the Bible to express distaste for the president, or any person, but he wants the guy out of office and the verse was a way (albeit tacky) to say that.”

But that falls into the trap that I suspect Senator Perdue fell into by using the verse in the first place: proof-texting. It’s an issue that our regular contributor Zack Hunt speaks about often here on Ministry Matters and on his blog. The idea that you can pick out one verse from a sacred text, especially one as large and complex as the Bible, and ignore the context  either the words directly before and after it, the history of the passage, the cultural situation in which it was written, the identity of the writer, etc.  is, to put it bluntly, foolish. Which is why his use of this particular verse, Psalm 109:8, is especially disturbing. What follows in the King James Version, the version quoted, is this:

At the very least, Senator Perdue is guilty of proof-texting, and the consequences are that he has used the words of the psalmist to inadvertently wish ruin and despair upon President Obama.

At the very worst, he knew exactly what he was doing: wielding the Bible as a weapon; forgoing the grace and mercy of Christ in favor of the current political climate which seeks to use faith as a means of dealing death and separation; being glib about the downfall of his neighbor; and doing all this in the name of Christ by means of holy words.

I’d like to be generous and say that it’s most likely the first. Senator Perdue probably just picked a verse that’s been circulating for a while as a way to talk about Obama using “Christian” language, and he didn’t really think about the rest of the passage just like so many biblically illiterate Christians unaware of the dangers of proof-texting tend to do.

But it’s hard to be generous when this approach, especially when talking about President Obama in conservative Christian circles (and ESPECIALLY when using this particular verse), is not new. We’ve been talking about the insidious implications of lobbing Psalm 109:8 about since 2009. At some point, you just have to set your jaw and accept that people know precisely what they’re doing, what they’re saying directly or indirectly, and what weight their words carry.

I shouldn’t be surprised. We in America have let our public sphere and the politics which govern it become defined by death. Death in the physical sense, as we let political hemming and hawing overshadow the disproportionate death of minorities at the hands of the state. Death in the emotional/mental sense, as we collectively allow the demonization and marginalization of those who need our support most: the orphan; the widow; women who are told that their bodies are property to be assaulted, neglected, coldly discussed and decided upon without their consent; our LGBTQ sisters and brothers whose community suffers elevated suicide rates because of our society’s choice to hate and shun rather than be resolute in our presence, understanding, and love; those communities of color who are disproportionately subjugated to the racist systems which give rise to poverty-to-prison cycles. And death in the spiritual sense, as we allow politicians and politically-infused, nationalist Christianity to tell us not only who our neighbors aren’t but how not to love them.

This is the political and spiritual tone we’ve set in modern America. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t life-giving, and it sure doesn’t feel like something Jesus-followers would want to have a hand in. So what are we to do? Well, for Christians there is a straight-forward answer that is often incredibly hard to implement: love God with all your heart and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s in the Bible, and I hope it’s a verse Senator Perdue and any who took pleasure in his scripture of choice would read and pray over. Because when Christians use our sacred text to make a point, the first thing we should be asking is “Does what I’m about to use scripture for match what scripture is actually for?” We have the Word because the Word breathes life.

When we open the Word and speak it out, hearing it ourselves and imploring fellow Christians to hear it, we’re asking for Life and Love to infuse our meaning and our message. In that moment, the Spirit through the Word can work to change hearts and minds. All of which is pretty hard to claim if what you’re using a cherry-picked Bible verse for is to pray a curse upon a guy you’ve hated for eight years.

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