Monday, November 3, 2008

A Prayer for Deliverance (from the election)

I have to admit that I find Psalm 70 quite difficult. Like many of the others Psalms I have preached from lately, I find it difficult not because its message is hard to understand but because its words can seem so unlike Christ. The point of the Psalm seems pretty simple. It is a prayer for God to deliver the Psalmist from his enemies and to do it quickly. However, what is so troubling is the repeated call for the Psalmist's enemies to be put to shame. He asks God to let them be ashamed and humiliated, let them be turned back and dishonored, and let them be turned back because of their shame. A considerable portion of this Psalm is devoted not just to the Psalmist's deliverance but explicitely to seeing the Psalmist's enemies publicly shamed. Jesus certainly prays for his own deliverance (Lord, let this cup pass from me...) but even then he insists on the Father's will and not his own and never calls on God to shame his enemies. Quite to the contrary, he asks for their forgiveness even as he hangs dying on the cross.

Perhaps this language is only troubling to me because I am a privileged, relatively wealthy (by global standards), educated, white male who hasn't really had many experiences that would cause me to cry out to God with this kind of urgent need for deliverance. There have certainly been times in my life when I've felt somewhat mistreated or taken advantage of but for the most part, I have not been the victim of any kind of systemic injustice or outright persecution. I imagine that for our brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced those things, the words of this Psalm and others like it must be very dear to their hearts.

I have to imagine that the current election has some play in the way that I read this Psalm as well. I am so thoroughly disgusted and disheartened by the dehuminization that has taken place throughout the campaign and has only intensified with the election now being so near. I think anyone who knows me knows that I thoroughly enjoy a vigorous debate over issues of substance and I am happy to enter into these kinds of conversations even with those I know will disagree with me and whom I will likely never persuade to share my position. It is not the civil disagreements that bother me. It is the exalting of one party or candidate to the status of righteous defender of God's will while demonizing the other party that sickens me. It is the saying anything to get your candidate eleceted, no matter how untrue, unfair, or uncharitable those words might be. It is allowing our loyalties to Christ to be blurred by our loyalties to a certain understanding of American politics that makes we want to vomit. And it is the constant assumption that I must be right and that my political positions must also be God's political positions and that anyone who disagrees with me must be either lazy or stupid that pushes me towards an unhealthy anger. This kind of incivility carries a certain kind of dissapointment with it when you find it in your average Joe (a phrase which itself has become another victim of sloganeering) but it takes on a whole other level of disgrace when you find it in your brothers and sisters in Christ. (I give much thanks to God and to the members of our congregation for keeping these shallow practices out of our local church and maintaining a Christ-like attitude in political conversations throughout this election season.) So when I come to a Psalm like this one which calls for the shaming of one's enemies, it is easy for me to hear the words of those who have done everything they can to try to bring shame upon their political enemies.

Even setting that baggage aside, there seems to be a terribly strong tension between the words of this Psalm that call for God to shame the Psalmist's enemies and Jesus' command to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44)." Is this a place where we must allow Jesus' words to outright trump those of the Old Testament? Possibly. After all, this is one those "You have heard it said...but I say to you..." sayings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount in which Jesus does some serious re-interpreting of the Law. Maybe Jesus is saying that Psalms like this one just didn't quite get it right and he is the only one who has the authority to correct the error. Is that the only possible resolution to this tension?

We have been studying Paul's letter to the Philippians here on Monday nights. Of course, any discussion of Philippians is often dominated by the Christ hymn found in 2:5-11. This hymn exhibits a movement from high status (being in the form of God) to progressively lower status and even shame and humiliation (he emptied himself, took the form of a slave, became obedient to death, even death on a cross). However, this humilation and shame eventually leads to vindication and exaltation (therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name). This exaltation in turn means that all others now have a lower status in relation to the one who has been exalted (so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord). This a pattern that repeats itself in Paul's letters as he describes the ministry of Christ as well as his own ministry in emulation of Christ.

Perhaps this pattern of shame leading to exaltation can be seen in Psalm 70 as well. After all, if the Psalmist finds himself in need of deliverance, this likely means that he is in a lowly and shameful position. This might take on even more significance if this Psalm, which is credited to King David, was written as he flees his enemies even after he has been anointed as King of Israel. If this is true, then the Psalmist's own situation would reflect the pattern of movement in the Christ hymn; he is the anointed but is forced into the lowly, shameful position of fleeing but is eventually exalted to the highest position in the land because of his complete obedience to God. Additionally, like the Christ hymn which ends by saying that this pattern of shame and exaltation is "to the glory of God the Father", so also Psalm 70 declares "Let God be magnified".

Maybe if we read Psalm 70 in this light then the call for shame upon one's enemies can be seen less as a vindicative demand for vengeance against one's adversaries and more as a trust in God to restore the justice of his reign. Practically speaking then we might say that the Christian should pray for his or her enemies as Jesus says while also praying that the wrongs those enemies perpetrate might be righted and their injustices judged justly. We can love our enemies while simultaneously asking God to make both us and them more just people so that we might be enemies no longer. That, indeed, seems to be a piece of what we ask when we pray "thy kingdom come."

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