Given the debate over the last few days about whether it’s appropriate to be happy about, and even celebrate, the death of Osama bin Laden, I thought it would be worth revisiting Ellen Davis’s discussion of the cursing (imprecatory) psalms in her book Getting Involved with God. These psalms, which call God’s wrath down upon the psalmist’s enemies in what often seems like a very unchristian spirit, are frequently glossed over or heavily edited, if not extirpated entirely from contemporary Christian worship.
However, Davis argues that “the cursing psalms are in fact a crucial resource for our spiritual growth, indispensable if we are to come before God with rigorous honesty” (pp. 24-5).
The cursing psalms help us to hold our anger in good faith. Sadly, most of us feel about our enemies more like the psalmist does than Jesus did. We must pray to be healed from our hardness of heart, but healing will not come through a cover-up. Healing for ourselves and even for our enemies requires that we acknowledge our bitter feelings and yet not yield to their tyranny. Rather we must offer them, along with our more attractive gifts, for God’s work of transformation. In several ways, the cursing psalms give us strong practical guidance in making that offering of anger. (pp. 25-6)
What is this practical guidance? Davis says that it comes in three forms. First, the cursing psalms give us words to express our anger. And not only do they provide a means for venting our anger when we are betrayed or victimized, they can help us move past anger. By giving us words with which to externalize our anger, they allow us to look at it more objectively and, perhaps, to recognize the element of self-righteousness it contains. “For the cursing psalms confront us with one of our most persistent idolatries, to which neither Israel nor the church has ever been immune: the belief that God has as little use for our enemies as we do, the desire to reduce God to an extension of our own embattled and wounded egos” (p. 26).
Second, the cursing psalms can be modes of access to God. They teach us that God is known in judgment on evil as well as in mercy. “The God who created us for life together (Genesis 2:18) is, like us, outraged by those who violate trust and rupture community” (pp. 26-7). It is part of our baptismal vows to name evil when we see it and to reject it wholeheartedly.
Finally, and most importantly, these psalms direct us to give the desire for vengeance or payback over to God. “[T]he cry for vengeance,” Davis says, “invariably takes the form of an appeal for God to act” (p. 27). The cursing psalms don’t authorize us to take matters into our own hands. “On the contrary, the validity of any punishing action that may occur depends entirely on its being God’s action, not ours” (p. 27). Moreover, leaving vengeance in the hands of the Lord means relinquishing control of the outcome:
Through these psalms we demand that our enemies be driven into God’s hands. But who can say what will happen to them there? For God is manifest in judgment of our enemies but also, alas, in mercy toward them. Thus these vengeful psalms have a relationship with other forms of prayer for our enemies. (p. 27)
So, if there’s a lesson here for us, maybe it’s that we ought to bring our feelings about enemies like bin Laden–whatever they are–before God. If I’m happy about bin Laden’s death, then I should say that to God in prayer. But doing so in the spirit of the psalms means that I may come to recognize an element of self-righteousness in my righteous anger and satisfaction. It means naming the evil that he was responsible for and our anger about it. But it also means giving up the position of ultimate judge of his, or anyone else’s, fate. (It’s noteworthy, though not particularly surprising, how many people are confident in consigning bin Laden to hell.) Human justice may have required bin Laden to be killed, or at least to be sufficiently disabled to prevent him from wreaking more terror. But ultimate judgment remains beyond us. Navy SEALs might have been the instrument that drove bin Laden into the hands of the living God, but what happens once he gets there remains a mystery.