A Summer in the Psalms
I can’t open the morning paper or watch the evening news these days without getting mad. My outrage isn’t selective. Both Republicans and Democrats are driving me crazy. Both terrorism and what it takes to stop terrorism turns my stomach. The frightening intrusion of the Federal Government into our private lives, trampling all over our rights, and then the traitorous revelation of the secrets that they have learned to our national enemies by a so-called “whistle-blower” makes my head and my heart hurt. The death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of the man who shot him upsets me terribly, but so does a politicized judicial system that overcharged the accused and the way that some are now trying to use this tragedy to serve their own interests and to advance their own causes.
Maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old man, but everywhere I look these days, everything seems to be out of kilter. I am reminded of that scene in the movie “Grand Canyon” when the tow-truck driver pulls a gang banger in South Central LA away from a car that has broken down on a dangerous street in the middle of the night and begs the kid and his friends to leave its driver alone. “It’s not supposed to be like this,” he explains. More sad than mad, this observation is the caption to the picture of the world that I see today. “It’s not supposed to be like this!”
Last Sunday morning our “Summer in the Psalms” brought us to “the cursings.” It was C.S. Lewis in his book Reflections on the Psalms (p. 20) who famously observed that in some Psalms there is “a spirit of hatred” that “strikes us in the face like the heat from the mouth of an open furnace.” Here’s a sampling of some of those texts –
o May he repay my enemies with calamity. Because of your faithfulness destroy them. (Psalm 54.5)
o May death mistreat them, may they descend alive into Sheol. (Psalm 55.15)
o By no means let them escape, bring down your wrath on the nations. (Psalm 56.7)
o God, shatter their teeth in their mouths; Crush their lion-like jaws, 0 LORD! (Psalm 58.6)
o May they be wiped out of the book of life and may they not be listed among the righteous. (Psalm 69.28)
o May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children wander aimlessly begging and imploring far removed from their ruined homes. (Psalm 109.9)
The very worst “offenders” of this category are Psalm 69, Psalm 109, Psalm 137 and Psalm 139.
In my first Doctor of Ministry class at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary on “Scripture and Ministry” back in the early 1990’s we were each assigned a “problem” Biblical text and then asked to write a paper about how we would actually go about preaching it. By the luck of the draw I got Psalm 137 with its climactic “hard” beatitude: “Blessed is he who seizes and dashes your infants against the rocks” (137:9). As I struggled with this text I went back to try to understand something of its original context. What would prompt somebody to say something as horrible as this I wanted to know? And what I learned was that this was a Psalm that was most likely composed after the exile, after the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem in 587 BC and carried off its leading citizens. Those were violent days, and the Jews had watched helplessly as Babylonian soldiers slaughtered their loved ones and bashed their babies against the rocks. You see, the curse of Psalm 137:9 was not unprompted. In the spirit of the most basic standard of justice – “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – the Psalmist was only asking that what had been done to them by the Babylonians would in turn be done to the Babylonians. “Bashing babies” was not an original thought to the Psalmist. He had just seen his babies bashed, and all he wanted was some justice, the “fair play” of “some turnabout.”
With that understood, I then asked myself, “So, have you ever felt like that?” “Have you ever been treated so unfairly, so painfully, so hatefully, that all you wanted was for those who had hurt you to hurt in proportion to the hurt that they had inflicted?” Or, short of that, I wondered, “Could I imagine ever being treated so unfairly, so painfully, so hatefully, that what I would want more than anything else would be for those who had hurt me in those terrible ways to themselves hurt in those very same terrible ways?”
C.S. Lewis explained the existence of texts like Psalm 109 in the Bible by saying that “the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans… because they took right and wrong more seriously” (30). It was their acute sense of right and wrong, honed by their covenantal relationship with a Holy God that fueled the kind of outrage that we hear in the imprecatory Psalms. And then he added, “the absence of (such) anger” in us can be “an alarming symptom,” just as “the presence of (such) indignation may be a good one.” So, what’s become of your outrage, your sense of righteous indignation? Does anything make you mad? Does everything make you mad? And perhaps most importantly, what informs and undergirds your mad? Is it just personal and subjective? Is it a matter of your own private perceptions and perspectives, or, does your outrage have a more objective basis?
I see two serious distortions in the outrage of the day. It’s my observation that the death of the kind of legitimate outrage that we hear being voiced in the imprecatory Psalms is being fueled today by two equal but opposite errors – a selective outrage driven that is being driven by partisan motives and aspirations, and by a constantly sliding scale of what’s offensive and results in outrage on the other hand.
In the years of the Bush Presidency nothing he did could be affirmed by any of my progressive friends. Every time President Bush acted he was suspected of having sinister motives by the pundits over at MSNBC. He was accused of crimes against humanity at every turn. He was evil personified, and it was outrage 24/7 from the Left. In fact, they’re still mad at him. And now in the years of the Obama Presidency the tables have been completely turned and nothing about him can be affirmed by my conservative friends. Everything President Obama says, thinks or does is criticized as being dishonest and completely un-American by the pundits over at FOX. His legitimacy is questioned at every turn and it is outrage 24/7 from the Right. It exhausts and exasperates me.
Nobody listened to the little boy who constantly cried wolf right before the wolf had him for dinner. When everything is outrageous, then nothing is outrageous. Just because I happen to see an issue differently than you do, this does not mean that your point of view is intellectually bankrupt and/or morally outrageous! I love what Hubert Humphrey, the liberal Senator of Minnesota, once said about Everett Dirksen, the conservative Senator from Illinois. “There’s hardly a topic on which we agree,” Senator Humphrey is purported to have said, “but I would never question Senator Dirksen’s love for this country or doubt the purity of his motives.” To some degree I suspect that the death of the kind of legitimate outrage in us to which the imprecatory Psalms give voice can be laid at the feet of the “outrage exhaustion” that the last two decades of extreme partisan bickering on the national stage has created. Outrage has got to be driven by something more substantial and enduring than just the fact that you’re a liberal and I’m a conservative, or that I’m a conservative and you’re a liberal. In the words of George Will in Statecraft as Soulcraft (1983) – “To those who are liberals and to those who call themselves conservatives, I say: Politics is more difficult than you think” (12).
The opposite error that I suspect is slowly killing the kind of legitimate outrage that we find voiced so powerfully in the Bible’s imprecatory Psalms can be laid at the feet of what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the United States Senator from New York, defined as our astonishing ability as human beings to constantly “define deviancy downward” when the deviant behavior of people in a given society increases beyond the levels that a given community is able to manage. Rather than having a stable moral compass that does not change no matter what people are doing, we tend to judge the rightness or the wrongness of a person’s behavior on a sliding scale that’s constantly changing. We are pretty good at redefining what’s right and what’s wrong based on what the majority people are thinking and doing at any given moment in time. Think about what you see on TV. Compare the language and the situations that you see in a comedy from the 1950’s on Nick at Night with what you can see during primetime on any network right now. Things have changed. When it is no longer worth the fight to maintain a standard, the standard changes. It is constantly adjusting to what Senator Moynihan called “the manifest decline of the American civic order.” He wrote about this in the Winter 1993 issue of The American Scholar, and I wish he were still around to revisit the conversation now twenty years later. I suspect that he would say that his proposition has only been proved. And what this tells me is how important it is for us to have an accurate moral compass and a stiff moral backbone. The imprecatory Psalms of the Bible cannot be stomached in a relativistic age when nothing is really right or finally wrong. There’s got to be a moral standard transcendentally established and then consistently applied for the imprecatory Psalms to make any sense at all.
It can be argued that it doesn’t take believing in God to make someone good, but I don’t think that it can be doubted that when somebody does believe in God, especially the Holy God of the Bible, that being good gets significantly elevated in the pecking order of one’s existential concerns. As C.S. Lewis put it, “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it is… hateful to God” (33). And knowing this is going to impact the way a person thinks, and speaks, and acts. DBS+