The Common Good

Psalm 109:8 -- A Prayer to Destroy Obama?

During the last few days, Psalm 109:8, a Bible verse in the form of a "prayer for Obama," has topped the Google trends chart: "May his days be few; may another take his office." Evidently, a bumper sticker emblazoned with this verse has popped up in various parts of the country. It is a sort of right-wing Christian equivalent to the old "01.20.09" stickers looking forward to the end of the Bush era.

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It was, most likely, intended as a joke. But it isn't really very funny. Especially since the next verse reads, "May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow." The passage goes on the same way -- asking God to pulverize this poor fellow -- that he lose all his worldly goods, that his orphans be abandoned, that his father be remembered as a sinner, and finally, that "his memory be cut off from the earth."

Thus, the "Prayer for Obama" does more than anticipate that he leaves office; it entreats God to destroy the president.

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 (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 it not be used in public worship, much less as a bumper-sticker political slogan.

In his marvelous book, Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis observed:

In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naivety. Examples can be found all over the Psalter, but perhaps the worst is in 109 (p. 20).

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 to the venerable C.S. Lewis, then, 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."

portrait-diana-butler-bassDiana Butler Bass is pretty much a postmodern progressive. In addition to blogging here, she also blogs at Progressive Revival and is the author of the new book, A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

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