Young unaccompanied migrants watch television inside a playpen at a holding facility in Donna, Texas. Some have misused the Bible to justify separating child migrants from their parents. CNS photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, Pool via Reuters

Half a quote is worse than none

  • February 8, 2024

"… for truth stumbles in the public square..."
Isaiah 59: 14

I have always been frustrated by moments, especially in political speeches, where half a well-known adage is presented as proof of concept, completely ignoring the original context and the fuller saying. We see this often when someone cherry-picks part of a saying to prove their point but leaves out significant context that might disprove their argument as a whole.

In a playful way this can be seen when we misuse a common adage: “the early bird gets the worm!” As a youngster I had many a teacher who used this phrase to motivate us to be punctual if not early; to be proactive rather than passive; or to enjoin us to be motivated and ambitious. When I stumbled across the full quote, one day, purely by accident, I couldn’t help but finish the saying that the vice-principal had thrown our way as a reprimand.

“The early bird gets the worm,” I repeated earnestly, “but the second mouse gets the cheese!” I felt quite certain that the latter part of the sentence served just as important a warning as the first offered incentive, but I still got detention. Life, as they say, isn’t fair (or is it what they say?).

Another often cited cliché is the mealy-mouthed “Winning isn’t everything” quote, so often trumpeted as a salve for those who came second but did their best. How sobering to remember that the coach who first coined the phrase went on to say, “It’s the only thing!” That certainly has a different ring to it. (And, for good measure, since we’re talking about truth in advertising, it’s worth noting that the saying has been ascribed to numerous individuals.)

While these sayings are innocuous enough, we have many examples through history of a misquoted or decontextualized saying being used for its opposite value, and often for sinister purposes.  “My country, right or wrong” is often trumpeted as validation for a no holds-bar defence of one’s homeland, regardless of the circumstances. In fact, the full phrase says exactly the opposite. “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong to be set right.” American Senator Carl Schurz uttered these words in 1872 to counter the moral blindness of a wilful patriotism.

It won’t surprise many to know that the Bible has been especially vulnerable to misuse, perhaps because it carries such an incontestable weight and because so many people who swear on it haven’t bothered to read it. Sad but true.

Think of U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions, in 2018, using a Biblical phrase to justify the separation of children from their parents caught while illegally crossing the border. Sessions defended the much-criticized policy by citing Romans 13: “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command … to obey the laws of government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

Sessions was appealing to what he perceived to be the army of influential religious leaders that he assumed would be mollified by this reference. He was no doubt shocked to find these very same people outraged by this misdirection, and others who reminded him that the same passage was used to justify the American rebellion against King George the III (so much for honouring the laws of the state), to justify slavery prior to the Civil War, to endorse Nazism and even as a validation of apartheid.

Journalist Diana Anderson captured this appropriative tendency well when she gave the example of U.S. Republicans attacking health care for the poor (Matthew 26:11): “The ham-fisted quoting of Jesus’ commentary on the poor to justify denying them health care,” she noted, “is part of the larger problem of the Republican establishment in America: that it is more concerned with bending America to a specific brand of conservatism than with understanding phenomena in their proper contexts, or learning from those with expertise, or reading even its own sacred texts carefully. The result is a movement that looks to the world, and to the Word, only for confirmation of its own ideology.”

Sadly, this “text-jacking,” as it is sometimes called, is used by all parties, left and right, in the U.S. as elsewhere, and speaks both to a duplicitous disregard of the sacred Scriptures and a deeply cynical lack of accountability to Christ’s actual message — which is about social responsibility and care for the other, irrespective of politics, race, gender or nationality. Or words to that effect.

(Turcotte is President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia.)

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