The Constitution identifies the President as the Chief Executive. He is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Since the President is the principal source of major congressional considerations, he is often called the Chief Legislator. It was not until President Obama’s speech yesterday that I began to imagine a Cherrypicker in Chief role.
What is “cherrypicking?” Here’s a broadly representative description from Wikipedia.
Cherry picking, suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.
If you grew up, as I did, where there were a lot of arguments about just what the Bible taught about one thing or another, then “cherrypicking” will mean something more specific to you. In a debate where the underlying question is, “What does the Bible teach about this?” and where the proponents of one side cite these verses and the opponents cite those verses, each is likely to accuse the other of “cherrypicking.” You have chosen, each will say, the verses that confirm your position and you have ignored the verses that confirm mine. That’s “cherrypicking.”
That’s what President Obama did yesterday.
Lately, I’ve been teaching a Bible Study course called Disciple. So far, we have looked at most of the history of Israel as it is recorded in the Bible. Part of this curriculum involves taking the scriptures we are studying and asking questions about personal application of those events. So when we read about the time of the judges in Israel, our Disciple Manual identified this trait as a “mark of discipleship.”
Disciples provide a sense of direction and purpose through godly, obedient leadership.
If you were going to draw lessons from Israelite history, those would be good lessons to draw. Gideon, for instance, provided godly obedient leadership when he destroyed all the shrines to local gods at his father’s house. He might have come up a little short in “honoring his father” at that moment, but as long as we are cherrypicking, let’s go with the “God raised up Gideon” theme and not the “Honor your Father” theme.
With this conflict in mind, I sent out an email to the Disciple class, asking them to think about this dilemma and to think if they might want to discuss it at our next meeting. Everything that follows—the red letter text—is my note to them. Then there is a regular black print conclusion that belongs to this post.
We have been looking more carefully, recently, at the Marks of Discipleship. We talked about those entries that had to do particularly with “godly leaders.” With that in mind, let me pass along a passage from President Obama’s immigration speech yesterday. Here is the passage.
Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger –- we were strangers once, too.
I thought it might be worth our while to ask whether this might be what the Manual had in mind by “godly leaders,” the kind we are supposed to support. It’s plausible, at least.
Here’s one: Disciples maintain a perspective on leadership that supports and respects godly leaders but give true allegiance only to God. And here’s another: Disciples provide a sense of direction and purpose through godly, obedient leadership.
I’m arguing that the people who put our course together might very well have had proclamations like this in mind, but I would like to take a stance against it. I am troubled that President Obama made that claim. I don’t object as an American. I don’t object as a liberal. I don’t object as a student of politics. I object as a Christian.
Here is why. Look at the three uses of the word “we” in the cited passage. Who does that refer to? It isn’t us. I don’t want to stand up before a meeting of the Coos Bay council and say that we Coquille Indians want our land back. People who live in Coos Bay may have different attitudes toward the local Native Americans, but they will all have the same attitude toward a German from Ohio who addresses them as “We Coquilles…” YOU, they will say to me, are not part of that WE, and they would be right.
The “strangers” in that quotation are the Israelites, not the Americans. The “scripture” the President refers to is the scripture of the Israelites, not the Americans. I, for one, do not want the President saying that in his role as First Exegete, he has determined that this passage applies to us, but the one about keeping kosher does not. I would be more than happy to reduce my federal taxes to a tithe, but I would be very unhappy to learn that the Bible and not the Congress was the authority for my federal taxes.
The President as Chief Exegete is the President as Chief Cherrypicker. Let me say that in English. If the President’s job is to use his office to say what scripture means, then it will very soon be his job to say that these scriptures apply to us and those do not.
In the same speech, the President argues that immigration gives the U. S. an advantage over other nations and that the immigrants who are here, most of them, are good people who deserve to stay and be protected. I don’t object to either of those arguments. They may be true or not true, but they don’t scare me. The quote from Exodus 22 or Leviticus 19 or Deuteronomy 10—whichever of those relevant sources the President had in mind—really does scare me.
This particular class is not really a Democrats v. Republicans class or a liberals v. conservatives class. It is a class, however, that returns over and over to the “meaning” of a biblical text and to the associated question of what this text means for us, particularly. My position is always that the first meanings—the privileged meanings—are the ones that the writer intended for that particular collection of readers/hearers. When we get some clarity on that–as much as we can–we can began to ask how that meaning ought to apply to us.
If the meeting turns into an O.K. Corral sort of meeting and if I return from the corral, I’ll tell you about it.