Quit Tone Policing the Psalms

A lot of liberal and progressive Christians are really uncomfortable with the imprecatory psalms, the psalms where the writer expresses hot, violent rage. I can't tell you how many times I've watched progressive and liberal Christians wring their hands over these texts, embarrassed and troubled by these psalms.

The classic example is the line about smashing babies on rocks from Psalm 137:
Psalms 137.9
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
Another example is Psalm 109, which rains down a long list of curses:
Psalm 109.6-15
Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
Let them be before the Lord continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!
Again, many liberal and progressive Christians are scandalized by these psalms. But here's my rejoinder:

Quit tone policing victims.

Quit tone policing the Psalms.

I, for one, am glad that victims were allowed to speak in the bible, and therefore in the community of faith. And I'm glad victims spoke in their own way and with their own voice. The rage and hurt of victims is not kind, or polite or nice. The voices of victims make us uncomfortable and unsettled.

I am glad the voices of victims in Scripture was not edited or tone policed so that the privileged could have a politically correct, tame, civil, nice, polite, kind and comfortable bible.

I like the bible we got, the unsettling and disturbing bible that gives victims the microphone.

Recall the context of Psalm 137. The opening lines:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
This is like SS officers asking a Jewish prisoner to sing a Jewish song in Auschwitz for their sick entertainment. "Hey, Jew boy, come over here and sing us a song! Do a little dance!"

And the Jewish prisoner sings and dances in the mud as the officers laugh and laugh.

This is like the African slaves in America being forced to sing and dance to entertain their masters and guests at parties.

Psalm 137 is sung after the Babylonian exile and captivity. Mothers, daughters and sisters had been raped. Friends and family members tortured and killed.

So, yeah, Psalm 137 rages.

But let's not tone police rape, murder and torture victims.

In a similar way, note the context of Psalm 109. Who are the curses being directed at?
Psalm 109.16
For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted, to put them to death.
The curses are being called down upon a person who is murdering the poor, needy and brokenhearted. This is the same sort of rage we've see on the streets of Ferguson and Staten Island. And in those cases the homicides were not premeditated. Psalm 109 speaks of a murderer who pursues and targets the poor and needy. Premeditation.

And just as we'd not tone police the family, friends and communities speaking out on behalf of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we shouldn't tone police Psalm 109. No matter how uncomfortable that makes us or how messy it makes our bibles.

Again, I'm glad victims were allowed to write the bible.

Let's quit tone policing the Psalms.

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16 thoughts on “Quit Tone Policing the Psalms”

  1. Amen. Atheists get this wrong about the Psalms as well. I can't count the number of times I've seen Psalm 137 quoted as evidence for the 'violence' and 'barbarism' of the Bible, ignoring the fact that it is a cry of anguish by a violated, enslaved and exiled people.

  2. I think part of the anxiety about such passages comes from lingering (or pervasive) confusion about how to read the bible. That is: in my experience, a lot of liberal people still feel like they are expected to amen everything the bible says, even if they don't actually believe that on an intellectual level. So, if you can't amen, you reject. There isn't enough sense of the bible containing multiple voices, not all of which you have to agree with but all of which you need to listen to. I don't think conservative churches are any better at reading the bible (and I'd pick a liberal church over a conservative any day of the week and twice on Sundays), but at the very least conservative churches feel like they have to make sense of the bible. And so they do, or try to, when liberals often don't.

    (I also say this as a literary theory nerd, so I tend to think everyone is being too simplistic in their approaches to text. But it's always good to be reminded that I'm too simplistic sometimes, too.)

  3. Seems like you have touched on this before, and I, a liberal, and glad to be so, can certainly see your point, and so can most Liberation Theologians.

    However, there is an idea out there, and I cannot remember where I read it or who wrote it, that states, and I hope to phrase it justly , that the violence we see in scripture is from a humanity in its infancy, and that we see a maturing in Christ. That is not to justify tone policing the Psalms. I believe we can read passages you have used here to see the pain of a people and how their cries come out in seeking justice in violent manner. Yet, in Christ we see the mature Child of God that resists violence.

    This is a hard one. When I think of the American GIs who, in their anger and disgust, executed Nazi concentration camp guards on sight, without trial, I do not feel any judgement toward them; yet, there is something that tells me I should.

  4. Richard, you continue to amaze and give me insight I can't find anywhere else. Oh, how the religious communities need this understanding. Recently, people I've spoken with want the victims and the protesters to be squeaky clean - models of virtue before their message can be heard or considered. They are setting up arbitrary barriers, impossible standards, to prevent them from seeing the truth about injustice.

  5. I'd like to see a link from a progressive/liberal Christian doing the kind of tone policing described here. In my experience, such psalms are used as an example of how conservative, literalist readings of the Bible lead to a severe problems with how one perceives the nature of God. In other words, to the extent such language is problematic, it's problematic for conservatives/traditionalists, and liberals/progressives highlight the troublesome tone to highlight that problem, not to try to explain it away. Maybe I just don't read the right people, though.

  6. Except for the scandalous, hand-waving pseudo-equivalence implied between the so-called "victimization" in Ferguson and the actual victimization of the Hebrews in ancient Babylon, I'm happy to see this. Christians sorta painted ourselves into a corner with an insistence on an odd, incoherent theory of inspiration.

  7. I agree on both points. Richard has claimed the facts do not matter in the Ferguson case, but I strongly disagree with him.

    I am struggling to understand why most liberal and progressive Christians, including Dr. Beck, continue to rally around Ferguson as a primary example of systemic injustice and indiscriminate violence. I actually agree with their message. As a former police officer, I know first hand that they have a legitimate message that needs to be heard. But, I cannot agree with the vehicle on which they have chosen to hitch their wagon. Using the Ferguson incident to get their message out is only diluting the message. People who might otherwise be sympathetic to the message, now assume the message is wrong because the "facts" and assumptions that the liberals and progressives have used to build their case appear to be fiction. It is a shame, really. THAT is why facts matter.

    Further, facts matter because every time we use Ferguson as an example of injustice and the victimization of impoverished black male youth, we are using the officer as a scapegoat. We are making a systematic offense a personal offense and giving a name and a face to the offender. I don't understand how we can justify the violence we create and direct toward the individual officer in this case. I wish there were more progressive and liberal Christians (who share Dr. Beck's message) that were willing to give a voice to the scapegoat in this case. But that's just me.

  8. Hi Brian, I actually wrote a post about how we shouldn't scapegoat Darren Wilson, how we should resist that very strongly, in the same way we should resist scapegoating Michael Brown.

    As for my "message" it has been a simple one from the start: America has a race problem and our psychological need to find "blame" in this instance--racist cop vs. black thug--allows us to ignore the hard work of addressing the historical and systemic structures at the root of the problem.

  9. Hi, Richard. You are correct; you have written about not scapegoating Darren Wilson. I was a little clumsy in writing that comment. I should have noted that fact. I should also have said that I agree with YOUR point in this particular post.

    I guess I was merely trying to say that we often fail to RECOGNIZE how we are scapegoating Darren by continuing to use Ferguson as a case study for injustice and racism. It appears you may have done this implicitly since the time you posted a warning about scapegoating Wilson. But, I'm not sure if I am making improper inferences or if your posts have in fact implied that Ferguson is a legitimate example of injustice and racist violence. I don't think you intend to scapegoat Wilson through implication. I just believe that it is what results by continuing to use the Ferguson case to get your message out there.

    It seems to me that we are so desperate to catch the public's attention on this issue, that we are willing to grasp hold of, and champion, any popular liberal narrative to make our point. In the long run, it only discredits our message and limits any potential that might exist for change.

    You don't have to champion such a tenuous case. There are many other examples out there that support this message. As always, I love your blog but love your heart more.

  10. I agree with what you're saying Richard. I can read those uncomfortable parts of the bible and understand or at least empathize with the emotion of the person writing them. Do I necessarily think that it's God speaking through them or that God is in agreement with them? No, but I'm sure He understands their heartache too. I'm not going to compare what's happened in my life with those who wrote the Psalms, but in my painful moments of life I know God allowed me to express my anger and sense or perception of justice and maybe even hatred, but it didn't end there. He kept with me and guided me to take the things Jesus said seriously- Matthew 5:44. 1 Peter 2:21-25.

  11. I think psalms like 137 are the best argument for the bible being inspired conversation rather than inspired dictation .

  12. Richard, for about seven years your blog has been as regular as the sunrise. So I'm taking this opportunity--a new post didn't "come up" this morning--to note that it's not the underlying forces of nature that keep these posts coming. It's been you commitment to your readers. Wow! I'm grateful for so many tremendous insights over the years!

  13. Thanks Tracy. That means a lot.

    I have these posts time-stamped to appear every morning at 5:00 am CST. For today's post I had a mistake in the time stamp. Oh well. It's up now!

  14. Do you not see that continuing to flog FERGUSON as the fulcrum and pretext for "addressing the...structures" is counterproductive and ridiculous? The people you want to reach with that message may be preoccupied, but they're not idiots. I'm not speaking for Brian, and he's not speaking for me, but one of these days you're going to have to acknowledge that, as Brian said, facts matter. What actually happened in Ferguson matters. And rewriting Ferguson, or persisting in the errand of using it as a platform to rail against white-on-black injustice, is actually perpetuating injustice rather than countering it. It is, in fact, scapegoating Officer Wilson, your protests notwithstanding.

  15. define, reject, assume = a control fantasy. this is way beyond anyone's capacity to define, reject, assume or control. i think my faith molecule just got tapped out! i will turn it over on the third step.

  16. one should remember that the bible in its entirety talks of Love. If you take two verses out you loose the context of that scripture.... excellent post. :)

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