Questioning religious violence: How to write your own Psalm of complaint

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

In my last post on facing violence and hate in the imprecatory Psalms I focused on a problem with the Psalms that we need to honestly confront: the ugliness of hate. We need to face it in the Psalms and we need to face it in ourselves, and what these Psalms show us is that we can come to God, even with our darkest ugliest parts. If we can find the courage to face that ugliness—in these Psalms, and in ourselves—then we can make space for God's light to meet us there in the dark.

This time around I’d like to focus on psalms of complaint, or as the are more commonly known, psalms of lament. One of the most common words we find in those psalms is “Why?” spoken as both an accusation, and as a cry of desperation:

Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Ps 10:1)

God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Ps 22:1)

Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? (Ps 44:24)

An equally common phrase is the question/accusation “How long?”:

How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? (Ps 82:2)

How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? (Ps 94:3)

These psalms of complaint frequently accuse God of injustice. They complain of their unjust suffering, while the wicked go about their lives carefree.

I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits.

They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”
This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.
When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply
Ps 73:4-8, 11-14, 16

The law promises the opposite. It declares that the righteous will be rewarded with wealth, health and prosperity while the wicked will be cursed with sickness, poverty, and suffering (see for example Deut 28). That was the promise. The assumption of the law then was that if you were sick and suffering, if your were oppressed, if you were poor then this was because you were being punished by God for your sin. These psalms are complaints of those who were afflicted, sick, and suffering who cry out that this is not true, that the system of blessing and curses simply did not work. As the above Psalm 73 declares, in fact they observed the opposite was the case: the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.

A familiar pattern of these psalms of complaint is that they often turn to praise at the end, and because of this there is an unfortunate tendency of many people to simply discount the complaint altogether. It is viewed as a lapse in faith, a failing on the part of the psalmist until he pulled it together at the end. I remember a friend of mine who was a DJ on a Christian radio station telling me that they had a policy of banning any song that expressed doubt or struggle that did not end on a happy note of faith and trust. This reflects our fear that as people of faith we cannot make room for struggle and doubt unless it is immediately resolved.

But consider the verdict of God in the book of Job: Job is afflicted even though he was blameless. Job bitterly complains to God that this was unjust. His friends rebuke him, counseling him instead that he should repent for his sin. Job refuses. In the end God rebukes Job’s friends, and declares that Job is right.

“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7)

Now surely the point of this is not that God is literally admitting that Job is right when he accuses God of being a sadistic oppressor. Something deeper is going on here that we need to grasp because it is central to a healthy expression of faith. This is captured in a line from the Switchfoot song “Yesterdays” (which, incidentally, I believe they picked up from a little line in a book by theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff mourning the loss of his son) :

Every lament is a love song.

The book of Job, even its bitter accusations, is a love song. God recognizes that love, and says that Job is right, even in his anger, and his pious friends are wrong. The Psalms of complaint are love songs. When Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that was a love song, too. Every lament is a love song.

These Psalms demonstrate something very powerful: Questioning and doubt are not only an acceptable part of faith, they are an essential part of it. The fact is, the vast majority of the psalter is taken up with these psalms of complaint. They are not some rare exception, they are a common expression of what the prayers of a faithful people sound like in our broken world.


These Psalms model for us that the Hebrew faith is one that allows for questioning, wrestling, protesting as an expression of faith. So what would it look like if we read the Bible like this too? How might it help us as we struggle with passages where God is portrayed as commanding things that strike is as profoundly immoral, such as the genocide narratives where God is portrayed as commanding people to mercilessly slaughter “everything that breathes” including small children and infants? (see for example 1 Sam 15). If the Psalms question the law as we have seen, can we question these troubling texts that seem to clearly be in conflict with the God Jesus reveals?

It’s important to recognize that making this move would mean going beyond where the Psalms themselves go. The Psalms themselves continue to reflect the ethos of the law which declared that the just would prosper and the wicked would suffer. They do not question the justice of this, but instead complain that it was not being upheld, calling upon God to uphold it. The Psalms therefore do not propose mercy and love for enemies, but call for God’s wrath. The psalmist does not regard himself in Paul’s terms as a sinner in need of mercy, but instead as blameless and righteous.

So based on the Psalms alone we cannot yet question such biblical passages that command genocide. For that we need Jesus. We need to take the model of faithful questioning and protest that the Psalms provide, and add to this the very different understanding of God’s true nature revealed in Christ which leads us to question these depictions of God that look very little like Jesus, and very much like the way all of the pagan religions of the time viewed their gods as violent tribal deities who caused plagues and sickness unless their wrath was appeased by sacrifice.

Note too the way that enemy peoples and races are portrayed in these Old Testament passages as wicked and evil. This acts to dehumanize them, thus justifying their indiscriminate slaughter. That violent view of what God was like shaped the ancient Israelite’s understanding of God’s character, and this resulted in their expectation of a coming of a messiah who was a warrior who would destroy the enemy gentiles, not a messiah who would show those gentiles grace and forgiveness.

As Christians who are instead to be nurtured by the image of God revealed to us in Christ’s enemy love, we need to learn to question these primitive views of justice and of God. The Hebrew Bible itself opens a door to allow for this protest, this questioning, as an act of faithfulness. We need to have the moral courage to speak out against depictions of God in the Bible that act to dehumanize people and justify violence. We need to learn to write our own psalms of complaint in Jesus’ name.

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At 8:21 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Thanks for this Derek.

I think that saying we need to challenge and question Scripture is a scary proposition - scary because we're not just suggesting that we tweak a few things. We're shattering the entire landscape of how we were taught to read the Bible.

It leaves us feeling naked and worried about relativism and worried about how we could put assurance in God's Word if parts of it are open to challenge. A child feels scared and acts out, unless there are secure healthy boundaries set for her/him by parents. We need secure boundaries that helps us make sense of the Bible's authority - we need a consistent way to approach the Bible, a hermeneutic, that applies not only to violent passages, but also to the loving passages. We were always told the Bible is for the priesthood of all believers, and that interpreting it should not require any arcane scholarly input.

So reading between the lines on previous discussions, I think helping folks understand that it's okay to question and challenge the Bible is one step of the journey, but the next step is to lay down a hermeneutic that acts as a healthy boundary/map for us exegetical children to use in navigating the Bible. Otherwise, we feel on our own randomly deciding which passages are good and which are bad - and what child will feel safe with a God that is that unclear about His authority and character?

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

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At 9:16 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

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At 9:20 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Sorry y'all. I'm having a rough day today with regards to proofreading :) Forgive the multiple takes.

My take on a possible healthy hermeneutic that can serve as a healthy and secure boundary: use Scripture to critique Scripture.

But that means we have to start with the assumption that God did not intend all pieces of Scripture to carry exactly equal weight, and that He gave us in Scripture certain "organizing principles" that clarify, shape, and even trump other truths/principles.

Not everyone will agree with such an assumption. The only reliable organizing principle I personally can think of - reliable in the sense that the Bible makes it explicit that it is an organizing principle - is the two greatest love commandments. And the Apostle Paul saying that love is the fulfillment of the Law. Love can be considered the organizing principle of the Bible.

The question then becomes exactly how love is defined in the Bible. A dense question that is itself sometimes entangled itself in tricky debates (i.e. the grace-truth paradox). But let's step back for a moment. Isn't it a no-brainer to say that rape, plunder of property, and genocide aren't loving ways to treat others, even enemies you disapprove of or find unsavory/harmful?

Not everyone thinks so. Or, even if they think so, the one unpardonable sin is a mere mortal daring to question God's decisions, and that unpardonable sin of insolence might even trump the possible sin of being unloving.

But if you think about it, isn't that a form of moral relativism? That is, if you say that rape/genocide/theft become good if God commands it, then the only absolute truth is what we believe God is commanding us to do. Every other truth we usually hold as self-evident (i.e. rape/genocide/theft are bad) then becomes relative.

So I would submit that just taking for granted everything that the Hebrew Bible attributes to God doesn't avoid the problem of moral relativism either. So then the question becomes: how is the Bible inspired, and how can it be authoritative in our lives in a non-relativistic way?

Is it 100% objective history, breathed right out of God's mouth onto the page, untainted by human thoughts? Or is it a witness to God wrestling with Israel over time, striving to make Himself understood as to who He really is by people who did not quite get it, and who were the very people writing down the Bible as they wrestled with Him in a living relationship?

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

And finally, a critique of Eric Seibert's perspective for you to consider (an excellent example of an irenic yet honest way to disagree):

Wow, I've never been this prolific before on a blog. Could I be fired up? :)

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Lot's of food for thought here! I'll begin with a comment on relativism in this post here, and then address hermeneutics in a second one.

Relativism is an inescapable part of life. Absolutely everyone without exception practices moral relativism (How's that for an absolutist statement!) because we all experience life from within our limited subjective perspective. We are not God, not infallible, not omni- anything. Even if there was an infallible Bible it would be meaningless since we are not infallible and thus would be prone to misinterpret it. So there you go: everything is, from our human perspective, always subjective, always relative. There is of course absolute reality, but you and I are never able to see it perfectly.

Now in regards to the critique of Eric Seibert's book, since I know Eric and have spoken with him on several occasions about his work (and mine), I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that I believe the reviewer has misunderstood Eric's point when he thinks that historicity is a major criteria for Eric (if you don't know what I'm talking about, check out the article Samurai linked above). The issue is not whether something is historical as opposed to fictional, the issue is that the perspective of the biblical authors is relative since they are human, whether they are telling a fictional story to illustrate a point or sharing their take on the meaning and significance of a historical event, in either case, their perspective is relative because they are human, and thus it may not reflect the reality of who God is. That is what I would propose Eric is intending when he says "we need to differentiate between literary representations and the living reality, between the characterization of God in the Bible and God’s true character."

If I tell you a story about what happened yesterday, I will tell you that story from my open perspective. It is not objective because there is no such thing as objectivity when humans are involved. It will be my own take. You might have a different take on the whole thing. The biblical authors likewise have their take on how they understood things, and their take is no more infallible than mine is.

I can of course listen to the perspective of a lot of other people and broaden my perspective. That's good of course. Diversity thus helps us see things from different angles. Along those lines I can listen to the perspective of the biblical authors and be challenged and learn from their perspective, just as I can learn from people from different cultures, countries, colors, and so on. That all helps to broaden my perspective. So when the reviewer suggested that it would be good to have a Bible study with conservatives and liberals together, rather than having the voluntary segregation that tends to happen in churches, I thought that was an excellent point, and then it occurred to me:

We are doing that here!


Okay, so now with that all said, I'll move on to hermeneutics...

At 7:04 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

So now let's move on to hermeneutics. If we are going to question the biblical authors (for example when they claim that God told them to commit genocide) we of course do need to have a criteria for how we will make those moral evaluations, how we will evaluate what is good and what is bad.

Now with genocide and rape I think this is pretty easy. I would propose our criteria should be:


With other things of course it get's more complex. How do we for example apply the teaching of Jesus to love our enemies? That's more complicated. But here's where I would start:

1) I would want to demonstrate that Jesus questioned Scripture, and then propose that we should follow his example.
2) Next we would need to look to see what the criteria was for how he reached his own moral deliberations, and then adopt this. Or said differently, we would need to discover what the hermeneutic (i.e. interpretive lens) of Jesus was, and then seek to apply that ourselves.

This is basically what I do over several chapters in my forthcoming book.

I mention my book because this obviously is a big topic that really takes hundred of pages to layout. In the blog I can touch in individual aspects of this (that is, it's not that I am unwilling to share this, it's not a secret or anything), but laying down the groundwork is something that requires more space that a single blog post or comment can provide.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

Exciting stuff. I look forward especially to the more in-depth look at how Jesus (and Paul) interpreted the Hebrew Scripture.

I've a feeling some are worried that "critiquing Scripture" means being like Marcion and cutting out the violent passages in question altogether as non-authoritative. Jesus, of course, never did cut out any part of Scripture - in fact, quite to the contrary, He declared that He came to fulfill, not relax, the Law and Prophets. But the way He fulfilled it points squarely to how He RE-INTERPRETED the Hebrew Scriptures.

So far from cutting out violent passages or repudiating parts of Scripture, I am looking for a hermeneutic that REDEEMS the violent passages from their apparent meaning in light of how Jesus and Paul used the Hebrew Scriptures.

At 10:05 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I like the idea of redeeming Scripture, but I think we need to be careful here to define what this means exactly.

Think about how really hurtful and terrible things can happen to us in life--a child dies, or a person is raped, etc. Now there is a way that such tragedy and pain can deepen us. And some people even say things like "Getting cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me" because of this experience. But the cancer itself was good. Cancer is bad, abuse is bad, suffering is bad. So when horrible and even evil things happen to us, the fact that God can work in our lives to bring about good, does not make evil good. On the contrary, the cross shows us that God can take what is meant for evil and work through it to bring about good. God works for good despite human evil.

As in life, so too with the Bible. We can redeem a troubling passage in a similar way to how we can redeem the troubling parts of our lives. For example we may be able to use dark parts of Scripture (like Psalm 137) to reveal dark parts of our selves that we need to face. But we need to be careful not to therefore act as if these passages are not rightfully seen by us as problematic and troubling.

Consider the cross: this is the ultimate example of something that is evil (the brutality and inhumanity of Roman crucifixion) that God used to break the grip of sin and death over humanity. That's the basic model for what redemption looks like: taking things that are bad, and making then good; taking what is broken and making it beautiful. There's a way to do that with our lives, and there's a way to do that with Scripture too.

However, where I want to be careful is that this should not mean that we call things good that are bad. As Luther said, "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is."

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Derek - I agree that we should not try to justify what we know deep down in our hearts is really unjustifiable. We should be honest with ourselves.

I wanted to clarify what I meant by moral relativism. I don't personally define absolute truth as truth devoid of subjectivity. Rather, I define it as a universal principle that doesn't become right or wrong depending on the circumstancem, even though there may be subjectivity in just how that plays out practically.

For example, that we should love others is absolute truth. I would submit that rape, genocide, and plunder are wrong in any circumstance. There's subjectivity in just how one person interprets/applies these principles - and that's where there's room for healthy discussion and debate.

Your proposal that we should use how Jesus uses Hebrew Scripture as a model for how we interpret the Hebrew Scripture is another "absolute truth." Of course, there's subjectivity, but we are assuming that this interpretive lens is something reliable that helps us across the spectrum of reading situations, and doesn't flip back and forth from being a valid to invalid way of reading the Scriptures depending on the passage you're looking at.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger Ryan Myers said...


Passages such as Psalm 73 have been very important to me over the past few years. Like you, I find it troublesome when people accuse the lamenter of a lack of faith and then feel a sigh of relief when the writer tacks on a note of "repentance" at the end. To accuse writers such as David and Asaph of a sinful lack of faith puts a heavy burden on the backs of those who are suffering. Thank you for addressing that.

However, I might disagree that "the law promises the opposite" of what is presented in such psalms. I think I agree with Jurgen's first comment a couple posts ago when he says the NT focuses on personal grace while the OT focuses on community-level grace. I think that's what we're seeing in Deuteronomy 28. The blessings and curses are for the community at large, not individuals. After all, we wouldn't expect an individual to be able to "lend to many nations" (verse 12), but a nation to lend to many nations.

But if Deuteronomy 28 does in fact apply to individuals (which is may), I think we have to look at the examples set by the patriarchs, and especially Job. In the end, Job did receive those blessings, and he received them because of his righteousness. But he first had to go through hell to get them. The same can be said for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The blessings of Deuteronomy 28 don't operate like an ATM.

I think you're right about Job, that even when leveling accusations against God he is ultimately singing a love song to the Father. And that's been my take on psalms such as Psalm 73 as well: the expressions of doubt and forsakenness are not so much signs of weakness as they are milestones on a journey. The Father didn't pour trials upon Job or David (or Asaph in the case of Psalm 73) to punish them, but to draw them closer to Himself. Sometimes (or even most of the time) we need our comforts stripped away in order to realize that the Father is enough for us. And so, in my view, the "happy notes" at the end of passages such as Psalm 73 are not always a matter of "coming to one's senses," but of realizing where one is: in the bosom of the Father. Perhaps it's a fine line, but it's an important one.

At 5:43 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Ryan, the contrast between books like Job and the Law is that Deut 28 clearly promises that if the Israelite are faithful then they will experience blessing, health and plenty and if they sin they will experience suffering, sickness, and famine. Job openly contests this, insisting that his sickness and suffering are not due to his sin. This became a common theme as Israel repeatedly found itself in exile, under foreign oppression, suffering famine and the ravages of war under Assyria, Babylon Persia, Greece, and finally Rome. During that time, while some continued to insist that their suffering was due to their sin, others began to develop the idea of the suffering righteous. This is of course a concept that the New Testament picks up and applies to Jesus.

What is critical to understand here is that we find within Scripture itself (and more specifically in this case within the OT canon itself) evidence of biblical authors disagreeing with one another, speaking from differing perspectives. Another example is the prophets critique of the temple rituals. That's why OT scholar Walter Bruggemann describes the OT as being "characterized by dispute." After all, the name Israel literally means "wrestles with God" and so this kind of questioning has become typical of Jewish biblical interpretation as well as evidenced in the structure of the Talmud which consists of divergent voices places side by side.


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