When I checked my inbox today, I was delighted to find a reflection from my friend Scott Hagley with permission to post it if I like. I like. The following are his thoughts about the place of imprecatory psalms in public worship.
His love endures forever.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy are those who repay you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy are those who seize your infants
and dash them against the rocks.
A few days ago, I was involved in a conversation regarding the place of such Psalms in public worship. What do we do about Psalms that begin by modeling earnest and heartfelt prayer only to plummet into surprisingly graphic fantasies of vengeance? I know on numerous occasions, I have read these Psalms with troublesome endings and merely trailed off—unable to fit the unambiguous wish for vengeance into the present worship setting. Other times I have explained the existence of such embarrassing blemishes on the biblical prayer record as signs of spiritual immaturity; or (more generously) justified expressions of rage, like the spiritual equivalent to punching a wall or blowing off steam. But I am beginning to rethink this approach. What if Psalms of anger—and particularly Psalm 137 are precisely the kind of Psalms we need to pray in public worship? What if by trailing off or glancing over it we are silencing the kind of voices that our comfortable, Northern American, middle class congregations of privilege need in order to understand where God is located in our world?
I can anticipate at least one immediate objection to these questions: how can congregations of privilege who are the beneficiaries of American empire and living in a post-9/11 world pray words of vengeance against our enemies? Isn’t this the us-them thinking of which we must repent? It certainly is; but I am not suggesting that we pray these Psalms from the standpoint of our security-concerns against the rising cost of oil or the level-orange threat issued by the Department of Homeland Security. This Psalm is not written from a position of power. Nor is it written to protect one’s economic or psychological security. It is written from the underside of an empire with an insatiable appetite for land, power, wealth, and people. It is written from a place of liminality. Israel is in exile. The temple has burned to the ground. And they are asking: How can songs of worship be sung when God’s temple no longer stands? How can Israel worship the God of Abraham when his promised land is only a memory? How does one go on?
But God is the audience for the questions in the Psalm. Thus the Psalmist questions implicitly: Where are you, God, in the midst of exile? Where are you, God, now that my agency has been subsumed into the agenda of my captors, who ask me to live as though I were not exiled? Where are you, God, when my prayers continue to be met with silence? These are not novel questions, nor are they questions of mere historical interest for understanding the Psalm. Rather, these are questions central to the Christian faith. They are implicit in our Christian worship every time we remember Christ—crucified—and recall his penultimate godforsaken cry (also from the Psalms): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even more, these questions lurk in the background every time we remember the kenotic life of our Lord.
For God the Son was not born into a life of privilege but from Nazareth—a detail Jesus’ own disciples had trouble forgiving him for. He did not share his table with celebrities—for he had no place to rest his head. Rather, he depended upon the hospitality of outcasts, sinners, drunks, prostitutes, and even suspicious religious folk hoping to trap him in his words. He did not ride into Jerusalem victoriously upon a gold-plated chariot, but rather rode slumped over a donkey, weeping pitifully for the city that was to reject him. All the while he demonstrated and proclaimed the generous—no, radical—hospitality of the Reign of the Father he was inaugurating. He was not raised up in power over the Sanhedrin or Pilate the governor, but rather stretched out his hands to be bound to a cross. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and he died just like he lived: “outside the gate” with publicans, sinners, tax collectors, terrorists, and thieves—proclaiming God’s forgiveness even for them.
The fact that we proclaim this Jesus the Resurrected Lord and the Son of God the Father makes this Psalm and this question even more poignant: Where is God in the midst of exile, oppression, sin, and injustice? Where is God when prayer is met with silence? And because the answer is so clear—it forces us to ask a question more specific to our context: Where is God in our place of privilege? Where is God in the unimaginable economic success of Northern America? Where is God in the glitz and the glam, the slick professionalism and technological brilliance of our church services? Where is God in our ambiguity of our wealth—acquired within the machinery of empire?
Perhaps it is precisely a Psalm such as this that can open our ears to hear the clanging gong of our religious practices because it communicates a sense of outrage that we have so much trouble mounting from our sterile positions of privilege. Even more, it forces us to ask the question we are often too comfortable to ask—or too afraid to hear because it sets up a mirror before our communities, compelling us to make the connection that such words of outrage, such wishes for vengeance—when they are prayed—are words directed at us, for we have more in common with Babylon than Israel. And perhaps…perhaps such a Psalm precipitates a moment of repentance; for it can provide an opportunity for us to remember our crucified savior and God’s presence outside the gate and with the marginalized. I pray it also carves out creative space in our communities for hope. That our congregations might live into God’s future, that we might find a place at the table of fellowship with our brothers and sisters outside the gates of wealth and privilege. That we might finally learn what the Christians in Philippi learned long ago: we gain freedom as we let go of rights and privileges in the name and manner of Christ. And perhaps the brute honesty of this Psalm will move us to prayerful action in that our public worship will seamlessly lead us to work for shalom while crying with our brothers and sisters “Maranatha”—come Lord Jesus.
Scott Hagley is a PhD candidate in the Congregational Mission and Leadership program at Luther Seminary.
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