It has happened again. A 20-year-old black man was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. The officer claims to have reached for her taser, but accidentally pulled out her gun and shot him.
The streets are, once again, ablaze with protests.
People are angry.
This has happened during the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin. He is on trial for the murder of George Floyd that happened last Spring. The streets have been filled with protestors for days regarding that trial, and now, it has erupted.
I continue to wonder how I am supposed to process these events from where I sit in society. I am a white, middle-aged, suburban pastor. I enjoy all the privilege that comes from my ethnic heritage and have no lived experience of how the person of color encounters the world.
Two things have happened in my own life so far this year that have helped.
First, I have been reading one Psalm each day since January 1. Honestly, this has been less enjoyable than I had hoped. The Psalms are full of rage and requests for violence and vengeance from God. The technical term for a Psalm that asks God to bring vengeance and destruction on an enemy is imprecatory. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is often depicted as a violent force of vengeance and destruction, and the Psalmist begs God to bring justice and violence to those who have harmed them.
This makes me so uncomfortable for so many reasons. This does not sync with the Prince of Peace—Jesus Christ—that I claim to follow. How do the imprecatory Psalms resonate with God’s promise to be the God for all nations?
Second, I have been reading a book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley.
I. Love. This. Book.
McCaulley has a PhD in New Testament and is a Bible Professor at Wheaton College. He grew up in the black church in Alabama. He is writing to the black Christian and speaking truth to both the White Evangelical Church on one side and the White and Black Progressive Church on the other side. He says:
I want to make a case that…this unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today. I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition—its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith—can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition.
I will write a review of the book later. For now, let me highlight his chapter titled “What Shall We Do With This Rage: The Bible and Black Anger” Here McCaulley discusses the imprecatory Pslams in a way that makes sense to me.
African Americans are not very far from Israel in carrying within our history a long list of enemies and injustices, personal and corporate. The tale of this suffering can be found in Israel’s psalms of lament, especially its imprecatory psalms. Some have claimed that because of the harsh calls for vengeance in the imprecatory psalms that they are “impossible to use in Christian worship.” These psalms are seen as impossible to use because when speaking of their enemies their authors ask God to allow “their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, / and their backs be bent forever. / Pour out your wrath on them; / let your fierce anger overtake them” (Ps 69:23-24). Within the psalms, we find more than a mere call for the darkening of eyes and bending of backs. The psalms call for the complete economic and social collapse of their enemies resulting in death. Psalm 109 says, When he is tried, let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin. May his days be few; may another seize his position. May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. (Ps 109:7-10) These are the words of a people who know rage, a people who know what it is like to turn to those with power hoping for recompense only to be pushed further into the mud. These are the words of those who walk past homes and families living in luxury knowing that this wealth is bought with the price of their suffering. The oppressor’s children live at ease while children of the oppressed starve. The rich man’s wife has the latest fashions while the oppressed man’s wife remains in rags. We will address God’s response to these psalms shortly, but first we must listen to the injustices that give rise to the anger. It is an anger born of powerlessness; it is a cry to the only one who is left to right these wrongs, God. To whom could the battered and bruised of Israel turn if not God? Possibly the most difficult of these psalms of vengeance is Psalm 137. The achingly beautiful longing that opens the psalm is only matched by the startlingly violent end. Psalm 137 is written from the perspective of Israelites who experienced the trauma of the destruction of the temple, the burning of Jerusalem, and the rape and murder that accompany modern and ancient conquests of the city. These are the words of survivors who look back on the devastation of what once was Israel and could only mourn. The King James version captures it best: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof” (Ps 137:1-2 KJV).
He goes on to name the many ways that the African American Story resonates with the sufferings of Israel. For 400 years black bodies have been treated as sub-human. He says that 1864 did not declare freedom for the black body, but just transferred the country into an alternative form of oppression.
He continues to reflect on why the imprecatory Psalms are necessary and how they reflect the rage of the black community.
Psalm 137 is more than a personal memory of an oppressed people. It is a call for God to remember. It speaks of a reckoning: Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Ps 137:7-9 KJV) There are two groups remembered here. Those who oppressed Israel (the Babylonians) and those who rejoiced in Israel’s downfall (the Edomites). But what kind of person of faith could ask that babies’ heads be dashed by rocks, and in what sense can we receive these texts as in a meaningful sense Christian? In response I ask, what kind of prayer would you expect Israel to pray after watching the murder of their children and the destruction of their families? What kinds of words of vengeance lingered in the hearts of the Black slave women and men when they found themselves at the mercy of their enslavers’ passions? Psalm 137 is not merely a shout of defiance. It is a prayer addressed to God. Traumatized communities must be able to tell God the truth about what they feel. We must trust that God can handle those emotions. God can listen to our cries for vengeance, and as the one sovereign over history he gets to choose how to respond. Psalm 137 does not take power from God and give it to us. It is an affirmation of his power in the midst of deep pain and estrangement. The fact that Psalm 137 became a part of the biblical canon means that the suffering of the traumatized is a part of the permanent record. God wanted Israel and us to know what human sin had done to the powerless. By recording this in Israel’s sacred texts, God made their problems our problems. Psalm 137 calls on the gathered community to make sure that this type of trauma is never repeated. What theological resources does Psalm 137 give to Black rage and pain? It gives us permission to remember and feel. It allows us to bring the depth of our experiences to God. Psalm 137 makes the suffering of the traumatized a corporate reality that moves with us through history. Based on the example of Psalm 137, I contend that Black Christians can and must articulate what has happened to us to God and to others as a part of the healing process. We must tell the truth. Like the later Israelite readers of Psalm 137, the pain of the Black past must be carried forward and remembered as a testimony to what sin can and will do to the helpless. The beginning of the answer to Black anger is the knowledge that God hears and sees our pain. This means that an elementary school kid first introduced to racial trauma is at least equipped with a place to put his pain. They are borne up to heaven in prayer. More than that, their pain is not theirs to bear alone; it is wrapped up in the wider community’s hope for justice. Can we say more?
So, I sit here reading Reading While Black while white.
I don’t have answers for what I personally can do, or what we as a white suburban church can do. That’s what we want. We want to use our familiar instrumental power and be able to swoop in and “fix it.”
“Why can’t we all just get along?” we think.
It’s not that easy. There is so much pain. So much injustice.
I must sit in my discomfort with the imprecatory Psalms and with the protests in the streets. I must acknowledge that this rage is real and that God hears the cries of the oppressed. I must not look away.
It has been a long journey since Dr. Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights movement 60 years ago. We’ve made some progress, but we have so far to go.
May we stand together with our sisters and brothers of color and seek ways to cry out to God for justice, for mercy, and how we can all walk humbly together in a world that honors our ethnic diversity and works together in unity.