A year ago I was sitting at my kitchen table face to face with a stack of 40-some sermons, each based on one of the Psalms. In many of those sermons students struggled to write grace-filled, Gospel-saturated sermons on passages of Hebrew poetry that had no qualms about deriding “the wicked” in colorful terms, even here and there going deep into the land of impreccation in which various body parts of the wicked were depicted as being smashed, crushed, and obliterated. Meanwhile as I read those Psalms and the sermons the students had written on them, the radio was going on and on about the death of Osama bin Laden. NPR reported on throngs of people whooping it up in Times Square, in front of the White House, and in a variety of other locations. And I confess that in my own heart, my first reaction on hearing the news was also a kind of “Yes!”
But I struggled then and since as to how a Christian should react to the form of “justice” that took out the world’s most notorious terrorist. My students in their sermons demonstrated that they knew that those who serve a Savior who told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us cannot and should not make too easy recourse to the impreccatory Psalms so as to indulge our vengeful appetites vis-a-vis those who make our lives unpleasant. Yes, as Walter Brueggemann points out, those kinds of Psalms are part and parcel of the larger honesty that the Book of Psalms displays. For people of faith, all forms of speech are allowable even (or perhaps it is especially) before the face of Almighty God. And there is something to that. There is something liberating about seeing the rawness of lament in the Psalms, reminding us that God is big enough to “take it” when we are upset. Lament is not a sign of weak faith but strong, plucky faith.
And curses on our enemies, maledictory prose, likewise shows that when we feel such-and-such a way about someone in our lives–especially those who oppose the ways of God and of God’s people–then this, too, can be brought to speech with God. We don’t have to pretend those emotions are not a part of us. God understands.
But it also seems that part of what happens in those impreccations is that the psalmists lay these things in God’s (better and wiser) hands. We give up our actions of vengeance by giving them over to the God who can be trusted to do the right thing. If that is true in even the Old Testament/Hebrew world of the Psalms, how much more true is it now that we serve and follow a crucified Savior who let all the impreccations of history fall onto himself so as at long last to snap that grim cycle of retribution. In Romans 12 Paul also reminds us that although Christians along with everyone else may still have feelings of revenge rising up in their souls, they are to leave that at the foot of the cross. It is not our place to indulge such feelings. (A predecesor of mine at a church I served for a dozen years claimed that in worship, it is wholly inappropriate for followers of the Prince of Peace ever to sing musical settings of the impreccatory Psalms–such words about smashing the wicked are not appropriate on the lips of those called to love and forgive everyone, starting with enemies and the otherwise unloveable. He had a point.)
As I read Psalm sermons and heard the news a year ago, I concluded that it is fully possible that the violent end of a violent man represented the coming of justice, that it was possible this was even ultimately a providential action of God–or one that God permitted–to right some wrongs. But I could not be sure of that. And I was very sure that for those of us who know what this violent world cost Christ Jesus the Lord, it just was not fitting to whoop it up and wave a flag to celebrate the death of even someone as grim as Osama bin Laden. His death is just part of the larger series calamatis that required the death of God’s only Son and so counts as one more example of the nightmare of evil from which we will one day finally awaken only when the dream of the kingdom of God becomes all in all.
These are not easy issues to deal with in this crazy world. But we were not promised easy issues. We were promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth as time went on, and we do well to keep step with that Spirit of truth and wisdom.