Sunday, September 20, 2009

Making Friends with the Imprecatory Psalms

It is part of my Rule of Life to pray the Daily Office according to the form prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer (1979). Tuesday through Friday, and on Sunday morning, I do so publicly at stated times (though, to be sure, the universe of those who might join me on any given occasion is quite small). During Ordinary Time, the lectionary for the Daily Office takes one through all 150 Psalms every seven weeks. The option is provided for certain whole Psalms, and sections of others, to be omitted from this round. If you look at some of these texts, the reason for their permitted (suggested?) omission is intuitively obvious. Here are some verses from Psalms 59:

6 Awake, and punish all the ungodly; *

show no mercy to those who are faithless and evil.

7 They go to and fro in the evening; *

they snarl like dogs and run about the city.

8 Behold, they boast with their mouths,

and taunts are on their lips; *

“For who,” they say, “will hear us?”

12 Slay them, O God, lest my people forget; *

send them reeling by your might

and put them down, O Lord our shield.

13 For the sins of their mouths, for the words of their lips,

for the cursing and lies that they utter, *

let them be caught in their pride.

14 Make an end of them in your wrath; *

make an end of them, and they shall be no more.

Such sentiments certainly cause a Christian conscience a little uneasiness, at least, and probably evoke the "What would Jesus do?" question that was so in vogue a few years ago. Other examples of imprecatory Psalms and portions of Psalms are found at 7, 35, 54, 55, 58, 69, 79, 137, and 139. But the most hair-raising example of sustained petition for disaster to befall one's enemies has got to be 109, which calls down divine fury on even the innocent children of malefactors:

5 Set a wicked man against him, *

and let an accuser stand at his right hand.

6 When he is judged, let him be found guilty, *

and let his appeal be in vain.

7 Let his days be few, *

and let another take his office.

8 Let his children be fatherless, *

and his wife become a widow.

9 Let his children be waifs and beggars; *

let them be driven from the ruins of their homes.

10 Let the creditor seize everything he has; *

let strangers plunder his gains.

11 Let there be no one to show him kindness, *

and none to pity his fatherless children.

12 Let his descendants be destroyed, *

and his name be blotted out in the next generation.

13 Let the wickedness of his fathers be remembered before

the Lord, *

and his mother’s sin not be blotted out;

14 Let their sin be always before the Lord; *

but let him root out their names from the earth;

15 Because he did not remember to show mercy, *

but persecuted the poor and needy

and sought to kill the brokenhearted.

16 He loved cursing,

let it come upon him; *

he took no delight in blessing,

let it depart from him.

17 He put on cursing like a garment, *

let it soak into his body like water

and into his bones like oil;

18 Let it be to him like the cloak which he

wraps around himself, *

and like the belt that he wears continually.

19 Let this be the recompense from the Lord to my accusers, *

and to those who speak evil against me.

Psalm 109 pops up in the lectionary as regularly as all the rest--every seventh Wednesday morning, to be specific. Now, Wednesday happens to be the day when my whole parish staff attends Morning Prayer together, just prior to our weekly (or thereabouts) meeting.

Of course, I would be within my rights to exercise a certain pastoral discretion and omit verses 5 through 19, as they are enclosed in parentheses in the lectionary. But I choose not to avail myself of this option. Every seven weeks, these words of seething hatred cross the lips of five or six of the nicest people I know. We squirm--at least I squirm--but we say them.

It's not often at all that any imprecatory Psalmody makes its way into the principal liturgical experience of most Christians who worship according to the Prayer Book, the Sunday Eucharist. Today (Year B: Proper 20) was a notable exception. In my parish, a singularly sweet-voiced soprano cantor chanted these lines from Psalm 54:

5 Render evil to those who spy on me; *

in your faithfulness, destroy them.

So, the obvious question is ... why? Why are texts that are so opposed to the spirit of "Love your enemies" and "Do good to those who persecute you" even granted admission into the canon of Christian liturgical texts? How is our corporate worship possibly enhanced by forcing ourselves to speak lines that we would never allow to be part of our public prayers?

There is no flip or glib or otherwise easy answer to this question. And therein lies the first clue, I think, to why Psalm 109 and its companions are still in the Prayer Book--precisely because it is hard to have them there, precisely because they are the proverbial skunk at the garden party. We wouldn't voluntarily pray such words . . . or would we? Many years ago I found myself, in the context of the Daily Office, praying one of these passages. As so often happens, my mind wandered as part of it remained dedicated to the text in front of me. Then, as now, I was more engaged than the average cleric, to say nothing of the average layperson, in the soap opera of conflict that has consumed the Anglican world of late. And then, in an embarrassingly lucid moment, I suddenly realized that as I was asking God to curse my enemies, the "enemies" I had in mind were not only fellow Christians, but members of my own church!

This experience yielded a hugely important spiritual insight: It showed me that I was subliminally demonizing my opponents in church conflict. I was thinking of them not as brothers and sisters with whom I had profound disagreements, but as enemies who needed to be vanquished, as minions of evil deserving of God's destructive wrath. I suppose it's possible that I might have come to this realization without the assistance of whatever imprecatory Psalm I was praying at the time. But the fact is, it was the Psalm that shined the light on an important step of spiritual growth I needed to take. The imprecatory Psalms force us to look unflinchingly at our "dark side" (Jungian shadow?), and be brutally honest about what we see. By being invited (or, in the case of my staff, forced!) to speak words that we would not otherwise choose to speak, we are provided with a "safe" release for some toxic stuff that will poison us from inside if we don't get it out.

Of course, making friends with the imprecatory Psalms also requires the cultivation of a certain amount of sanctified spiritual imagination. Such a process offers us an opportunity to redefine who the "enemy" is. Instead of directing the energy of our hatred--which is very much there, even if sublimated--toward people (individuals or groups), whom we are commanded to love, our hearts can be trained to direct that energy toward Evil in all its dimensions: Cosmic Evil ("spiritual forces of wickedness [stoichea tou kosmou if you're into New Testament Greek]) that rebel against God"), Social Evil ("evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God"), and Personal Evil ("sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God"). After all, these are the three classic renunciations (aka "the world, the flesh, and the devil") that precede Christian baptism. Somewhat in the tradition of lectio divina, we can acquire the habit of "translating" verses of imprecation, redefining the intended target.

I don't know that I will ever absolutely love the imprecatory Psalms. I would probably be much more comfortable ignoring them. And that is exactly why I should not--and, with God's help, will not--do so.


Bruce Robison said...

Although I was full of bright intentions when I left seminary, it's only the last 15 years or so that I've been regular in reading the offices. I use the 30 day cycle--but whatever cycle you use, these texts become the background music of life, with phrases popping up unexpectedly elsewhere, and with key moments suddenly lighting up with meaning. --Thanks for this reflection, Dan.

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Undergroundpewster said...

I agree that these verses are not likely to be heard in the course of regular Sunday "clock punching" worship. They challenge us to confront our dark desires that we ourselves cannot eliminate from our being.

Thank you for not retreating to a historical relativistic approach to these verses.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this post. I have resisted for many years the recurrent temptation to omit these psalms, and I am glad that I have. I have been doing some thinking about the topic of anger and forgiveness lately, and I think these psalms are very important. I find it easier, though still difficult, to forgive someone who is dead, or otherwise not in a position to hurt me anymore. My anger is justified, but can be turned over to God along with his prayer for mercy for an offender. But for those who are active and unrepentant in evil, it is difficult for me just to let go of the anger by an act of forgiveness. It has become important in dealing with this kind of anger to admit to myself, that my ongoing anger is justified. Then I find I can pray for the other person's repentance and forgiveness while keeping an ardent desire to correct the evil being perpetrated and protect the innocent. Praying these psalms actually helps in these circumstances, as I am not acting violently against the person himself, but praying for God to act against him. Also such imprecatory prayers have in the Christian Tradition a perfectly just target, namely the Devil and his fallen angels, as for them, interestingly, the tradition never offers a prayer for repentance. Using these psalms in this fashion actually has been a great help in managing anger and helping me to forgive my fellow men who persist in evil.

Anonymous said...

I look at the sections differently, I guess. What difference is there in this prayer and one that asks for what we in our imperfect wisdom think is a good thing but which in reality would lead to our or someone else's destruction? The key is that they are brought to the one place where no matter what garbage goes in, it is transformed and cleansed. It was truly a turning point in my prayer life when I finally accepted that nothing in my heart was hidden from God and my pretense was harmful to my soul. God wants us to admit what is in our hearts and allow him to do the housekeeping necessary. I believe that if we pray with two intentions - Create in me a clean heart, dear Lord and Not my will but thine be done, all will be well.

Anonymous said...

I will second Jackie's take (above). Rather than "spiritualize" these Psalms, I believe and teach that they are best understood as turning over our actual (not metaphorical)murderous rage to the Almighty. Yes Lord, this is what I want, but what will actually happen belongs to You, my Sovereign, and only to You.
Vengance belongs only to You, and I entrust my ugly hatred, anger, and offended self-righteousness to You.

The bisectional vocalist said...

Okay, I waited to comment for about a week, so as not to appear to be 'shooting from the hip'. My problem with what you said..."we can acquire the habit of "translating" verses of imprecation, redefining the intended target" this. How can you redefine the target, when it is so plainly stated, and yet not redefine other Old Testament verses? You know what I'm talking about Fr. Dan...

Daniel Martins said...

To the Bisectional Vocalist:
I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that "what [you're] talking about" is the passage from Leviticus that is often cited in support of the sinfulness of homosexual acts. Correct me if I'm wrong.

In one respect, it's a moot point with me, since I find that passage at best marginally relevant to the question. In my estimation, it's not the "smoking gun" that many (most?) who support the traditional moral view find it to be. Take it away, and I don't think it changes the landscape much.

That said, however, we're talking about two very different kinds of literature between Leviticus and the Psalms. Leviticus is mostly a legal code, and it is of the nature of legal codes to be taken pretty much at face value (in their original context, at any rate; I'm not saying every detail of the Mosaic law can be just transplanted into a contemporary context). The Psalms, on the other hand, are poetry, and it is of the nature of poetry to be interpreted with attention to expansiveness, metaphor, and elasticity.

The bisectional vocalist said...

It was really just a general comment shedding light on how people can 'interpret' the bible to make themselves feel comfortable. Yeah, I had the homosexual passages in mind, but really, it seems to apply to many things. I don't really buy the poetry explanation, but thanks for the answer :)