We need the psalms of lament to give voice to our anguish.
Bible text: Psalm 79
I have been both alarmed and saddened by the news that has been coming out of the Middle East in recent weeks. In particular, news stories on the eradication of ancient Christian communities in northern Iraq.
ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has occupied much territory in Syria and Iraq. Wherever they come into power, they move quickly to cleanse the territory of religious elements that they consider incompatible with their strict form of Islam. That has included Shiites, Yazidis, and the various forms of Christianity that have flourished in these areas for 2,000 years.
Recently ISIS drove all Christians out of the city of Mosul. It has targeted churches, monasteries, and Christian homes for destruction. This is a terrible tragedy, as Mosul was home to an ancient Christian community that stretched back into almost apostolic times. It formed a part of the distinguished Church of the East, which has a rich and beautiful legacy of theology, liturgy, and scholarship.
ISIS’s attacks on Christians are only part of a larger decimation of ancient Christian communities throughout the Middle East. The civil war in Syria has been equally destructive to ancient Christian communities there. Christians in Israel/Palestine have been caught between two equally hostile movements coming from both Zionism and Islam. And the ancient Christian Coptic community of Egypt is under constant threat.
What Is a Proper Christian Reaction?
How should Christians react? One option might be for Christians to adopt the tactics of violent, radical Muslims whenever they feel their religion has been insulted. We saw a good example in the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons they thought insulted the Prophet.
They took to the streets in violent mayhem. Boycotts of Danish goods were proposed. Embassies attacked. Editors given death threats. It’s become dangerous to cross Muslim sensibilities. Christians could respond in kind. They could create similar mayhem, and some have as we have seen in the Central African Republic.
I have a problem, however, with such behavior. It does not fit with the compassionate, pacifist mind of Christ that I find depicted in the New Testament. The apostle Paul calls upon Christians to have the same mind that was in Christ (Philippians 2:5). And when I read the gospels, I cannot believe that Jesus would advocate social mayhem, massacres, and vilification of enemies.
So do Christians just roll over and let the forces of evil trample all over them? Do the bullies win? This is a dilemma that I do not have an adequate response for.
Finding a Voice in the Psalms
But one thing I can say. The experiences the Christian world is experiencing in the Middle East gives me new appreciation for those psalms in the Old Testament that scholars call the psalms of lament.
Psalm 79 is a good example. It is a psalm of anguish over the Babylonian destruction of Solomon’s temple and the city of Jerusalem. The words of the psalmist must fit exactly the feelings of those Christians in Mosul who witnessed the burning of their churches and had to flee their hometown. Hear these words:
O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.
How long, O LORD?…
Why should the nation say,
“Where is their God?”
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes.
Sometimes Christians object to these psalms because they find them too depressing or they cringe at the psalmists’ cries for revenge and retribution. The author of Psalm 79, for example, prays that God will pour out his anger on those who have perpetrated this terrible destruction.
Yet, I think these words and sentiments are precisely accurate. They express the churning emotions of those whose lives and patrimonies are being so ruthlessly destroyed. They give a way to vent those raging emotions.
Our Precious Heritage of Sorrow and Lament
I believe we cannot excise these psalms out of our worship and our spirituality without being false to real life. It is said that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, many people gathering in churches to lament the tragedy found that these psalms of lament expressed exactly what they were feeling.
Does reciting these psalms prevent future attacks? No. But they do give vent to the tumultuous feelings we feel. And maybe that is important in helping us to get to the state where we do not feel compelled to seek revenge. Giving into revenge only traps us and our enemies into a cycle of endless violence that repeats itself over and over again. Just look at how true that was in Northern Ireland and how true it is today in Israel/Palestine.
Let us then claim these psalms of lament as a rightful and precious part of our spiritual heritage.