"Pray for Obama." At first glance it seems well meaning. After all, there were many such admonitions, from the Christian Right, to pray for President Bush. Prayer cards were even distributed to some deployed troops, committing them to pray for their Commander in Chief. Then we read the verse in question, Psalm 109:8. It isn't well meaning at all. And the Psalm gets worse from there. It is one of those dark passages in the Old Testament that belies idealized notions of Christanity as a religion of love and peace.
8. Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
9. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
10. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
11. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.
12. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.
13. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
14. Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
15. Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
There is a very dark undercurrent to the Bible. Like most eruptions of the shadow, our first impulse is to split it off and deny it. As Diana Butler Bass explains on Beliefnet, Psalm 109 is a tough one for theologians to reconcile.
Psalm 109 belongs to a special category of the psalms known as "imprecatory" prayers--it is a lament in the form of petition to destroy one's enemies. It is the personal prayer of an individual, someone who has been dealt an injustice by another--and usually more powerful--person. The words of Psalm 109 are those of deep agony, the longings of a victim for retribution and justice. This psalm is considered one of the most difficult of all the psalms--full of violent images of vengeance and death. Many a biblical critic has struggled with its words--and not a few--including Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant theologians--recommend that it not be used in public worship, much less as a bumper-sticker political slogan.
I keep coming back to one of my favorite quotes from Joseph Campbell, who was no fan of the Bible, nor of Abrahamic religions, in general.
[The Bible is] the most over-advertised book in the world. It's very pretentious to claim it to be the word of God, or accept it as such and perpetuate this tribal mythology, justifying all kinds of violence to people who are not members of the tribe.
The thing I see about the Bible that's unfortunate is that it's a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world today is that this particular society that's presented in the Bible isn't even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It's pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can't break loose and move into a modern theology.
One of the great promises of mythology is, with what social group do you identify? How about the planet? To say that the members of this particular social group are the elite of God's world is a good way to keep that group together, but look at the consequences! I think that what might be called the sanctified chauvinism of the Bible is one of the curses of the planet today.
For me, the poignancy of Campbell's observation has never been so stunningly clear. The use of this piece of scripture comes against the backdrop of a campaign to make Barack Obama an "other," a member of a foreign tribe, and not a "real American." Some continue to insist that he was born in Kenya, despite repeated verification of his Hawaii birth certificate. Some of this rhetoric is downright frightening, with ominous hints at potential violence. Former evangelical Frank Schaeffer explains the urgency of concern in this interview on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow." (A complete transcript of the show can be found here.)
It may well be that use of Psalm 109:8 was not intended to be read beyond that line, by people who simply wanted him out of office; not dead. There is enough ambiguity to grant plausible deniability.
Deborah Lauter, director of civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League agrees that the bumper sticker falls within acceptable political discourse.
For it to be considered hate speech, it “would advocate actual violence or cite scripture that was more clear in its message.”
But that doesn’t mean that it’s completely innocent.
“Are we concerned about real hostility towards [President Obama]? Absolutely,” says Ms. Lauter. “Is this a part of that movement? It may be, but in terms of this message itself, we would not criticize it.”
“The problem is you don’t know if people who are donning that message in a shirt or on a bumper sticker are fully aware of the quote or what follows. Obviously that message makes the ambiguity disappear. If they’re just referring to him being out of office, that’s one thing. If they’re referring to him being dead, that’s so offensive. It’s protected speech, but it’s clearly offensive.”
It is hard to miss the subtext, however, or to separate the one verse from its scriptural context. A good segment of the target demographic are fundamentalist Christians. They know the Bible far better than much of the populace.
The larger issue, which Campbell calls on us to consider, is how our core mythologies shape our culture. While this is not a theocracy, or a "Christian nation," there is no denying that the United States is underpinned by the Judeo-Christian beliefs that held sway at its inception. More to the point, we are still largely shaped by the rigid, Calvinist beliefs of our earliest settlers. This goes a long way to explaining the punitive, moral authority that permeates our social institutions, from our schools to our judicial system. The "Pray for Obama" campaign is a painful reminder of just how pressing this issue has become. Can we overcome the divisiveness, tribalism, and violence, inherent in our Judeo-Christian mythology?
Diane Butler Bass turns to C.S. Lewis's Reflections on the Psalms for a viable answer; one which invites us to face the dark underbelly of these beliefs and bring them out into the light.
Lewis suspects that it may be best to leave such psalms alone. But then he says that we must face "facts squarely."
The hatred is there--festering, gloating, undisguised--and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves (p. 22).
Lewis refers to these psalms as horrible, devilish, cruel, hateful, and evil. He believes that Psalm 109--and the poetry of its kind in the psalter--should point us back to the evil we carry within and teach us each how to behave with goodness, humility, and love.
According then, to the venerable C.S. Lewis, a "Prayer for Obama" is really a prayer for ourselves to go beyond "festering, gloating, undisguised" hatred. "If the Divine does not call to make us better, it will make us very much worse," he reminded his readers, "Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst."