Monday, August 11, 2014

Praying the Psalms from Privilege: Reclaiming the Psalter after Afghanistan

Let’s start with a trick question. 

What is the most violent book of the Bible?

Here’s a counter intuitive proposal. 


OK, maybe second after Joshua.  Ok, Revelation is pretty violent too depending on how you read it. 

But, the Psalms are definitely top five.

This is surprising, because, unlike those other texts, we are accustomed to thinking of Psalms as the kinder, gentler face of the Hebrew Scriptures.   If Biblical texts occupy a continuum between challenge and comfort, most of us would plot Psalms all the way on the comfort side, as if it were the “Philippians” of the OT. 

You know, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” green pastures and still waters, refreshed souls and pretty words like that.  Wall hanging fodder.  Crochet clich├ęs.

But at least half of these poems - more if you read carefully - reverberate with the terminology, objects, psychology, and other accoutrements of violence.  They are songs of fear and danger and pursuit and pain.  Most of these tracks were written with a harp in one hand and a sword in the other, birthed in the minds of frightened men, their bellies pressed against a cold damp of a cave floor, their pursuers voices audible as swelled ranks passed their obvious hiding place.   

These are war songs. 

And more often than not, they are the songs of those on the business end of the swords. 

So years ago, I hypothesized that Psalms would make more sense in a war zone.[2] 

Then I tested the hypothesis…and it obtained.

Last time I centered my devotional times on the Psalter I was in Afghanistan (, shortly after the US intervention.  These ancient songs read differently while I was grounded in a USAID compound, riding out a no-roll command after an Embassy bombing.  They reached deeper into my psyche while wearing 30 lbs of bullet proof camo, stuck in traffic, daily crossing Kabul’s clutter.  They did new things in my heart the night an explosion rattled the window next to my bunk, shattering the fog of jet lagged rest with the confused dopamine cocktail, equal parts fight and flight.

But then, in accordance with my privilege, I came home, soon and on my own terms, never more than a useful[3] tourist to a place and people who have known only violence longer than I’ve lived. 

And after, I found it harder, not easier, to appropriate these old words. 

The Psalms seemed more foreign for having felt more real. 

I do not fear violence day-to-day and much of our world does.  So the Psalms often left me feeling guilty[4] rather than comforted, a stark reminder of my privilege rather than consolation in my trivial troubles.  This reality left me with the question:

Is there an honest and productive way to pray Psalms from privilege?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is Yes.[5]

In his popular[6] commentary, John Goldingay[7] suggests that these war zone Psalms can serve practical purposes in the piety of privilege:

“If readers of the Psalm in (non-violent) parts of the world do not need to pray for themselves in the manner of (war zone Psalms), then such a psalm becomes the way we identify with our brothers and sister who have the experience the psalm describes.  We pray it on their behalf…”

This has been particularly helpful in the last couple months, while the world erupted with new war zones, fresh innocents facing violence, more children gripped with fear, my Facebook cluttered with stories so disturbing I want to believe they are products of sensationalism, but I don’t. 

Reports of atrocities in Gaza, beheadings in Iraq, even Ebola in Africa - which may not be a direct act of human-on-human violence, but it is a sort of human violence as the deaths pile up that could be avoided if we were more generous – suddenly give shape to the words in those middle pages of my Bible.

Now as I pray each Psalm twice. 

I do a preliminary pass, allowing my intercessory thought to move between my little problems at work, the decisions my friends are making, the struggling marriages and businesses and churches in my immediate world, and, mostly, the physical, spiritual, and psychological peril my children will face in the years to come, despite their 95th percentile privilege.[8] 

But then I pray the Psalm a second time.

I pray it for people I have never met in Iraq, West Africa, and Gaza.

Suddenly these texts are visceral and real, expressing the helplessness I feel and giving words to rage building to hard boil.  They are artful words, but they aren’t pretty words.  They are words crafted for situations just like these, which makes them more fitting than the weak words I try to whisper. [9]  They spit anger and hurt, sometimes questioning God to his face, then, in the next breath acknowledging God’s unwavering hessed[10] and beg his intervention. 

He saved (you) from (your) strong enemy,
   from people who were against (you)
   because they were stronger than (you).  18:17

May Yahweh answer you on the day of trouble,
   the name of Jacob’s God shelter you.  20:1

Yahweh in anger swallows up (your enemies);
   fire consumes them.
When they have directed evil against you,
   thought up a scheme, they do not succeed.  21:9&11

My God, my God, why have you abandoned (them),
   far away from delivering them, from the word I yell? 
But you, Yahweh, do not be far away –
   my strength, come quickly as (their) help.
Save (lives) from the sword,
   (their) very self from the dog’s power.  22:1&19-20[11]

Now, in my skeptical days[12], I might be tempted to dismiss this as a “prayer placebo,” creating the illusion of action, a convenient self subterfuge to deceive my conscience, illicitly convincing it to quit it’s infernal nagging.  But my response to skeptical Stanford (and others who would echo that objection) might be something like:

“Clearly you don’t have a lot of experience with prayer.”[13] 

There is nothing more motivating to sacrificial action that speaking words of intersession.  Nothing builds solidarity more than begging God to act on another’s behalf.  Nothing breaks down the us-them divide more than coming before God, identifying ‘them’ as ‘us’.

I find that God’s most common response to intersession is deployment.  So, yes, that second pass, praying the psalm for sufferers, has sent me to the web sites of reputable organizations, looking for ways I might responsibly bring resources to bear on behalf of those gripped by fear in Gaza, Egypt, West Africa, that I might render my prayers in cash.  Selah.

And that is how I’ve learned to Pray the Psalms from Privilege.

“Yahweh, I call to you;
   my rock, do not be deaf toward me…[14]
Listen to the sound of my prayers for grace
   when I cry for help to you
   when I lift up my hands to your holy room.
Do not drag (them) off with faithless people,
   with people who do wickedness…
Yahweh is my strength and my shield;
   in him my soul has trusted, and I will find help. Ps 28: 1, 3, 9

This post was written while listening to Transcendental Youth by The Mountain Goats

Image citations[15]

[1] You guessed it.  I’m teaching Psalms next year.  So the blog will get some Psalter reflections that don’t make talks.
[2] If you posit the Christian assertion that the Scriptures are God’s self disclosure to people across generation, class, and situation, it follows that some parts of it would be more pertinent to different expressions or situations of the human experience.  Modernity is an eccentric experience of humanness and despite the demands of our Pietistic heritage, I don’t expect all of these texts to inform the peculiar human expression I experience with equal weight.
[3] And, as with all self aware development work, this modifier was questionable.
[4] The issue of the utility of privilege-guilt is a complicated one.  I have found Holly Burkhalter’s thoughts on it as useful as you might expect given here perspective (late life Christian conversion after years of service in governmental organizations and NGOs fighting poverty and oppression).
[5] One of the themes of my novel is that the surprising thing about Jesus is not that he loved the culturally and economically oppressed.  We are biologically (and those of us with metaphysics that allow for it, spiritually) wired for pro-social emoting.  What is REALLY remarkable is that he took time to love the men of privilege that opposed him.
[6] ‘Popular’ as in, written accessibly for general conception, to distinguish it from his technical, scholarly tomes…not ‘popular’ in the sense that millions have read it like Twilight or Harry Potter.
[7] Incidentally, after illustrating half of the “Old Testament for Everyone” series with poignant and heart breaking (not to mention, credibility building) illustrations of caring for his wife, rendered unresponsive for a decade by illness, and eventually, her death, it’s a joy to read illustrations of a septuagenarian newlywed.
[8] Sorry to reveal the weakness of my feminism here.  But a white, blonde, girl raised in a college town, with every financial advantage, in a secure, two parent family, with an attentive father and a remarkable full-time-mother, who attends one of the nation’s finest school districts, who will have access to a no-debt college education, doesn’t get to claim victim status of some pernicious patriarchy.  My daughters will struggle with gender inequalities, but in the accounting of global privilege, they owe way more than they are owed.  They will need to expend much more energy considering how to use their privilege well than how to fight the privilege set against them.  Of course, all of this is even more true of my son.
[9] This is also helpful because the words I slap together on behalf of real sufferers seem so thin and weak and hypocritical.  The opportunity to talk God’s speech back to him from situations like those I pray for makes praying for these situations possible.  It is like hotwiring a car, plugging prayers under oppression into situations of oppression, removing my hypocrisy and privilege laced language from the equation.  Outsourcing the script to victims of violence gives the words of my intersession unearned *

*I’ve said this before, but the evangelical insistence on ‘originality’ and ‘spontaneity’ in prayer, has lead to one of the most unoriginal and dully repetitive prayer traditions in Christian history.  If I am not responsible with crafting clever words, but borrow them, my mind and heart are freed to invest the words with my will.  If your prayer life is dull, it might be time to pick up a prayer book, maybe even the one in the middle of your Bible.
[10] Love and kindness and faithfulness.
[11] Psalm 22 is one of the finest prayers of the sufferer.  Goldingay argues that “It resolutely insists on facing two sets of facts.  It invites people to look directly in the face of adversity that has happened to them but also to stay attentive to the facts about God they already knew.”  This mixture of holding the reality of a violent world and the love and kindness of God (hessed) is probably why this works so well as foreshadowing the work of Jesus…not as a kind of magical crystal ball foretelling events, but as a theological statement of who he will be, the cosmic non- sequitur, the metaphysical paradox who reconciles our stark hatred of our world’s atrocities and our cosmic intuition that justice reigns.
[12] Which were almost 20 years ago now…but really, were also yesterday. 
[13] Not that I do.  Prayer is the Christian discipline I am worst at.  But maybe just enough to know how it works.
[14] I am writing a talk on these passages that articulate the common experience of finding God remote or hidden.  I wrote a line today about this verse which may or may not make the talk, but I like it.  “’Are you deaf…’ seems passive aggressive…like something you would yell at a ref who just made a call for the other team, not a sanctioned line from the great prayer book of four millennia of Yahwehists.  Turns out God’s a big boy and is not afraid of our wonderings, our doubts.  But while the Palmists are fearless in their doubts, they also doubt productively, hopefully, looking for him to answer their doubt, and generally, are not disappointed.”
[15] Lead Image:  Benn illustration of Psalm 120:7 from a scanned collection at 50Watts: