When a rough patch in life comes along – a bad diagnosis, the untimely death of a friend, an employment crisis, neo-fascists taking over the government – many folks pray. People pray in different ways. Pleading, maybe, or intercession. Supplication or praise. Thanksgiving and silent contemplation.
The ancients prayed too, in every situation. And the Psalms, the prayer book of ancient Israel, has been found through the centuries to be a wise and constant companion for all those who would seek the presence of the God of Israel.
In the Psalms, no emotional terrain goes uncovered. But in regular church practice, there is one genre of Psalms that Christians avoid. These are the prayers of imprecation, or cursing. They are the ones that pray for enemies to falter, to be shamed, for them to become as dust, for God to pursue and destroy them with the strength of a hurricane. Sometimes, out of despair or terror, these Psalms pray for even harsher things.
These are hard texts, so deeply emotional that sometimes they go a bit too far. They are omitted from the worship life of most congregations. The Revised Common Lectionary avoids Psalm 109 altogether. It edits out the final verses of Psalm 137. Most American Christians do not even know these psalms of cursing are there, much less what to do with them in a life of prayer. For years we have redacted these shocking texts out of our corporate practices of faith, and usually out of our personal practices as well. As a result, many peace-loving Christians can no longer stomach the idea that we have enemies, much less have any idea what to do with them, except maybe avoid them. But some enemies cannot be avoided, especially the ones slinking about the country today. We are involved in a great struggle against principalities and powers, and their assistants on earth now seek to rebuild Sodom in our land – a place of “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but without regard for the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
“May the creditor seize all that my oppressor has; May strangers plunder the fruits of his toil. May there be no one to do him a kindness,” the psalmist prays in Psalm 109. Such bold words make demands on the eternal God that no human can easily make. But we live now in an age for hard speech and difficult words. There is no time left for feeble faith, or for “civility,” which is often just a strategy to reinforce injustice. This is not an era to be nice. Loving? Yes. Joyful, peaceful, patient and kind? To be sure. But nice? No way. Selah.
Jesus – a reader of the Psalms – says to love your enemies and to pray for those who mistreat you. The psalmist imagines that such a prayer might sound like this:
“Fill their faces with shame,
So that they may seek your name, O Lord.
Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever;
Let them perish in disgrace” (83:16-17).
This, too, is love. What could be more loving than to pray that the wicked would turn to the God of life? The prayer is loving, but it is not nice.
“For white Christians, our great care with such prayers comes from the knowledge that somebody has probably prayed these Psalms against us at some point, and rightly so.”
And what other prayer can we now pray? At the highest levels of power in the United States are people who claim the name of Jesus, and then abuse the scriptures to support morally repugnant positions. They evidence no ability to feel shame for their abhorrent actions – ripping babies from breastfeeding mothers, worshipping money, denying health care to all but the wealthy, speaking lie after lie. Shame is a weighty emotion, to be approached carefully in a culture of repression and oppression. But in the way the psalmist prays against those who oppress the people of God, shame over shameful actions is an important moral victory. It is a first step toward repentance. For the haughty who would sell the needy for a pair of sandals, what could be better news than the ability to feel shame again, and to seek its resolution in love?
Folks who practice prayer know that one of its fruits is humility. Prayer is serious speech, especially the serious prayers that emanate from the longing in our gut for justice and rightness. If we are going to sing with Mary in hopes that “the mighty be brought down from their thrones…, and the rich sent away empty,” we can only do that with great humility. For white Christians, our great care with such prayers comes from the knowledge that somebody has probably prayed these Psalms against us at some point, and rightly so. That is a likely explanation for why these fierce Psalms have fallen out of use in white churches in America. We know that for many years folks prayed for God to “make us like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind” (83:13). We likely suspect that we might still need to pray this about ourselves, for we sometimes remain enemies of God’s work in the world.
So be it. We all have a few things to answer for, but that is no reason to approach God with anything but boldness. If, in standing up for Muslim neighbors, and immigrant neighbors, and children, and the sick and prisoners, we deepen our own repentance, all the better. What is clear now is that difficult prayers can no longer be avoided. If we are to re-establish a common moral narrative around caring for the poor, making healthcare accessible, pursuing peace rather than war, and building a just and inclusive economy, then we will need God to act in every possible way.