November 15, 2020
This week, we’re looking at a genre of psalms that are often described as “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalms. To put it briefly, these psalms include verses that call upon God to harm or destroy the singer’s enemies. It’s not an easy category of Scripture to wrestle with, but my hope is that we can explore together how entrusting our anger to God opens us up to the possibilities of transformation through God’s love.
The composer of Psalm 69 cries out that she is drowning, she can’t get her footing, the water is rising to her neck and she soon won’t be able to breathe. We do not have details about what calamity befell the psalmist in her life, but she sings out to God about hurt, rejection, and threats to safety from unnamed enemies. The accusations of others have brought her shame, when she was the one who had been in the right! As the psalmist makes her case, the urgent theme is, “Do something, God! Get me out of here!”
But as this psalm progresses, the theme evolves from a desperate cry for help to a violent desire for God to bring vengeance. The psalmist calls upon God to snag enemies like an animal caught in a trap when they sit down for supper with their families.
There are troubling demands for blinding and loss of strength, the heaping of shame and divine fury, the total destruction of enemies’ homes and households, even going so far as to ask God to erase them from the book of the living.
What do we do with this vehement anger expressed in the Bible, not only as someone else’s prayer to God, but also as a collection of songs that are supposed to be our prayers to God? The psalms invite honesty with one another about how human we really are. We all have thoughts and feelings that we would never want others to find out about. Sometimes we become so angry that our inner voice really does wish other people harm. Along with these disturbing thoughts come shame, jealousy, rage, desperation… we can hardly acknowledge, even as an inner monologue, that these thoughts and feelings could be a part of ourselves.
But I think Psalm 69 invites us to try something counter-intuitive. Even if our inclination is to bottle up or shove down those troubling feelings, God already knows what’s in our hearts and minds. We can entrust our full selves to God in prayer, even the parts of ourselves that frighten us. Ellen Davis, a professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke, proposes in her book Getting Involved with God that we have to offer even the ugly sides of ourselves to God, in the hope that God can and will transform us. In Psalm 69, the desperate cries for help shift to violent fantasies about God’s vengeance, but finally to a conclusion full of with praise and thanksgiving for God’s promises. Why such an odd and abrupt tonal shift? What happened?
It’s helpful for me to remember that Psalm 69 is a song. It’s a worship song, and music helps us express what we cannot say in words alone. What came to mind for me was an orchestral piece by one of my favorite composers: Arvo Pärt’s 1968 Credo. Pärt lived through Soviet rule in Estonia, and he faced constant censorship and rejection for writing sacred Orthodox music. Credo was performed in Estonia only once before it was banned by the authorities. Many members of the Estonian Philharmonic were dismissed after its debut, and it effectively ended Pärt’s public career for a number of years.
Credo was controversial in the Soviet Union for many reasons. Of course, for Soviet censors, its opening words in Latin, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” were not acceptable. But there’s even more going on in this piece. After that opening affirmation of faith, one can hear the lilting strains of something familiar on the piano. It’s Bach’s gentle Prelude in C, perhaps one of the most serene compositions ever written.
The chorus and orchestra, however, begin to work themselves into a frenzy as the Bach gets drowned out. Against the words “I believe in Jesus Christ,” the singers begin to cry out the words “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” over and over again. It’s a demand for retribution, for harm to be done to those who have caused harm.
The whole piece descends into chaos with terrifying human shrieks, horns blaring atonally, dissonant strings scratching up and down scales. At one point, the pianist just starts banging up and down the keys with flattened palms. The cacophony expands to fill the concert hall with screams and clanging instruments, a hate-filled revelation of what hell might sound like.
Just as the dissonant tension and the volume strain to the breaking point, a voice counters the raging demands for vengeance. It’s Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you… but I say to you…” The beginning of the call to love one’s enemies. The anguished cries ebb away, the Bach Prelude emerges again, the instruments come back into tune, harmony begins to take shape. “But I say to you… but I say to you… do not resist an evildoer.”
The whole orchestra reforms itself according to Jesus’ word, gathering slowly together in harmony, with orchestra and chorus beginning to proclaim with increasing confidence, “I believe! I believe! I believe!”
In a 2010 profile for The New York Times Magazine, Arthur Lubow interviewed Pärt about that singular performance in Estonia. Lubow quotes Pärt’s explanation:
“‘I wanted to put together the two worlds of love and hate,’ [Pärt] explained. ‘I knew what kind of music I would write for hate, and I did it. But for love, I was not able to do it.’ That was what drew him to the idea of borrowing Bach’s theme and incorporating it into a collage. Like a tone poem, ‘Credo’ dramatizes a story, in this case a scene from the New Testament.
As Pärt explained, ‘It was my deep conviction that the words of Christ — ‘You have heard an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, Do not resist evil, go with love to your enemies’ — this was a theological musical form. Love destroyed the hate. Not destroyed: the hate collapsed itself when it met the love. A convulsion.’ So it is in ‘Credo.’”
“The hate collapsed itself when it met the love.” When we disclose our anger to God in prayer, we are entrusting our deepest, most uncomfortable emotions to the One who made us. Telling God about what is going on inside our most private selves allows us to be open to transformation. The Holy Spirit can inspire us to reorient the energy of our anger toward actions grounded in love that restore, reconcile, and heal.
But if our anger is curdling into hate, the Spirit can make our hatred crumble, disintegrate when confronted by the tender power of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Arvo Pärt’s Credo and the cries for help and retribution in Psalm 69 have made me think about how desperately we need God’s help transforming our anger into constructive works of love right now, today. Listening again to a performance of Pärt’s 1968 Credo this week, I found myself remembering what happened in Charlottesville in August 2017. After the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee, white supremacists and neo-Nazis organized a rally that turned violent and deadly. Surrounding a prayer service at St. Paul’s Memorial Chapel, white men with tiki torches intimidated the interfaith, multiracial congregation gathered inside.
Rev. Traci Blackmon was one of the leaders of that prayer gathering inside. She described in an editorial for the St. Louis American what it was like to exit the chapel amid threats and reports of violence elsewhere in town:
“As we made our way through the area, I began to weep as I saw masses of mostly young white men, clad in Polos and Oxford button-downs with neatly coifed hair and many donning “Make America Great Again” caps, filling the streets. They carried torches in one hand and many held baseball bats in the other, chanting “Blood and Soil,” a reference to racial purity and dominance that was birthed out of the Hitler regime.
They also chanted, “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” “White lives matter” and “Whose streets? Our streets” which, ironically, was birthed in the streets of Ferguson.
My tears were not tears of fear, but tears of mourning. It is a sad moment in our nation – and yet not an unpredictable one given the current social and political tone of this presidential administration.
I cried because I recognized this moment, not as an escalation of white supremacy in this nation, but rather as its death rattle. And I know that the dying breaths of white supremacy will be long and arduous and violent. I know that there will be casualties on all sides.” 
I imagine that Rev. Blackmon’s weeping was filled with grief and, perhaps, profound anger and fear. Seeing the terrifying truth of racism embodied in crowds standing all around her wishing her harm, I wonder if the first words of the psalmist might resonate with Rev. Blackmon’s experience of walking through hate-filled crowds: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck,” or, from verse 17, “Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.”
But I think her grief is also an expression of hope, hope even for enemies, a refusal to return violence with more violence. The anti-racist work Rev. Blackmon does is radically committed to non-violence, to responding in love that stands strong against hatred, that believes someday that white supremacy will crumble under its own disintegrating fury.
We believe that the love of Jesus Christ can and will transform our enemies, even our own hearts, through the power of non-violent resistance and truth-telling. The last verses of Psalm 69 suddenly move from hate-filled demands for violence to a radical vision of universal flourishing. The psalmist exclaims that God deserves thanksgiving and praise from all creation, because God is restoring ruined neighborhoods, providing for people in need, and breaking the bonds of oppression. As Christians, we turn our cries of anguish into the poetry of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which says that “goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.”
This calling to disclose and confront uncomfortable truths comes to us, as well. Here at Nassau, as with the Princeton Presbyterians campus ministry where I serve with Len, we are beginning conversations about how to discern ways we can join in anti-racism work. It means bringing up the ugly side of our histories, examining ourselves for our prejudices, not so that we can condemn or hate ourselves, but so that we can be further built up in love for our neighbors. We hope, with the psalmist, that God can take our whole selves and transform us into a deeper beloved community gathered around Jesus. In the power of the Spirit, we too join the chorus that moves from anguished cries for help to “I believe! I believe! I believe in Jesus Christ.” Amen.
 Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God, 25-26.
 Arthur Lubow, “The Sound of Spirit.” The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/magazine/17part-t.html?pagewanted=all&referer&fbclid=IwAR0SklTQP-rNX-f5VX_n7KOl44N-59lMTcRYFd19QOuMXjvtkYMmOW3KNwk
 Rev. Traci Blackmon, “The Dying Breaths of White Supremacy to Charlottesville outlines the way for anti-racists.” The St. Louis American, Aug 16, 2017. http://www.stlamerican.com/news/local_news/the-dying-breaths-of-white-supremacy-witness-to-charlottesville-outlines-the-way-forward-for-anti/article_b8bdf2c0-82b0-11e7-adfc-7f69a341ce12.html. Accessed November 14, 2020.