AMEN CORNER: Psalms in a Time of Violence

by Don E. Saliers

Editor’s note: With this column from the January 2018 issue of Worship, we begin a new regular feature. The first article from each issue, the famous “Amen Corner,” will be reprinted at Pray Tell, along with responses to it from other individuals to stimulate discussion. Gracious thanks to editor Bernadette Gasslein and Worship for reprint permission. Subscribe to Worship here.

Not long ago, following a worship seminar in a local church, a husband and wife responded to a session on the lament psalms. After expressing polite appreciation for the session they both commented: “But why do you liturgists always emphasize negative things? We have enough troubles and concerns in our life; we don’t need to come to church to hear about what’s wrong with the world. Why do we have to sing those laments and pray about politics in Syria and South Sudan? Can’t you encourage us with uplifting liturgy, peace, and good news?” They have a point. Liturgy is in praise of God. But the irony is this: the doxology and uplifting worship they want cannot be fully received in our world without lament. As Brian Wren has it, we must learn “to sing an honest aching song.” Can there really be doxology without lament? Can there be deep laughter without the contrast of tears? There are many pastoral issues in that particular exchange to be addressed, but there are important theological and liturgical issues as well. At the heart of Christian life is the paradox of suffering, death, and resurrection.

At the very time when media are saturated by news of human carnage, Christian liturgies largely avoid or simply neglect lamentation. This is true not only of phenomena such as the “prosperity gospel” or “ultra-bright” forms of Christian worship but also of more liturgical traditions that follow the lectionary with appointed psalms. In Psalms for Preaching and Worship, Van Harn and Strawn contend that “it is both wonder and scandal that the modern church in the West has largely lost touch with the Psalter. . . . The reason for such neglect, articulated by Claus Westermann, is related to the very reason that they must be recovered among us, namely, that they are direct speech about a realistic faith that traffics in the extremities of human life and human experience.” [1] This is precisely why we need to look again at psalms of lament—constituting nearly two-thirds of the Psalter—in liturgical and devotional prayer today.

Can Christian liturgy speak to a violent world? More specifically, how do the psalms in our common worship address questions of human violence? Do not many psalms themselves, someone will certainly ask, contain the rhetoric of violence? Of course, not all psalms of lament express anger, fury, or a wish for vengeance. Still, biblical prayer addressed to the enemies of God often does so. Psalms of anger often emerge from narratives of human suffering and moral injury. Steven Pinker’s best-selling book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, provides a provocative starting point—provocative because his general thesis about the decline of violence is questionable, in my opinion. After surveying the vast range of biblical bloodshed, he writes:

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. . . . People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure. They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday school children draw with crayons.[2]

In one sense, it is hard to deny this generalization. There is ample violence contained in biblical narratives, and many voices in the Psalter echo vengeance and violence. The Psalter is concerned for the ever-present “enemies”—they are the wicked.[3] What Pinker sketches about the Bible is all too true of our own world. “Why do the nations rage?” (Ps 2). Rachel still weeps, uncomforted, over her dead children, while assemblies at worship often find it difficult to join her. Unlike the psalms themselves, many Christian assemblies suffer from “lament denial.” The suppression and avoidance of lament is a cultural, spiritual, and liturgical problem. Road rage is easy; genuine lament to God over the relentless violence among human beings is more demanding.

In addressing these matters of the psalms in the churches’ prayer three issues require serious attention. First is the matter of how to approach the violent language in many of the psalms. How shall we read the texts; how and when shall we teach them well? Second, most local assemblies need conversation and catechesis about how the psalms may or may not address the patterns of violence in our world and how we experience them in daily life. In particular we face our own ambivalences and complicities in praying in the face of violence. This has everything to do with formation of moral and spiritual discernment. Furthermore, there is the quality of how we actually sing and pray such psalms in both liturgical and other contexts over time. This third aspect opens relationships between psalms and readings, hymns, preaching, intercessions, and a range of symbolic actions. Experiential catechesis and the practice of the daily offices are necessary to overcome the limitations of our Sunday lectionaries with respect to imprecatory and lament psalms.

TEACH, DISCERN, PRAY

Psalm 137 is a case in point. In addition to its famous melancholic opening, “By the rivers of Babylon,” it concludes with one of the most violent images in the whole Psalter. A proleptic curse ends: “O daughter Babylon . . . Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Ps 137:8, 9). This vengeance cry has deeply troubled both Jews and Christians over the centuries. Except for Orthodox Jews, few intone these verses, and Christians have characteristically omitted them from prayer. Other lament psalms describe the wicked, such as in Psalm 59:6, 7: “Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds of violence are in their hands. . . . They rush to shed innocent blood.” Some psalms end by calling for God to execute punishment, as in Psalm 139:19: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God.” This is familiar territory in Ezekiel 9 where God commands the slaughter of all the dwellers of Jerusalem. Other psalms where enemies are mentioned end in memory and praise of God’s vindication of the righteous.

Interpretations of the texts have taken the form of spiritualizing the enemies by allegorizing such passages. Thus for Saint Augustine, the infants of Babylon are evil desires and infant sins in us. This approach has a long and venerable history, notably in the Benedictine tradition. Saint Benedict refers to Psalm 137 in the Prologue: the monk is to dash little temptations against the rock that is Christ.[4] Other approaches, such as John Wesley’s, simply expunge such references, admonishing that thoughts of vengeance are not fit for Christian prayer. At the same time there is a Reformation stress on the “plain or literal sense” of such texts. As in Luther, the violence is directed against perceived idolatry in Roman Catholic teaching and practice, as well as against the Turks. The image of the “whore of Babylon” found in Revelation is used metaphorically, but still the violence is intended.

Thus the understanding of violent rhetoric in some psalms leads directly to the question of the theological-social ethic assumed by the interpreters. One might say that the use of such psalms serves to draw out the deeper psychological, sociological, and spiritual sources of the need for, or resistance to, vengeance. When horrific events happen, trauma follows. Victims call out in rage against the perpetrators. Yet those who pray the psalms in the Sunday liturgy or daily offices are rarely the immediate victims. Familiarity may itself breed indifference to the reality of trauma and suffering figured in the texts. What, then, is to be done?

One way forward is to pray on behalf of those who are the victims. To pray in solidarity by giving voice to the unspeakable. This is truthful recognition of the violation of humanity. At the same time, liturgy invokes the divine will and agency. Here is where a wise use of the psalms in liturgy and in devotional life asks every assembly to consider what kind of divine power is invoked and to what end. The psalms of lament and imprecation demand a form of humility and a detachment from our habitual tendencies to project fears and hostilities on the other. Christian assemblies must learn not to presume in praying these psalms. We cannot presume to “understand” the sufferers from our own positions of privilege or social/political perspectives. Here critical self-reflection requires that we check our clichés and projections. Ultimately we cannot presume to know the divine will and action in the traumatic lives of those for whom and with whom we pray. Here we encounter the mystery of Christ praying the psalms in, with, and through us. Here is where we learn the “dark lightening” of Christ’s passion in praying the psalms.

Questions of violence, of course, require attention to a wide range of situations and contexts, including inadvertent and “built-in” structures of violence. We find ourselves crying out in the face of injustice and violation of human life. Lurking in the background here is the way in which the psalmist prays to God to take a violent hand in doing away with the violent. To have biblical faith is to understand this impulse. If the divine agency is thought to be available when something horrible is done by the wicked enemy, the cry for divine justice and intervention seems inevitable.

SAYING “AMEN”

Christian liturgy calls the assembly to assent with “Amen.” If we say Amen to cursing and to calling for divine retribution, we who pray stand under the wrath of self-condemnation. Because the prayers of the faithful depend radically on the paschal mystery of Jesus, any Amen is thus in solidarity with his violent death. It takes a community to say “so be it” with discernment of Christ’s death and resurrection. Every liturgical assembly must examine what it means to say “Amen” together as a body to the psalms. This is especially true of those lament psalms that come close to our own unreflective responses to violence—to our own unconscious needs for vengeance.

Rarely does a specific psalm carry everything we are feeling. We are tempted to move quickly toward the resolution in praise or affirmation, struggling with uncomfortable emotions such as grief, sorrow, confusion, anger, and even remorse. The very same psalm, such as “Out of the depths I cry to Thee” (Ps 130), takes on different force in a funeral liturgy or when surrounded by readings and preaching focusing on others’ suffering from violence. Psalm 22 takes on different nuances when prayed in the Good Friday liturgy in comparison with a daily office or in a prayer service in response to disasters or mass killings.

We return to Psalm 137 with its familiar question: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” whose concluding terrible verses contain that most troubling of all references to violence. I take several clues from David Stowe’s masterful book Song of Exile [5]—an account of the long textual and Musical reception of Psalm 137. Stowe points to analogies between the captor’s demands of the Jerusalem exiles and twentieth-century Jewish musicians and the Nazi exterminating camps. Stowe reminds us: “All the themes of Psalm 137—the coerced performance, the challenge to remember Jerusalem, the question of how (whether) to sing in a strange land, the struggle of memory against forgetting, the contest between justice and the visceral hunger for vengeance—all played out in the concentration camps.”

Our assembly gathers Sunday by Sunday, or at other times, to pray and sing promises to be a “holding place” before God in which we are invited to give full expression to anger and grief in light of the trauma of human violence in all its forms. We ask a basic question of our liturgies: what is this assembly’s repertoire of psalms and hymns/songs that echo the psalms? Is our repertoire adequate to our experience of the struggles against violence in ourselves and in our social/political world? Each day’s news brings forth more and more. Violent images permeate our films and TV series. Violent images are found in the unchecked rhetoric in many uncensored responses on social media.

How, then, can the psalms and our sung prayer based in the psalms address our present human awareness of violence at every hand? In his Exclusion and Embrace Miroslav Volf writes that “rage belongs before God—not in the reflectively managed and manicured form of a confession, but as a pre-reflective outburst from the depths of the soul. . . . By placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice.” [6]

We offer all to God with the haunting question of what God does with our cry.

This is native territory for the psalms of lament and turmoil. I am not proposing that we approve the violence inherent in psalms such as 137. Rather, I contend that careful communal reflection should accompany and surround the use of such psalms, whether liturgical, devotional, or para-liturgical. Praying these texts implies that we offer to the community before God what our lives contain of these images and emotions. Sometimes we “feel” the images immediately in what we ask of God. Other times we pray on behalf of others whose suffering and anguish is there, even when we don’t feel it directly ourselves.

For some of our worship traditions it may well be that para-liturgical contexts in which difficult psalms of violence—especially the imprecatory psalms—are used may provide an initial point for our explicit wrestling with human protest and lamentation. On such occasions we can interpose dialogue with the praying of the texts. The intertextuality of both praying and theological/pastoral commentary is necessary.

The reception history of Psalm 137 gives evidence of this process over time. To acknowledge violent imagery while avoiding an easy spiritualizing of these demanding psalms requires patience and maturity. The attempt to avoid or repress violence and tone so often generates other problems for us. At least one of these problems is found in the denial of lament in our liturgies. Such a denial is also a theological problem. To deny our impulses toward vengeance and violent restitution—whether acknowledged or not—is a sign of moral and theological weakness. Our complicities in systems of violence toward the poor, toward all we consider as other, are present to God when the church prays honestly.

Over time the whole range of psalms is necessary. In a violent world, Christian liturgical and devotional life asks for more continuous teaching, praying, and honest encounter with the Christ of the lament psalms. Full doxology may return only when we are fully known by the Searcher of Hearts with the promise that even human violence may be transfigured in Christ.


The Rev. Dr. Don E. Saliers is an American theologian specializing in homiletics and liturgics. He was the William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia

Read three responses to this post here – and add your own voice in the comments!

 

[1] Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), xv–xvi.
[2] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011), 10.
[3] From the very opening of the Psalter, Psalms 1 and 2 alert us to the ways of the wicked who conspire to oppose God. At the same time, images of violence are used to speak of the divine opposition to the wicked, breaking them “with a rod of iron” and dashing them “in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps 2:8-9).
[4] The Rule of Saint Benedict, Prol.28; 4.50.
[5] David W. Stowe, Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 157.
[6] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 124.

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