With all of the discussion of the midterm elections, I would like to rewind the clock to a bizarre little incident from the ghost of news cycles past. Last November there was a short-lived furor about a bumper sticker that read:
Pray for Obama
When I first saw this bumper sticker, while driving, I naturally went home and looked up the passage in the Bible: “May his days be few, let another assume his office.”
Because I found it moderately clever, I was surprised when the news broke that the websites selling Psalm 109:8 bumper stickers and T-shirts had stopped peddling these wares because the message may have been against the law, a law that bans threatening the President of the United States
The guilty speech in this case was not the verse printed on the bumper sticker (Psalm 109:8) but the verse that follows it in the Bible which reads: “May his children become fatherless, and his wife a widow” (v. 9).
Speaking with some colleagues about this, I admitted that I thought it odd that “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8” would be construed as a threat against the President. One colleague disagreed. “You have the read the next verse,” he insisted. “This is clearly a threat.” The implicit argument of my colleague was based upon the claim that the bumper sticker must be interpreted contextually. In other words, Psalm 109:8 can only be understood if it is read with Psalm 109:9. My colleague pressed that these people know their Bible, so they know what they meant.
I have no doubt that they knew what they meant. The problem is: how do “we” know what they meant? For example, what about verse 6? “Appoint an evil man to oppose him; let an accuser stand at his right hand.” (So much for the newest Republican revolution or the Tea Party.) Better yet, in the full context of the Psalm, it appears that verses 6-19 represent the voice of those that oppose the anointed of God, the king, the messiah. Perhaps, the bumper stickers implies those that paste it to their cars are the “accusers” (Satans) mentioned in verse 6? Perhaps, Obama was God’s anointed?
And this, of course, is the rub. Bible verses can be de-contextualized and re-contextualized on a bumper sticker or a shirt or a sign. On what grounds does one verse printed on a bumper sticker carry some or all of the rest of the meaning of the literature from which it was decontextualized?
For example, it is cliché to use John 3:16 in a decontextualized manner: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall perish but have everlasting life. My experience, however, has been that those that use the verse are completely unaware of verses that follow that speak of the condemnation of those that do not believe. How do I know if the fan in the rainbow wig is inviting me to accept Jesus as my personal savior, warning me that I am potentially hell bound, just an eccentric, or all of the above?
Claims about what the verse meant and why a certain interpretation seems credible at a particular historical moment requires argument and evidence if it is to have validity. This, of course, usually takes more time than a new cycle. However, well after the event is news, it becomes our job as students of American religion to determine if this was simply a trivial misunderstanding or a religious conspiracy to threaten the president.