Posted here is Don Saliers, “Psalms in a Time of Violence.” Below are three responses to this AMEN CORNER – from Pray Tell contributors Karen Westerfield Tucker, Alan Hommerding, and Katie Harmon. Add your own voice in the comments below!
KAREN WESTERFIELD TUCKER:
In the scenario that Don Saliers describes at the beginning of his essay, I can imagine the husband and wife instead remarking, “Thank you for that enlightening session on lament psalms. We never hear anything from the Book of Psalms in worship except on those rare occasions when pastor uses it for the sermon text.” Indeed, such would be the case in many Protestant congregations today, and then the Psalm chosen would most likely not be one of the lament Psalms. Even for lectionary-using communities, many lament Psalms go unheard because they do not figure among the readings in any of the annual cycles for Sundays. The Book of Lamentations does not fare as well either: the Revised Common Lectionary uses a reading for Holy Saturday and one for a Sunday in Year C; other lectionary systems may have two, one or no readings from Lamentations in all of their annual cycles.
In a time of violence, musicians and worship leaders should enlist congregational song to help speak the people’s lament. Congregations that use a steady diet of “praise and worship” music (the designation is itself revealing) or contemporary Christian music are not likely in their normal repertoire to use songs of lament, and so leaders within those communities need to be proactive in seeking out songs that speak to violence and sorrow. (I remember how many congregations were “tongue tied” on the Sunday after the atrocities of September 11, 2001.) Older denominational hymnals typically do not include a topical entry for “Lament,” but new ones do such as the PCUSA’s Glory to God (2013, which lists several Psalm paraphrases) and the second edition of GIA’s RitualSong (2016). Thus, in speaking to the “paradox of suffering, death, and resurrection” at the “heart of Christian life,” a congregation could offer, in the words of Ralph F. Smith (“How Long, O God” in RitualSong #778):
How can we hope? How can we sing?
O God, set free our voice
To name the sorrows, name the pain,
That we may yet rejoice.
In addressing the matter of violence in the world, an unarticulated aspect of the issue is what I believe is a contemporary crisis of theodicy. The language of rage, challenge, sorrow, violence, and vengeance that permeates the psalter is largely congruent with Israel’s understanding of God. They could deal with violence in the world because they believed that their God was also violent. There are many instances of God’s violent and vengeful behavior in the Hebrew scriptures. YHWH, after all, had to be in regular contact and contest with other gods, which often occurred via violent encounters between followers of the divine beings.
Today, it is nigh unto impossible for us to believe in a violent God. We can think of a God who is angered by injustice, or weeps over senseless tragedy. Yet in the framework of a growing understanding that our world has an immense amount of violent occurrences and behaviors designed into it—from the tectonic plates below us, to the climate around us, to innumerable neighboring sentient species—it is a struggle to relate this world with its built-in violence to its maker. We can end up with a helpless, if empathetic, God to pray to.
One of the things the psalms can do is help us move beyond a categorical to a relational understanding of God. Whether philosophical (omniscient, omnipotent), temporal/spatial (eternal, omnipresent), or even scriptural (merciful, just), we too often understand God as functioning out of categories, rather than being in relationship with us. The psalms—and Jesus, whose relationship with his abba was at the heart of his ministry—open up for us the broad spectrum of emotions to which we have access with those we love most: delirious delight, fierce rage, unceasing smiles, questioning challenges, seemingly inconsolable grief, and so on. Through a careful journeying together, as Don Saliers recommends, we can come to that truly relational place with the divine.
I conclude with stanza two of the hymn text “Make Us Bold,” an attempt I made in 1999 to share this viewpoint with a dying friend:
Give strength, give strength, O God,
our desperation free
to cry with Christ “My God! Why here abandon me?”
From our own cross, we join
the Psalms’ prophetic way
and learn, by questioning your will, how to obey.
Don Saliers draws our focus upon an uncomfortable fact: we like our worship simple, and simply to make us happy. We’d gratefully rather celebrate those moments of the angels’ alleluias than the precious blood of so many sufferers in Scripture, and in our world. As Saliers notes,“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.”
This “temptation” to rest in alleluias rather than the cross reminded me of a college class where, one day, our art historian professor showed us a video (yes, it was a VHS) of the famed “Precious Moments” Chapel in Carthage, Missouri. If you happen to be familiar with this attraction, you know that it depicts the story of salvation with the iconic doe-eyed children in calming pastels—and has its own gift shoppe. I enjoyed the video, in part because the whole enterprise was an excellent example of delectable Christian “kitsch.” Yet, our class’s conversation soon grasped a deep problem with this Chapel’s approach to salvation: there was no sin, suffering, or sadness. There was no Cross—no Calvary. We determined, at the wise age of 18, that there could be no story of salvation without suffering.
The paschal mystery is far from simple and, while it might make us happy, it is a complex happiness. As we know well from our cultural and political landscapes—“black and white” is far easier to embrace, or distill into a slogan, than the complexities required by the mysteries of our faith. Though God certainly calls us to embrace and enjoy each precious moment, God cannot draw us into everlasting light and life, if there is no darkness and shadow of death.