A Biblical Model for Voicing Our Rage

Bible text: Psalm 137

As a poem, Psalm 137 reminds me of that insect-eating plant, the Venus flycatcher. Like the plant’s succulent smell, the opening words of this psalm pull us movingly into its expression of sorrow.

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!”

We live through the anguish of this psalmist who has survived the Babylonian destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.

But as we read on, we find the sentiments become darker and rawer. The psalmist asks for divine vengeance on the Edomites who taunted the captives as they were led out of the city.

And then come some of the most vindictive words in all of the Bible. The psalmist turns his bitterness on his Babylonian captors. He cries out:

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones

and dashes them against the rock.

We cringe in disgust at the sheer hate expressed in this line. How did it ever manage to be included in the holy book?

That question has troubled Bible readers for generations. Some deal with it by banning the recitation of this psalm in any Christian worship service. They say it does not fit with the irenic spirit of Jesus.

Others deal with the raw sentiments of this psalm by allegorizing them. C.S. Lewis is one. In his Reflections on the Psalms, he interprets the little babies as the infantile temptations, the small indulgences, and the petty angers that afflict us all.

They woo us and wheedle us, he says, with tiny special pleadings that make us believe that if we indulge in these tiny sins, no harm will be done. But these tiny sins can grow into something monstrous. So Lewis advises that we follow the advice of the psalm and knock out the brains of these tiny sins before they grow up.

I have a major problem with both strategies. Both reduce the Christian faith, I fear, into a form of cotton candy: sweet, gooey, and ultimately insubstantial. If Christianity cannot deal with the ugly realities of real life—like violence, injustice and the hatreds they trigger—does it have any place in a thinking person’s life?

Someone who speaks a similar sentiment is Kathleen Norris, that wonderful Presbyterian writer who has found so much spiritual nourishment in Catholic monasteries. She writes of one convent where the nuns had banned all cursing psalms like 137 from their daily liturgy.

But Norris quotes another nun, a liturgist, who visited the convent and came away saying, “I begin to feel antsy, feeling something is not right. The human experience is violence, and the psalms reflect the violence of the world.” (See Norris’ chapter on the psalms in her book The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, Page 97.)

 

Being Clear-eyed About the Violence of Life

Indeed, violence is a part, a huge part, of human experience, and something is not right when we banish acknowledgement of that fact from our religious life and worship. The Bible certainly does not.

Psalm 137 stands as eloquent testimony to the anger, anguish, and hatred that violence and injustice triggers in us human beings.  Here we experience the bitterness the survivors felt in their exile and the hatred that exile has bred for their captors.

Before any of us condemn such feelings, I think we need first to have experienced what those exiles had undergone. It is terribly sanctimonious of any of us to say to the wife who lost a husband in the collapse of the World Trade Center that she must forgive the Muslim jihadists the violence they caused.

It is also sanctimonious of us to say that survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima must forgive the Americans who obliterated their city.

Unless any of us have gone through such horrific experiences, we need to be careful about how quickly we preach Christian forgiveness. For such terrible violence does indeed breed deep levels of rage. And rage is an appropriate response to such violence.

Violence against another person creates deep scars that do not quickly wash away like a fake tattoo on the skin.

This fact has come home to me in a profound way as I have gotten to know several people who were sexually abused as youngsters. I have a friend who once worked as a crisis counselor for a telephone counseling service in Dallas. The service sought to provide a listening ear to people in trouble and direct them to places where they might find the help they needed.

One night she answered the phone and started talking to a woman who told a horrific story. When her brother turned 16, her father tied her to a bed and told her brother and his friends to go to it as his birthday present. Her life was devastated by this gang rape, leaving her with deep stains of shame and anger.

Any violence we perpetrate against another leaves psychological scars. But I have come to believe that sexual abuse can be one of the most damaging things we can do to another. It triggers deep, deep anger.

We Christians can do a further injustice when we sweep such experiences under the rug and tell people, “Oh, just think positively! Forgive and forget.”

 

Dishing Out Our Abusive Language onto God

So is there something in this terrible psalm…and in other vindictive psalms like it…than can help us deal with such experiences in life? Yes, I believe there is.

Unless anger is released and healed, it can poison a whole personality. Psychologists say that when anger is unacknowledged and suppressed within a person, it can sometimes manifest itself as depression. The road to healing is releasing that anger.

The problem is that it must be done the right way. So often the anger we feel toward someone who has hurt us cannot be directed to that person because they are more powerful than we are and can cause even further harm.

The temptation, therefore, is to take out our anger on someone who has no connection to the problem at all. A man, for example, is berated by his boss at work. In reaction, he takes it out on his wife when he gets home. Or a child is so upset by her parents’ impending divorce that she takes out her anger by beating up another kid on the street.

Such misdirected anger feeds more anger, which in turns feeds even more anger ad infinitum. Just witness the endless rounds of revenge that have accompanied the Protestant-Catholic strife in Northern Ireland or the Israeli-Arab strife in Palestine.

What we need to notice in the cursing psalms like 137 is not just the vehement language the psalmists express towards their enemies, but also the audience to which that language is directed.  The psalms are prayers, and the one addressed in most of the psalms is not other human beings, but God.

Now, I think that is very important. Rather than heaping abuse on another person, the psalmist directs his abusive language to God.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God,” cries out another psalmist (Psalm 139:19). And yet another prays, “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers” (Psalm 10:15).

Does God approve of this kind of vindictiveness? I don’t think so. But what these prayers do do is bring the malevolent feelings into the presence of God where they can begin to be dealt with.

Years ago, I saw the play The Miracle Worker which tells the story of how Annie Sullivan was able to reach out to six-year-old Helen Keller and free Helen from her psychological and social isolation. This isolation had resulted from a fever that had left the infant Helen blind, deaf, and ultimately speechless.

Helen lives in the constant frustration of not being able to communicate with anyone.  As Sullivan begins to work with her, there is a scene where Helen takes out all her frustration on her teacher by beating Sullivan repeatedly on the chest. Sullivan holds the child in her arms until the anger subsides.

What I think is happening in the cursing psalms is something like this. People express their anger by beating on the metaphorical chest of God. And God just holds us in his arms until our screaming and yelling are exhausted. Then God says, “Let’s now deal with this anger you have just expressed.”

Slowly we can begin to come to terms with the anger and the violence that caused it. I say “slowly” because healing the anger may take some time, maybe months or years of therapy.

In this respect the cursing psalms serve a beneficial purpose. They model a kind of spiritual therapy. They show us a way to release our anger without the anger fueling another round of violence and abuse. Maybe, just maybe, in this process the anger can be transformed into the inner liberation of forgiveness.

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