Facing violence and hate in the imprecatory Psalms

Saturday, November 30, 2013


What are we to make of the violent imprecatory Psalms? One of the first that comes to mind here is the chilling final verse of Psalm 137, "Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." When we think of praying through the Psalms it's hard to imagine praying that, and yet such sentiment is not at all uncommon in the Psalter. Prayers expressing hatred and death wishes are a prevalent and major theme of the Psalms.

A frequent response is to stress that this is the cry of a person in pain, expressing their raw human grief and anger. Indeed, there is clearly some truth in this. For example Psalm 137 quoted above begins with words of grief, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept." Just as the Psalms frequently express doubt, they likewise express uncensored anger that can be understood as a very natural human response. We might even say that, like Job, the Psalms express a healthy spirituality in the sense that they demonstrate that it is okay for us to express our real feelings of doubt, grief, anger and pain.

As true as all of this is, it is not the whole story. It is one thing to honestly express human emotions. It is another to uphold these as "blessed" and thus to imply that such declarations of hate and death have God's sanction. Yet this is exactly what Psalm 137 declares. While Jesus says "blessed are the peacemakers" Psalm 137 says in contrast "blessed are those who smash in the heads of toddlers." Rather obviously we have here two diametrically opposed understandings of what God blesses.

In Psalm 139, after a breathtaking display of intimacy including such memorable lines as "You knit me together in my mother's womb" and "before a word is on my tongue you know it completely" David holds up his hatred to God, not as an expression of human weakness, but as a sign of his virtue and faithfulness,

"Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Ps 139:21-24)

When Jesus said "you have heard it said 'love your neighbor but hate your enemy..." his audience could very well have thought of this very Psalm which upholds hated of enemies as a virtue. Yet we all know how the words of Jesus continue "...but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." In contrast what we find throughout the Psalms are prayers against persecuters, praying for their death and destruction, never praying for them.

We find prayers that the psalmist's enemies would be killed...

"Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the realm of the dead" (Ps 55:15)

that they would go to hell...

"Charge them with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation.
May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous" (Ps 69:27-28)

and that his enemy's wife and children would suffer, too...

"May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.
May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.
May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.” (Ps 109:9-12)

Not exactly "Jesus loves the little children" material.

As Christians we need to read the Psalms, and indeed all of Scripture, in the light of Christ, and it is clear that much of what the Psalms uphold as virtuous and good simply does not line up with Jesus. In fact, as we've seen above, much of it directly contradicts Jesus. We find here two diametrically opposed understandings of God's will. In such cases we need to apply the words of Jesus, "You have heard it said... but I say to you."

It is not healthy to meditate on and cultivate hate as a religious virtue. So we surely cannot join David in his prayers of violence and cursing. When we read the Psalms we instead need to take a step back, and read them in the same way that we might read Job when he expresses his unbridled anger at God. When Job accuses God of wronging him, "God has turned me over to the ungodly … He has made me his target … God has wronged me" (Job 16:11-12; 19:6) we do not read this as a true statement of God's character. Likewise, when the Psalmist cries out in hatred, calling for vengeance and death, cursing his enemies, we need to clearly recognize that this is not a prayer that we would ever have heard on Jesus' lips who instead prayed, "Forgive them Father, they don't understand what they are doing."
 Despite David's belief that his hatred was pure and virtuous, and that there was "nothing offensive" in his heart, it's easy to see that his prayer clearly does not reflect God's heart as revealed in Jesus who demonstrated his love for us "While we were yet sinners ... while we God's enemies" (Rom 5:9-10). When the Psalms dehumanize others as "wicked" and call for their judgment and death this does not reflect God's will. When conservative commentators stress that these curses reflect God's righteous judgment, as they typically do, they reveal that they have missed the entire point of the gospel. In contrast, Paul stresses that we are all sinners in need of mercy. We all have been hurt, and we all hurt others. So we need to find ways to mend that hurt, we need to be peacemakers. This is what is truly blessed.

If we can read the Psalms as a raw and uncensored look at the human heart, it can help us to face the pain and dark feelings we have. However, at the same time we need to be clear that such expression of hate and calls for violence do not reflect God's will revealed in Jesus. This is a point that is seldom made, and frankly it needs to be made more often. Our tendency instead is to tiptoe around the Psalms, never daring to criticize them.

We need to have the courage to face them honestly, with the same honesty that they themselves exhibit. Again, there us a huge difference between a healthy expression of emotion on the one hand, and affirming, endorsing and cultivating hate and death wishes as a virtue on the other (including wishing death on someone's kids as Psalm 137 does!). So if we indeed respect honesty, let's read these Psalms with honesty, and have the courage to say that while we can sympathize with the pain the Psalmist must have been going through, it certainly is not "blessed" to murder infants.

What the Psalms reveal is both the beauty and ugliness of our human hearts. If we can learn to read them in this way, honestly facing the Psalms, and honestly facing ourselves, even in our darkest places, then we can make space for God's light to meet us there in the dark.

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Grace is more: Why belief in infallibility makes us less moral

Saturday, November 16, 2013

There was a comment left recently on another blog post here that I thought warranted a longer response since it raises some important issues around how we read the Bible in regards to violence. Here's the original comment from Cole:

I've often wondered why God's punishments in the Bible often seem cruel and barbaric. They don't seem to fit the crime. People are commanded to be stoned to death for things like picking up sticks on the Sabbath when Israel was a Theocracy. Some (like Jonathan Edwards) have said that the correct punishment for a crime is proportional to the status of the wronged individual and that the Bible teaches that all sins are against God (which they are). But this principle isn't entirely correct. It's not just to punish a person more severely because of the status of the one he has sinned against.

Part of what determines the severity of the punishment isn't the status of the person one offends but the type of being one offends (after all, a crime against a human merits worse punishment than the same crime against a dog and a crime against a dog merits worse punishment than the same crime against an ant). All sins are against God (analogy: all crimes in Pennsylvania are also crimes against the state of Pennsylvania), who is a different type of being than all. This is why God's punishments can seem so severe. Yet we know that they are just and not abusive because they fit the crime.

Now there are several assumptions going on here that we need to consider: Let's begin with the assumption that punishment is an appropriate and moral response to crime. In the past this was simply assumed, which is why children were beaten all the time. We are, as a society however, increasingly questioning whether this is really a good thing. The first question we need to ask here is: what is the intended purpose of punishment? Is it to avenge the offended party? If so, can we really call revenge moral? I think that most of us would agree that revenge is not moral because it is intended to cause harm to the other.

What if the intent of punishment is instead to reform the offender? If so we would need to ask if this is effective. For example does killing someone for picking up sticks help them reform? That's pretty much ruled out since they are dead. Does it serve as a deterrent to the community? Perhaps, but only in the sense of how the mafia might terrorize people. Again, we need to question whether motivating people through fear is healthy. I think it is pretty clear that this does not lead to a good relationship or healthy development of a person.

Moving on, while it is true that a crime against a human is considered more severe than the same crime against an animal, what is being assumed in both is that they are being harmed, not that they are being "offended." Offending a person is not a crime at all. It might be rude, but it is not a crime because the "harm" is trivial. If we are mature we are able to handle being offended without flying off the handle and reacting in some extreme and hurtful way. Is God less mature than we are?

If God is a higher being, then the assumption really ought to be that God is more mature than we are, not less. However, in the Old Testament the deity we find there frequently appears to be less loving, less mature, and less moral than we are. That's why we struggle when we read the OT, frequently finding it "cruel and barbaric" as Cole says above. What are we to do with this?

A frequent response is to try to make sense of it, as Cole does above, to try to argue why what at first appears to us as barbaric is in fact reasonable and right. I've done this myself... I'm sure we all have. But even if we manage to come up with an argument that demonstrates that the violence in the OT is justified and reasonable, it still cannot touch grace. What we end up with is simply an explanation of why it was okay to hurt, okay to suffer, okay to cause harm. No matter how reasonable that may be, it simply cannot hold a candle to grace.

Grace is not about what is reasonable, or deserved. Grace is about getting a second chance after we have blown it. Grace is about losing something dear to us and then finding it restored. Grace is about being healed, made new. It's what we long for. Grace is amazing. Anyone who has experienced grace will know this. Once you have known grace you are drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Grace is what we were made for. It makes us come alive.

So the bottom line is that no matter how reasonable we may find the violent punishment in the OT (and it is frankly debatable whether it is reasonable at all) it simply is not grace. Grace is better. Grace is superior. 

We can find occasional glimpses of grace in the Old Testament (for example in the stories of Joseph and his brothers or Jonah and God's heart for the enemy Ninevites), but in comparison to the New Testament the Old Testament is... in a word... less

That's something that is really obvious. All of us immediately notice that there is a huge gap between the OT where we find the command "show them no mercy" and the way of Jesus who teaches that mercy, grace, and enemy love are the only way to please God. The difference here is glaring and obvious. Yet we somehow have gotten it in our heads that the OT must be defended as good and right. So I want to ask:

Says who?

The assumption here is that we have a perfect book, and so it all must be right. But the fact is, Jesus did not see the Old Testament that way. That's why he did not teach killing of enemies as the OT does, and instead taught love of enemies. That's why he forgave the woman caught in adultery when the law clearly commanded killing her with zero possibility of forgiveness or mercy allowed. That's why Jesus frequently broke the Sabbath to heal (the same "crime" that got our stick-collector above killed in the OT). 

So we frequently see Jesus both disagreeing with and outright breaking the law, and he does this in order to love, in order to be faithful to God. Jesus did not see the Old Testament as infallible and perfect. He did not defend it, he instead changed it.

We see a similar approach in the OT itself where the prophets for example question the law, question rituals and sacrifice, and question punishment in the name of mercy and justice (which by the way they did not view as opposites like we do). 

So if the prophets and Jesus could question the Bible, why is it that we feel we need to defend it? Why do we need to try so hard to call something good that is clearly not good, to call something moral that is clearly immoral, to call something right that we all know is deeply wrong? Is that what Jesus wants us to do?

Based on the fact that he did the opposite, I think it is safe to assume that he does not. So what we need to do is learn to read the Bible like Jesus did. 

A first step to doing this is facing up to the fact that the assumption of biblical infallibility has the inevitable result of making us less moral because it causes us to seek to accept and justify as good things that we would without question clearly recognize as profoundly immoral in any other context. I'll say it again: belief in the doctrine of infallibility makes us less moral. It leads us to call evil "good" and to justify harm and hurt in God's name. That's how the Pharisees read their Bibles. Why is it that we read our Bible's like them and not like Jesus?




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