The Poetry of a Murderer

Most of us, I'm guessing, know about the logical fallacy known as ad hominem. Ad hominem is Latin for "to the man." According to Wikipedia an ad hominem "is an attempt to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or belief of the person supporting it." Basically, in an ad hominem you try to discount the message by attacking the messenger. On strictly logical grounds an ad hominem is a fallacy. That is, there is no logical connection between the content of a message and, say, the virtue or intelligence of the messenger. Flawed messengers can speak the truth. Consequently, each "message" (i.e., argument) should be treated on its own terms.

However, Wikipedia goes on to note that there are situations when what we know about the messenger is relevant to our assessment of the message. As Wikipedia says, an ad hominem "is not always fallacious; in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue."

For example, the other day I heard someone make a comment about the Presidency of Bill Clinton, dismissing his leadership because of his extramarital affairs. For many Christians Bill Clinton's moral failings cast a pall over anything good he might have done in office.

And here's the deal, moral failings are relevant data when it comes to leadership. But how relevant are various failings to those seeking elected office? Is any mistake in the past automatically disqualifying? Where's the line? How far back do we go?

What is legitimate data about character and what is voyeuristic mudslinging?

More, when do we forgive and allow people to move forward? I was thinking about this the other day after reading about Robert Downey Jr., during an awards ceremony, asking his industry to forgive Mel Gibson and allow him to work. You'll recall that Downey, due to his drug troubles, had to make his own way back into favor. Downey, now a forgiven industry darling, was asking the powers that be, in light of Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic rantings, to extend the forgiveness he had found to Gibson, his ostracized friend.

I bring up these ruminations about ad hominem because I'm always struck, when reading the psalms, that these are the poems of a murderer. More, a murderer and an adulterer. And I can't help but wonder, if King/President/Senator/Mega-Church Pastor/Movie name it...David were around today if we'd hold his poems and praise songs in such high esteem. I very much doubt it. I expect that we'd make an ad hominem appeal and shun the psalms. This would seem to be one of those cases where the moral character of the messenger is relevant to the message.

From time to time you do hear preachers point out that David's story is a story of forgiveness. We pause to feel amazed that, given the evil David had done, he's still described as a man after God's own heart. But such sentiments, as I've heard them, seem a bit too easy to me. Emotionally speaking, I think we are missing the scandal of the psalms. Would we, for instance, sing praise songs written by a known murderer and adulterer? I doubt it. So what makes the psalms any different? I think it's a willful act of forgetting and pretending on our part.

This is what I think is going on. I think we don't want to confront the moral scandal of the psalms. Why? Because if we really, truly confronted the scandal of the psalms we'd have to start taking a hard look at the ways we refuse to forgive those around us. It's pretty hard to take a swipe at, say, Bill Clinton, when you're singing the songs of a murderer on Sunday morning.

We shouldn't gloss, emotionally, over what David did. We should struggle to forgive David. We need to keep the scandal of the psalms--as a witness to the scandal of grace--firmly in view. For only then will the poetry of a murderer turn, at last, into the true poetry of praise.

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24 thoughts on “The Poetry of a Murderer”

  1. Very, very good topic to point out.  I've heard and taught the forgiveness aspect of David, but haven't really thought as you did that we praise him for his psalms etc.  This article drives home the reaction of just about the entire state of Ohio towards Jim Tressel and several players-a scandal to be sure, but nowhere (and myself included, but to be fair, I have begun to realize how wrong I was) was a word of give them a second chance, or forgiveness etc.  It was all "pay the consequences!"  If we do that with people we do not really know, what do we do with people we know?  (an aside:  does being a public figure seem to make us do that?)
      I think the expression is "practice what you preach".

  2. George W. Bush's actions to support waterboarding were far more sinister and relevant to the office of president than anything Bill Clinton did. Though as you say here forgiveness is possible; though repentance should be part of the process as it was for David.

  3. Nice example of transforming instead of opposing, Richard (if I've correctly guessed the inspiration for this post)!

    Yes, if we were to excise the parts of the Bible written by or featuring morally flawed characters, we wouldn't have a whole lot left.  And I guess it helps if you understand the first few chapters of Genesis as a description of relationships being damaged - between us and our neighbours, the natural environment and God - rather than a loss of purity.  The whole Biblical narrative can then be read in terms of a grand, universal process of reconciliation - written by and about those who are part of that process. 

    I wonder what reception our leaders would get if they were more open about their own struggles.  Perhaps our difficulties with the psalms are more an indictment of us than their authors.

  4. David (if I understand him correctly) was humble and repentant before God.  He understood the gravity of his sins.  What we see today from Washington, Hollywood, and the sports world is not repentance -- it is the sorrow of being exposed -- crocodile tears and all.

    Do we forgive those who continually apologize while never changing their bad behavior?  At what point in our attempts at reconciliation do we become complicit in the crimes of another?

  5. Not to disagree, but just to nuance the conversation. David also had a prophet, in a very public setting, sent to him. Few of us have God helping us out in such direct, public, and confrontational ways.

    Regardless, would we be singing the songs of a convicted murder even if they were repentant? I expect people would still have a hard time letting that go. Particularly if they knew the victim's family.

  6. Not to disagree, but just to nuance the conversation. David also had a prophet, in a very public setting, sent to him. Few of us have God helping us out in such direct, public, and confrontational ways.

    Regardless, would we be singing the songs of a convicted murder even if they were repentant? I expect people would still have a hard time letting that go. Particularly if they knew the victim's family.

  7. When Jesus tells Peter that forgiving someone up to seven times is a bit shy of seventy times seven, was he suggesting this should apply to new and different offenses? Or is this appropriately applied even when someone does the same thing over and over and we question the "sincerity of their repentance"?

    My own repentance seems (to me) to be most sincere after I have truly been forgiven. I become much more sorry that I have hurt someone else and acted outside what I wanted when the penalty is waved and it is called "all good". This somehow has a powerful means to change my heart (and my children's when given to them), that a consequence or punishment seems to do. 

    Punishment seems to reinforce the sorrow of being caught. Forgiveness seems to reinforce the sorrow of committing the offense and inspires a resolving or turning from my previous ways to live differently... at least in my vast experience of needing and receiving forgiveness.

  8. So just how precious was David's posture before God every time he entered and exited his Home for Concubines?

  9. Nicely expressed point, Pdrhwr (how does one pronounce that, by the way?)

    The same can be said for rewards, too, I think.  So many of our classrooms give merits, stars or other rewards for 'good' (read 'making the teacher's life easier') behaviour.  In doing so, are we robbing our children of their intrinsic pleasure in making socially responsible choices and commodifying their moral options into an extrinsic 'what's it worth' response?

  10. Incidentally, I read a study the other day that found that bonuses (such as those received by hedge fund managers) above a certain level start to act purely as measures of relative status.  I got a bigger bonus than my rival.  This seems to me to be the logical, absurd and deeply immoral conclusion of an education system that commodifies morality before stripping it of ethics.

  11. Hmmm, the surviving spouses/children of the 70,000 soldiers that HAD TO BE slain (according to God)  because David stubbornly insisted on counting his army, despite Joab's advice - I wonder what their take is on David's Psalm compositions.
    Gary Y. 

  12. Beautiful insight. 

    We truly repent when we realize that we ARE forgiven... not in order to receive forgiveness. Traditional "Christian" thinking has it backwards.

  13. The distance of time is a big factor here too.  Murder and adultery by a poet thousands of years ago.  I am asking about our personal lives and situations today.  The number of times we forgive seems irrelevant to me, except for this: 
    To what degree does an enabler share blame for the repeated sin of an abuser?  If I am in the home, employ, church, or country of a person who uses their power over my life to repeatedly abuse me, emotionally, financially, or even physically, and I allow his/her repeated apologies to free them from true repentance (with attending change in their behavior), am I not complicit in their sin? 

  14. Interesting that you should mention Mel Gibson in this context. I recently wrote a review of his movie "The Beaver," in which I made pretty much the same point:

  15. You post reminded me of one of Walter Brueggemann's earlier works -- In Man We Trust. He writes "In neither Samuel nor Genesis is the intention of the narrative to dwell on failure. Rather, in both cases the emphasis is upon the buoyancy of God's commitment. ... Yahweh is willing to trust what is not trustworthy. The gospel out of the tenth century is not that David or Adam is trustworthy, but that he is trusted. Thus the event of David brings to historical realization what the wisdom tradition has hinted at but never witnesses and permits the bold affirmation of the J theologian. If man stands in this relation with Yahweh then it is quite clear that we are concerned with a God quite unlike that about which we have often theologized." Out mantra is that trust (and forgiveness) has to be earned. God's mantra seems to be that trust (and forgiveness) has to be given.

  16. Well, we sing the song of a slave trader, don't we? (John Newton). Of course, he also lived in the distant past. But, I believe his contemporaries also sang his song. I suppose the argument could be made that perhaps his contemporaries sang his song because they did not find slavery to be the atrocity that later generations do. But I believe that Newton himself found it to be an atrocity.

  17. Richard—
    I think some of the issue about ad hominem has to do with one’s intended use of the text; I’m thinking primarily of an occasion when the text is used in the transformation of the way someone thinks or feels.
    If one is intentionally using the text to transform another person through argument, the reputation and affiliation of the author might be as important, or more important, that the material used in the argument itself.  The shared social aspect between the speaker and the listener, and the social ties of the author, matter to the argument.
    If one is sharing the text with another without the intent of transformation (hey, listen to this; what do you think of this?’), the author’s reputation and affiliation are less important.
    If one is reading the text for self-transformation, say mediation/contemplation, then the author’s reputation and affiliation seem even less important to me.
    I am not inclined to use the psalms in argument.  (Ok, once in a while—but not very often.)  I am more inclined to use them as text sharing or as a contemplative text.


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