About that Psalm

Dearly Beloved,
Grace and Peace to you.
         By the rivers of Babylon—
                  there we sat down and there we wept
                  when we remembered Zion….         
         For there our captors asked us for songs,
                  and our tormentors asked for mirth,
                  saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” …
         How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land
         If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! …
         O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
                  Happy shall they be who pay you back
                  what you have done to us!
         Happy shall they be who take your little ones
                  and dash them against the rock!

                           —from Psalm 137

This Psalm, a lament by exiles from Jerusalem after its destruction, can be one of the most wrenching to live with. It takes us deep into the grief and rage of the abused and exploited, the refugee, the prisoner. It won’t let us off the hook. It forbids us ever to say to the suffering, “There, there.” It invites us to sit with them by the river of their sorrow— to sit for a long time with them, and bear their anguish.

And then it turns dark, into that murderous vengefulness that makes us so uncomfortable—it does me, anyway. How do we keep up with it, this mood swing from poignant sorrow to child-killing rage? When we are taught to love our enemies, how do we deal with all those enemies in the Psalms that we despise and want to destroy? Four things come to mind.

1. My real enemies are not other people; they are my self-centeredness, my fear, all those desires and attachments that separate me from the “Jerusalem” of true life. Those enemies and their offspring I really do want to destroy. I read this Psalm as an expression of my deep sadness, longing for the depth of life I have abandoned, and a prayer for the transformation of my consciousness, a change in my heart.

2. I read this prayer as a confession: sometimes I am that angry. And in my religious heritage we have been that murderous. I pray this psalm as a confession of the violence in my heart and in my community.

3. This is not a comfortable, white, middle class person’s prayer. It is the cry of the oppressed. I have no business dialing down their rage, “demanding of them mirth.” I read this Psalm as a way to be in solidarity with those who are in this deep anguish, who feel exactly this anger, without sugar-coating it.

4. This Psalm is also a cry for justice, which is not revenge but it is change. There is such a thing as the wrath of God. God cries out that oppressors be stopped, that violence end. The cry here is not literally to kill babies, but to utterly destroy the offspring of greed and exploitation, to end the line of succession of violence and abuse, to chop off the family tree of hate and fear and selfishness. The change is built on love of the oppressors— but God’s merciful justice requires that some things get destroyed. As Revelation 11.18 says, “Your wrath has come, and the time… for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Look up Psalm 137 and read the whole thing. Confront your sorrow and your inner enemies. Confess your violence. Sit with those who are in anguish. And cry out with them for the end to oppression, the destruction of unjust systems, and the coming of God’s reign of mercy and justice that will not merely make this world better, but replace it.
Deep Blessings,
Pastor Steve

Steve Garnaas-Holmes
Unfolding Light

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