Psalm 149 has been my wrestling point this week. Something in this passage sent a chill up my spine. It starts off well – singing, dancing, celebrating and worshipping God. It is a call to hope and trust, acknowledging the goodness and grace of God. It is a song of joy, possibly as the people of God remembered God’s saving acts of being freed from Egypt’s cruel slavery; their long journey to the new homeland; and the way they laid claim to the “Promised Land” of Canaan (even though that meant that some other people lost their own homeland). 1
The section from verse 6 takes a tangent with blood-thirsty imagery. According to renowned OT scholar Walter Brueggeman, the Psalm is unique in the way it calls the faithful to a dual duty, to ‘let the high praises of God be in their throats’ on the one hand, and on the other to take, ‘two edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kinds with fetters, and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgement decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones’.
Here is a psalm that is at once about praise AND vengeance, joy AND punishment, tambourines AND fetters.2 As Brueggeman says, Praise the Lord” and “pass the ammunition…” 3
The Psalm is thought to be 3000 years old, and it has been used to justify wars over the centuries when it has been taken literally as a call to arms, and a call to holy war. Caspar Scloppius used this Psalm to provoke the Roman Catholic princes to the Thirty Years’ religious war, and Thomas Müntzer used it to rouse the War of Peasants.
Eckhart Tolle writes: Religions, to a large extent, became divisive rather than a unifying forces. Instead of bringing about an ending of violence and hatred through a realization of the fundamental oneness of all life, they brought more violence and hatred, more divisions between people as well as between different religions and even within the same religion. They became ideologies, belief systems people could identify with and so use them to enhance their false sense of self. Through them, they could make themselves “right” and others “wrong” and thus define their identity through their enemies, the “others,” the “nonbelievers” or “wrong believers”. Not infrequently they saw themselves justified in killing the ‘others’. The eternal, the infinite, and unnameable was reduced to a mental idol that you had to believe in and worship as “my god” or “our god.” 4
Today, we are witness to the ways that people offer the praise of their God in their mouth and hold that double-edged sword in their hands. We have witnessed the most barbaric acts by the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq, doing it all in the name of their God. Thousands of people, among them many Christians, have been banished brutally from their houses, children are dying of hunger and thirst as they flee, women have been kidnapped, people massacred, violence of all kinds has been perpetrated, and there is destruction everywhere. The worst of ISIS has been unleashed on Shi‘ite Muslims, Christians and the Yazidis. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared himself as the new “Caliph” of Muslims worldwide. But, the Quran warns its readers to not be swayed by charismatic figures who, in reality, only spread evil in the world: “Now, there is a kind of man whose views on the life of this world may please thee greatly, and [the more so as] he cites God as witness to what is in his heart and is, moreover, exceedingly skillful in argument. But whenever he prevails, he goes about the earth spreading corruption and destroying property and progeny [even though] God does not like corruption. And whenever he is told, ‘Be conscious of God,’ his false pride drives him into [even greater] sin …” (2:204–2:206).
I thought of omitting the last verses of Psalm 149, or striking them from the Book of Psalms. It was momentarily attractive, or at least would give permission to ignore the verses. After all, they are from so long ago, and we are so much more ‘civilized’ now. But this Psalm reveals truth about our own humanity – our human propensity to expel that which is different, to banish the other, to diminish the other. And to justify we are on the side of right, or right thinking. We need to acknowledge the times when we feel we are on the side of ‘right’ against those who hold different views, and the times we seek a victory. Maybe not with a sword, and maybe not even with the praise of God in our throats, but definitely seeking to have the upper hand over those who think differently. The sobering thing is that anything that you resent and strongly react to in another may also be in you.
We have a human propensity to cultivate dualities, to divide and separate. And when we categorise people and situations into simple dualities, it is then possible to ‘execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples’.
It is interesting to reflect on the rhetoric of George W Bush following the 9/11 attack, and the repeated phrase that has become distinctively associated with him: ”evildoers.” Its use was deliberate and intended to provoke a particular view of the world. And it was drawn from the Psalms. David Frum, one of the speechwriters for George W. Bush and who was responsible for the phrase “axis of evil” (used in Bush’s State on the Union Address, 2002), says:
The language of good and evil — central to the war on terrorism — came about naturally . . . from the first, the president used the term “evildoers” to describe the terrorists because some commentators were wondering aloud whether the United States in some way deserved the attack visited upon it on September 11, 2001. He wanted to cut that off right away and make it clear that he saw absolutely no moral equivalence. So he reached right into the Psalms for that word. 5
The terminology of ‘evildoers’ was intended to demarcate the United States from her enemies. When victors in wars tell their stories, it is ‘us’ against ‘them’. Dualities and polarities. Defined by difference. We hear it often in the political rhetoric in Australia.
And we do it in every realm of human relationships, including our interpersonal relationships.
Over these last few weeks, the Pilgrim newsletter has contained excerpts from Parker J. Palmer. Speaking about his new book (6), ‘Healing the Heart of Democracy’, he says: “We have succumbed to divide-and-conquer politics, so we find it difficult or impossible to talk with each other across our lines of difference. When asked about how we might talk across lines of difference more successfully, he responded: Well, here’s a clue from a poem, “The Place Where We Are Right”, by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
“From the place where we are right/flowers will never grow/in the spring/
The place where we are right/is hard and trampled/like a yard/
But doubts and loves/dig up the world/like a mole, a plough/ And a whisper will be heard in the place/where the ruined/house once stood.”
Parker Palmer continues: We can talk across lines by talking about what we love, because a lot of us love the same things: our kids and grandkids, our country, the natural world, the idea that people should be able to get ahead in life. Then we can talk about our doubts, because we all doubt that what we love is being served well. Beginning a conversation with loves and doubts rather than political ideologies opens a new door to dialogue, driven by story-telling rather than political point scoring. People have a harder time dismissing or demonizing each other when they know a bit of each other’s personal stories. We need lots of safe spaces where people can talk across lines of division. We need to learn that, in the long run, it’s more important to be in “right relationship” than to be right.
Palmer concluded: When I emphasize the importance of things like storytelling and being in right relationship, I’m not giving up on sorting out issues of right and wrong, good and bad. But if you’re not humanly connected, you have no chance to pursue these complex issues communally in a way that might be transformative.
Paul’s letter to the Romans invites us to look at the simplest but most transformative of behaviours – “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9-10). Not the love that is just about being a nice person, a good person. But the robust nature of love that can enable us to love those who are different to us. And today’s gospel passage from Matthew points us simply and firmly in the direction of reconciliation.
Love, and reconciliation. Fundamentally relational, enabling understanding and trust to grow, in a way that counters division, demonisation, and discounting of others.
To live with love as our central focus, and to orient our lives towards reconciliation, is constantly demanding. It is counter to the natural inclination to categorize, to demonize, to exclude. We would rather avoid pain and ambiguity, and to exclude the enemy or a threat. It takes courage to be on the side of love and reconciliation.
Suffering often goes hand in hand with the way of love and reconciliation. Parker J. Palmer highlights that ‘suffering’ has the same root meaning of the world patience. He says, “Suffering is what happens when you see the possibilities in others while they deny those same possibilities in themselves. Suffering is what happens when you hold in trust a space for community to emerge but others lack the trust to enter the space and receive the gift. Suffering is what happens while you wait out their resistance, believing that people have more resources than they themselves believe they have”.
The suffering, and patient waiting, is a positive response, offered by those who make space, who see the possibilities that things can be different.
In response to the ISIS killing of her journalist son James, his mother Diane Foley said: “We must stand together. Good and love and all that is free in the world must be together to fight the evil and the hatred.” These are not passive words. These are ‘fighting’ words, but not necessarily with weapons, but rather grounded in a fierce determination that good and love and all that is free in the world must prevail against evil.
So, maybe I’ll keep these troublesome verses in this Psalm, after all. Sure, it sticks in the throat with its war-mongering imagery. But it also speaks deeply to our humanity.
1. Joan Stott, The Timeless Psalms
2. Nadia Bolz-Weber, The Hardest Question, 2010
3. Walter Brueggeman, The Psalms and the life of faith’, p.124
4. Eckhart Tolle, A new earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose
5. Howard Fineman, “Bush and God,” Newsweek141/10 (March 10, 2003)
6. David Bornstein, ‘Reclaiming ‘We the People’, one person at a time’. New York Times, September 4, 2014
posted 09 Sep 2014 by Sandy