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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

The dangers of proof-texting

This morning, one of my Facebook friends posted a prayer to his status update.

"Prayer for Pres.Obma and all those that are pushing the health care bill.
Psalms 109:8 "

This particular friend of mine tends toward conservative/libertarian views, so I was curious what song he could be referencing to bolster the types of comments I normally expect from him on the issue of healthcare reform.

So, I pulled up my digital NRSV, and lo and behold:

"May his days be few; may another seize his position."

Ah, message received.

But on closer inspection, what's SO amazing about little snippets like these: context provides many meanings.

On closer inspection, Psalm 109 is a song of David when he is lamenting that wicked and deceitful people are saying untrue things about him and calling for an end to his reign, and ends with a call to God to return upon his enemies all that they call for him and to deliver and protect him.

So, bizarrely, my conservative friend had located himself as possessing one of the "wicked mouths," "speaking against" the leader in the song with "lying tongues."

Once one simply reads the passage in context, it appears that the reader/singer is calling for God to smite the false accusers who stand against those supporting insurance reform and to deliver and protect our president from those who unjustly want to cause him harm.

Now, I suppose it's entirely possible that my normally conservative friend is more progressive on this one issue, and that his post was a call to stop inserting truths, falsehoods, and political opposition baldly into the public discourse about how our country should approach healthcare/insurance reform.

If this is what he meant, I'm surprised. I decided to thank him for sending me down this particular textual journey today.

However, I suspect his intention was to convey the opposite meaning, that he was assuming the line "May his days be few; may another seize his position" as a literal call for the president's political end (I'm choosing to ignore the next line, which appears to call for the leader's untimely death and the resulting plight of his surviving family).

Proof-texting meaning is a dangerous way to convey sentiment. Often, the proof-texter tears one line out of context and presses new meaning upon it, perhaps thinking that text from an authoritative source provides support for his or her own opinions. Unfortunately, for those who closely read our Bibles, such messages often present alternative meanings. Usually, I find such moments to simply convey that the proof-texter is not a close contextual reader of the text he or she uses. (I will lament the state of our public education system another day).

In this case, the contextual reading of the authoritative source seems to mean precisely the opposite of what the sender intended.

Context matters.

Psalm 109, a song of David

Do not be silent, O God of my praise.
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.
They beset me with words of hate,
and attack me without cause.
In return for my love they accuse me,
even while I make prayer for them.
So they reward me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.

They say, ‘Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand on his right.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin.

May his days be few;
may another seize his position.
May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation.
May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord,
and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before the Lord continually,
and may his memory be cut off from the earth.
For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the broken-hearted to their death.
He loved to curse; let curses come on him.
He did not like blessing; may it be far from him.
He clothed himself with cursing as his coat,
may it soak into his body like water,
like oil into his bones.
May it be like a garment that he wraps around himself,
like a belt that he wears every day.’

May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord,
of those who speak evil against my life.
But you, O Lord my Lord,
act on my behalf for your name’s sake;
because your steadfast love is good, deliver me.
For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is pierced within me.
I am gone like a shadow at evening;
I am shaken off like a locust.
My knees are weak through fasting;
my body has become gaunt.
I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
when they see me, they shake their heads.

Help me, O Lord my God!
Save me according to your steadfast love.
Let them know that this is your hand;
you, O Lord, have done it.
Let them curse, but you will bless.
Let my assailants be put to shame; may your servant be glad.
May my accusers be clothed with dishonour;
may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle.
With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord;
I will praise him in the midst of the throng.
For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
to save them from those who would condemn them to death.

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