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October 7, 2007
2 Timothy 1:1-4
Both of the passages from the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian “Old Testament” deal with responses to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the removal of its chief citizens to Babylon. The dominant mood is mourning. The poetry is beautiful and deeply moving. The passage from Lamentations is about the ruined city of Jerusalem. The psalm expresses the feelings of the exiles.
Both express the deep love of Jerusalem that has played a large role in Jewish history for thousands of years and still does so today. We may appreciate this love, and more broadly celebrate the love of place. But we must recognize that it plays an ambiguous role. It tends to connect God to a particular location. Taken by themselves, passages like this can lead to idolatry.
In the broader context of the literature growing out of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, this danger is overcome. Indeed, one extremely important result of these events was the vindication of the prophetic message rejecting all parochial views of God. God was in Babylon as well as Jerusalem. God can, and should, be worshipped anywhere and everywhere in situations of failure and defeat as well as in those of success and prosperity. Yet this psalm seems to say the God of Israel cannot be worshipped in exile.
This potential of Psalm 137 reminds us of the truly dangerous consequences of declaring a complex body of literature to be “scripture.” Even if we do not get involved in the absurdities of supposing that whatever has thus been canonized by the church must be inerrant, we still attribute some special authority to it. Now if this “authority” were just that which belongs to all great literature, there would be no problem, but canonization suggests something more. It suggests that the church judges this body of literature to be “inspired” by God. Again, that could be harmless; for I, at least, judge that all human accomplishments are possible only because of divine inspiration. But canonization is often taken to mean that some kind of normative truth or guidance is being communicated to us through each of these writings and even each passage within them
Thus far we have noted the danger that Psalm 137, like many other biblical passages, if treated as in itself authoritative would lead its readers astray. Thus far I have noted only the issue as to where God can be worshipped. But worse follows. At the end of Psalm 137 the author tells us: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”
In nice, politically correct, liberal churches, we deal with such verses chiefly by passing over them. I am glad that those who have selected the lectionary readings for today have not done so. Yet I wonder how many preachers will select this text. If preaching from this text would entail approving the actions that are there praised, I hope that none do. There are texts in the Bible, indeed, many of them, that should be preached against. That is much better than ignoring them.
What is truly great about our scriptures is not that they consistently depict virtuous acts or express noble sentiments or recommend fine actions. What is great is that they are so varied in form and content and in the beliefs and sentiments which they express. It might be easier for preachers if the only message in the Bible addressed to those who have been seriously injured and are feeling great anger were that they should forgive and wish those who have wronged them only good. But in fact such a scripture would be severely truncated.
Let me illustrate this point by telling about a former colleague who was amazing in his ability to describe individuals from psychological test scores. He was not a Methodist, but since we taught at a Methodist seminary, we had a good many Methodist applicants. He often correctly spotted these from their MMPI scores. The telltale score was one of unconscious lying, or we might say self-deception. Because we Methodists had a strong sense that we should not feel resentment or anger and that the Holy Spirit enables us to avoid those feelings, we often deny them even to ourselves. We know that in the long run repressing feelings of anger is not a good way to deal with them.
My point, of course, is that there is no censorship of such feelings in the Bible, especially in the Jewish scriptures. We can celebrate the fullness of the expression of the range of human feelings and gain permission from that to recognize our own. Neither the writers of the biblical books or the heroes they portray are “saints” in the sense developed later in Christianity as people who are free of all negative emotions and base motivations. They are, in general, all too much like us.
But our appreciation of this openness in the scriptures does not mean that we can affirm the statements in which all these feelings are expressed. We can understand expressions of rage and sometimes identify with the feelings the express, but we must judge that those who dash little children against the rocks in revenge for what Babylonians have done to Jerusalem are not happy, or blessed, or approved by God. Though rage is fully natural, perhaps even healthy, and though this expression of rage is fully understandable, the message of the Bible as a whole, and especially of Jesus, is that what is said here is false. Difficult as it is to break the cycle of revenge, it can be done, and we are called to do it.
But what then about “justice?” No people have struggled more intensely with the issue of justice in history than did the Jews. Although I read the psalm as an expression of mourning and rage, it expresses also the demand for justice. Those who dash Babylonian children against the rocks will be “happy” because they are paying the Babylonians back for what they did to Jerusalem.
This is not the individual justice of our law courts but historical justice meted out to nations. We are appalled by what is hoped for because the children who are to be slaughtered have no personal guilt. However, judgments of collective guilt and punishment are not foreign to our thinking either. Since World War II, Germany has paid large sums to Israel, even though the majority of those who paid were not those responsible for genocide against Jews. The United States paid some modest compensation to the Japanese who were unconstitutionally put in concentrations camps, even though by the time it did so most taxpayers were not among those who had personal responsibility for the crime.
It is not possible to say what the biblical position is on this. Jeremiah and Ezekiel look forward to a time when people will be judged for their own character and actions rather than punished for the sins of their ancestors. The sin and punishment remain collective, but there is the possibility for any generation to repent and free itself of the burden of past guilt. The New Testament accents more individualistic elements in Judaism, and Christianity has further developed these. The Enlightenment has taken them to a disturbing extreme.
But through all of this there has remained a sense that what happens should be, and in some way is, shaped by justice, in the sense that virtue is rewarded and vice punished. The Psalm does not affirm that there is such justice, but it hopes for it through the punishment of the Babylonians. In first chapter of Lamentations, on the other hand, the affirmation of justice is clear. Just after the passage for today, we read “Jerusalem sinned grievously; so she has become a mockery.” In order to maintain the sense that the course of history is just, the great majority of the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures taught that the suffering of the Jewish people was due to their sins.
This view that the cause of Jerusalem’s downfall was Jerusalem’s sin is another dangerous teaching. It is, at best, ambiguous. It rightly introduces the note of self-examination and the recognition that we all have faults, a note that might have cut against the self-pity and longing for revenge that are expressed in the Psalm. But it also introduces the note of “blame the victim.” In Hitler’s day, doubtless, European Jews had made many mistakes and committed many sins. But there was total disproportion between anything for which they could be legitimately blamed and the genocide inflicted upon them. No doubt the Japanese on the West Coast can and should examine themselves with respect to their mistakes and failures. But there was total disproportion between these and the treatment meted out to them after Pearl Harbor.
Here, too, we must preach against many of our texts. The view they express about justice in history is erroneous. The evils that befall people in history are not proportional to their sins. Victims are not to blame for their victimization.
One reason that the powerful believe that history is just is that this belief justifies their power and its brutal use. They can appeal to scripture for support of particular instances. Black Africans could be enslaved because of the sin of Ham, for example. Women could be denied equality because Eve was responsible for Adam’s sin.
But the appeal has wider basis. It is based on the assumption that what happens in history is willed by God and that God is just. An important Black thinker argued, on the basis of this sort of thinking, that God must be a “white racist.” Given his biblically based assumptions, his argument is convincing. On this point, too, we must preach against many texts.
But, of course, this is not the only view in the Bible. There are writers who recognize that virtue is not always rewarded or sin punished. The reason for serving God is not in order to gain success in the course of worldly events. Our suffering is not a sign that we have sinned more that others. Jesus was fully explicit on this point. On the other hand, the recognition of our own sinfulness may mitigate the self-righteous call for vengeance against our enemies. Perhaps we can profit from playing off our psalm and the first chapter of Lamentations against one another. By acknowledging within ourselves both the desire for vengeance and the sense that evils that befall us must be the result of our sins, perhaps we can move forward to more mature resolutions of deep theological and practical questions.
~John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He currently serves as co-director for the Center for Process Studies and also teaches a course during the Summer Institute for Process & Faith at the Claremont School of Theology.