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03 May 2011

Baby-Killers, Bin Laden and Babylon

Blessed shall they be who 
snatch your little-ones and smash them against the rock!
~ Psalm 137:9

Scripture is replete with images of violent vengeance even as it proclaims that vengeance belongs to God (Dt 32:35) and the love of enemies (Lu 6:27). When I heard the news of bin Laden's death and the rejoicing that accompanied it, I heard through the filter of Psalm 137. 
I teach my students to ask how the scripture is true. I can be too easy to pass judgement on the text and declare it is or is not true. But how is a difficult text, a text of terror, scripture - is a much harder question. The truth of Psalm 137 is that people do such terrible things to each other that we seek some visible recompense. Hurt people hurt people. 
The psalmist has lived through the devastation of Judah and Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Imagine if the assault on Pearl Harbor or 9/11 had resulted in the fall of the United States, if our citizens had been deported to Central or South America and resettled in internment camps. Now hear the Psalm again:

Remember, Holy-One-of-Sinai, 
hold it against the children of Edom  
the Day of Jerusalem  
their saying, “Strip her! Strip her! 
Down to the foundation!” 
Daughter Babylon, the predator! 
Blessed be those who return to you the “peace” 
that you have returned to us. 
Blessed shall they be 
who snatch and smash your children against the rock!


I understand the cries for violence and vengeance. Vengeance is downright biblical; it is human nature. I do not judge those who cry for vengeance or rejoice in the death of one who has afflicted so much pain in the world. I understand. And I know that God understands too.
The people who produced the Psalms offer another vision: their violent rhetoric as catharsis. The remnant of Judah did not go on a baby-killing spree. Giving voice to that horrible desire may well have exorcised it from their midst. They went on to rebuild their world from the rubble, and while their society continued through tortuous changes, their religion transcended their context, culture and ethnicity and through one of their own rabbis changed the world. 
I have not forgotten those Palestinians and Israelis who call for the deaths of each other's children and do all they can to bring that holocaust to pass. I see the same brokenness, the same grief at work. 
Let us pray for the sons and daughters of Babylon, and even the family and friends of Osama bin Laden.

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