Liturgies of Anger

LITURGIES OF ANGER*
A Psalm of Personal Anger (Pslam 109)

A Psalm of National Anger (Psalm 83)

A Psalm of Anger against God (Psalm 44)

Concluding Theological Reflections

Anger is a powerful wave. It roars over us and carries us away, first forward and then backward. In its surge we lose our balance and flounder. Anger is a storm, whipping through the air, raising dust, and pounding us with rain, bending that which is in its path to its will. Anger is red; it is blood. Sometimes it is red and black mixed together, joining evil and darkness.

Anger distracts; it is a diversion from reality, an escape from what must be done. A fantasy that saps our energy and shames us, even to ourselves. Sometimes, anger brings clarity and sight, and sometimes it blinds us. In anger we see the truth, and we lose sight of the truth.

Anger energizes us. It gets our blood going. It gives us the force to fight evil, to rebel against destiny. Anger gives us the intensity with which to create; it draws us out from the depths. Anger slides easily into rage, into fury. Rage and fury are magnified anger. They are more powerful waves, more intense energy, more vivid fantasy. They are more effective action, more violent storm. Rage and fury are white, hot, searing.

Anger and rage are inseparably a part of us. One who has experienced no anger, no rage, is not human. Such a person has no deep investment in life, no love to protect, no vulnerability. Anger and rage are integral to human being.

There is so much anger in the world. There is the personal anger we feel for someone who has taken advantage of us, who has cheated us, or abused us. There is the national anger we feel for those who have attacked our nation and endangered our people. There is the political anger we feel against those private and public institutions which have exploited us, or ignored or neglected us. And there is the anger we feel toward God Who has mistreated us or, in neglect, has allowed others to mistreat us.

We spend a lot of time trying to deal with our anger. We repress it. We channel it. We sublimate it. We let it roll over us. We dream and fantasize about it. We feel ashamed of it, and we talk to friends and psychotherapists about it. But we do not pray it. We do not bring our anger to God, at least not enough. Christians in particular have a hard time bringing anger into their prayer life.

However, as we look at the Book of Psalms, we see that anger is an integral part of the prayer life of the psalmist. Anger is a recurring theme — all kinds of anger: personal, national, political, and even anger toward God. In fact, the anger in the psalms is so strong that it often takes the form of rage. Rage expressed, not repressed. Rage prayed, not excluded from the divine-human relationship. This is a mode of prayer that needs to be revitalized.

One cannot always be angry and full of rage, for anger does indeed distract and distort. It can disconnect us from life, as easily as it connects us to life. However, the proper prayer life includes moments of deep anger, as well as times of tranquility and serenity. It includes moments of rage, as well as times of reflection and meditation; moments of sadness, as well as times of joy and praise; moments of depression, as well as times of gratitude and exultation; “To dwell in the house of the Lord forever” together with “For how long, oh Lord, for how long shall the wicked rejoice”; “Every breath shall praise God” together with “Oh God, make them as tumbleweed, as straw before the wind.” Psalms, precisely because they flow from the sheer variety of human life, contain the whole range of human emotions, feelings, and awarenesses — all of them brought before God, all of them incorporated into a full and vital prayer life. One simply alternates, bringing first this and then that feeling before God, turning first this and then that emotion into prayer. [1]

This essay is an attempt to resurface three psalms of anger for use in our time: one of personal anger, one of national anger, and one of anger against God. Each will be presented in translation and with commentary, and each will conclude with suggestions for how to pray the psalm.

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A PSALM OF PERSONAL ANGERPsalm 109
COMMENTARY[2]

This is a psalm of rage against personal enemies. The psalmist does not mince words against such people. These are curses. Indeed, this is an “imprecatory psalm,” a psalm of curses. The commentators have trouble with this because it seems unfitting for the psalmist (King David, according to the superscription and Jewish tradition) to give vent to such violent aggressive feelings. Still, the text rests what it is: an imprecatory psalm.

The psalm is divided into four parts: the introductory accusations (vv. 1-5), the curses (vv. 6-20), and the prayers (vv. 21-31).

Verses 1-5, the accusations, speak of people who are full of deceit and guile. Such people give evasive answers. They entrap those to whom they speak, using what is told to them against the speaker. Such people also lie outright. They distort the truth willingly, twisting words into untruth. Such people are filled with hate. They are vicious, ugly. Their words are meant to destroy, not to achieve any constructive goal. Such people meet love with betrayal and repay trust with despising. “I am for peace but, when I speak, they are for war” (Ps. 120:7). Being the object of such outrageous duplicity evokes rage which, in turn, imposes its own distortions on the self, unwillingly drawing one into complementary hatred and violence.

Décalage. There is a gap between language and context. The first five verses, which set the stage, point toward a social or legal confrontation but the violence of the curses points elsewhere.

Disconnected discourse suggests displacement, a transferring of deep anger from its true cause to some lesser source. A gap between language and context points toward a deeper context. When the punishment does not fit the crime, some more serious crime is alluded to. The intense language in this psalm shows that social power or legal fencing is not that which is at issue. What is at stake, here, is intimate combat, deeply personal attack and counter-attack. The disconnectedness of the discourse points to repressed rage. The vehemence, disproportionate to the context, alludes to a silenced crime. The language, here, bespeaks abuse — abuse by an intimate or intimates.

To be abused means to be battered, to be beaten, to be assaulted bodily. To be abused means to have the boundary of the skin, the boundary that separates you from the other, violated. The suffering is senseless, without purpose or meaning; always it is undeserved. To be abused means to be tortured, systematically. To be abused is to have control of your body taken from you, by force.

To be abused also means to be sexually assaulted, physically violated, raped. To be abused means to be bodily penetrated, to be forced open. To be abused is to have your sexuality ripped out of you, perhaps never to be yours again.

To be abused always means to have things done to you against your will, and to be helpless to stop the violence to your person; it makes no difference whether you are male or female. Abuse comes from the outside; it is to your very person, against your body, your mind, and your heart.

To be abused means to be struck in anger, to be punished beyond the seriousness of the deed. To be abused means to be tied up, or shut in a dark closet, or burned with a cigarette, or whipped, or punished in the presence of others. To be abused means to be degraded, physically and in your inner being.

To be abused is also to be threatened into the conspiracy of silence, to be choked until you learn to choke yourself. To be abused is not to tell, lest more violence be perpetrated on you or on others.

To be abused is to live in (hidden) shame and deep fear; to live and not to trust, anyone.

[Da capo al fine, reading ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘my’ for ‘you’ and ‘your.’]

Abuse can also be emotional, psychologically if not physically violent. To be emotionally abused means to be taken advantage of; to be so in need of affection that you agree to do things you know you shouldn’t have to do. It means to be so frightened that you allow things to be done to you that you know are invasive, violent, and wrong.

Unjustified withholding of love, outbreaks of irrational anger, the colossal egocentrism of a parent which does not allow the child space to be, the demand for obedience which leaves no room for freedom … yelling, screaming, saying terrible things, personal insults … false sweet-talk, seduction … drinking, running away, drugs … slapping, hitting, smashing things … seducing the victim into the conspiracy of silence — all these are emotional abuse.

Neglect, lack of love, denying achievements, unrealistic expectations, parentalization, judging the other all the time, breaking promises, smothering, comparing children, calling terrible names, the emotional undermining and terrorizing of others — all these are emotional abuse.

Abuse by an intimate does not last a few days or even a year; it endures for a long time, a whole childhood, a whole marriage. Its duration compounds its horror. Abuse by an intimate is not regular; it is intermittent, alternating with everyday life in an unpredictable pattern. Its capriciousness compounds its terror.

Taking the natural love of a child for its parent, betraying that love by sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, and then telling the child that the abuse is ‘for its own good’ is abuse compounded beyond all measure, for it takes the clear message of abuse and confuses it with love, it takes the clear lesson of deserved distrust and confounds it with traitorous trust. Teaching a child that abuse is ‘for its own good’ fractures the natural bond between parent and child; it inverts the fifth commandment.

There are many forms of abuse: physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional. This psalm is a psalm about abuse, about famili-ar combat, about life and death in the world of the intimate self.

Verses 6-20 contain fourteen verses of curses.** They call for a prosecutor / persecutor to have control over the wicked person. Intercession and mitigating circumstances must fail to lighten the punishment. The personal memory of the wicked is to be erased, while it remains as a symbol of evil. Such a person is to be rewarded as he or she has lived: with evil. Even the widow(er) and orphans are not to be spared. There is to be no mercy for the abuser. Rage, cursing.

How can a person get so angry — “rage” is the word? The normal human instinct is to flinch from the rage. The usual reflex is to deny it, to tone it down — even when reading it. But there it is, in the Psalms: rage. A religious affection, an emotional attitude, an approved feeling — and in a context of personal assault.

Yes, there are mean people in the world — in one’s family, among one’s colleagues, among strangers — people driven by hatred, jealousy, greed, and fear; and yes, it is all right to feel vindictive, vengeful, reciprocally violent.

But there is no sexually provocative sadism. No long drawn-out torturing of the victim, as was common in the dungeons and at public executions during the middle ages. Vindictiveness yes, but no gory detail. Vengeance yes, but no pornographic violence.

Instead, there is the art of imprecation; the tailored, almost restrained, language of execration; the carefully considered malediction. Not the ladylike demur or gentlemanly protest, but the well-placed curse. A lost art in our day.

A curse is performative speech, speaking is doing; it is not expressive language, verbal catharsis. To curse is to call down supernatural vengeance; it is not to vent one’s deepest feelings. To curse is to call down violence on the oppressor, to invoke abuse on the abuser.

And yet, a curse is not performative action; it is not accomplishing one’s rage in social deed. The text acknowledges the power of the curse, but shies away from turning it into action — perhaps in modesty, perhaps for ethical reasons.

Verses 21-31 contain the prayer, interspersed with moments of recurring rage and despair. Rage is an exhausting emotion. It drains the inner core of the self. It feeds itself, consumes the self, flares up, is snuffed out, flares up again, consumes again. Depression is rage-in-waiting, smoldering anger.

The psalmist resolves this rage by putting the self in the context of God’s power. As one commentator notes: “After he has cursed the wicked and all those who detest him, he returns to plead before God that he not be destroyed with those who vilify him because [he realizes that] he does not have the strength to resist them.” The psalmist accomplishes this in three dialectical steps, setting the goal for the reader at the same time.

First, we do not conceal our continuing anger; we do not hide our rage or repress it; nor do we simply spew it forth from us. Rather, we always speak the truth of our pain, our hurt, and our anger, we bring our rage to God, we incorporate our rage into our prayer.

Second, we recognize that all our rage, justified though it is, is powerless in itself to effect change in the real world. Rage alone does not right a wrong. We acknowledge that we are overwhelmed, helpless; that the working of justice does not ultimately come from us. We affirm the vision of true compassionate justice but we also admit that it is not we who effect it. We are the suffering poor.

And third, we acknowledge God’s power and God’s justice and we ask God to act for us. We pray that our cause, because it is just, be God’s cause and that God’s cause be our cause; that God act against evil on behalf of our joint mission. We call upon God’s lovingkindness and God’s goodness because, through them, God will recognize and acknowledge us as the loyal servants we have been; and, we ask that this lovingkindness lead to action by God on our behalf. We place ourselves within God’s power, and then we petition for action on God’s part. We submit to God, and then we evoke God’s righteous rage on our behalf.

PRAYING THIS PSALM

Happy are you if you do not know what this psalm is about. But most people have a real personal enemy, someone who genuinely hates them, someone who truly makes life miserable and unbearable for them. There are those who even have someone who has ruined them for life, crippling them emotionally through one of the many forms of abuse. Who is your worst enemy? Visualize him or her, invoke the Presence of God, and pray this psalm.

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A PSALM OF NATIONAL ANGERPsalm 83
COMMENTARY[3]

This is a psalm of national rage. There are enemies, and they are real. They threaten destruction, indeed genocide. The psalmist does not mince words here either. This is a prayer for the destruction of one’s national enemies.

Prayer is serious business; it is not speech. To speak is to express, to externalize a thought or feeling. Prayer is performative speech; it is talking that intends action. A prayer for vengeance is, therefore, not just an externalized emotion; it is speech moving toward power. As such, a prayer for vengeance is ethically permissible; it is real prayer, one we fervently hope God will fulfill.

Serious prayer, however, is not serious action. One may pray “take now my life” (Jonah 4:3) but one may not commit suicide. One may pray that God kill one’s enemies, as in this psalm, but one may not commit murder. [4] Prayer, then, is more than speech and less than action. The psalm is serious prayer but it is not a call to action.

The psalm is divided into two parts, separated by the word “Selah”: the first describes the situation of enemies that surround the people and plot openly their total annihilation (vv. 1-9); the second is the psalmist’s prayer that God thoroughly defeat them, politically and morally (vv. 10-19).

Verses 5 and 13 define the enemy. They are not ethnic entities. Nor are they nations. Nor are they a religion, or a political group. Rather, they are nations, ethnic entities, and religious or political groups that espouse genocide. They are those who want to “wipe out from being a nation,” “the name of Israel never be mentioned again,” “to inherit for ourselves the garden of God.” The enemy are those who preach hatred and violence in their public forums and glorify those whose lives embody that teaching. They are those who advocate terror and make heroes of those who practice it. They acknowledge no justification at all for the existence of Israel. They oppose coexistence and do not want peace. Teaching, practicing, and glorifying mass murder make one an enemy.

Verses 7-9 name the enemies. I have substituted modern names for the traditional text which, written in biblical times, reads as follows: “The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagarites. Geval, Amon, and Amalek; Philistia and the residents of Tyre. Assyria, too, has joined them; they are the arm of the sons of Lot. Selah.” Hagarites is a synonym for Ishmaelites. The nations of Geval, Amon, and Amalek occupied what is now Jordan. Philistia was located in what is now the Gaza Strip though it covered more territory to the north. Tyre is still in Lebanon. Assyria was northwest of what is now Iraq. The modern names give the sense of contemporary reality rather than that of ancient history.

Verses 10-12 invoke God’s action in history. Here, I have left the biblical names of the defeated foes precisely in order to invoke history and the covenant with God which governs history. Midian is soundly defeated by Gideon (Judges 7-8). Yavin, king of Hazor, and his general, Sisera, are soundly defeated by Deborah, Barak, and Yael (Judges 5-6). The battle of Ein Dor is not directly recorded in connection with the war against Yavin and Sisera but Ein Dor is close to Ta´anakh (Joshua 17:11) which is the location of the crucial battle in Deborah’s war. ´Orev and Ze’ev are Midianite commanders killed in the battle (Judges 7:25). Zevah and Tsalmuna´ are Midianite kings killed in battle (Judges 8:12-21). The sons of Lot, by incestuous relationship with his daughters, were Moab and Amon (Gen. 19: 29-38). The historical references, thus, are quite real and serve as a powerful precedent for invoking God’s protection.

Verses 14-19 are part of the psalmist’s prayer but I have set them apart because they can apply to any enemy in any time. The metaphors are very powerful: tumbleweed, straw in the wind, and a raging forest fire. The proper punishment is also strong: humiliation, shame, confounding, and disgrace, followed by destruction. The ultimate purpose, however, is not revenge but the acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty over all God’s creation. (The “they” in the last verse may refer to the destroyed enemies, or to the surviving enemies and bystanders.)

PRAYING THIS PSALM

Happy are you if you do not know what this psalm too is about. But we, as a people, do have enemies. And they do hate us. And they do really want to annihilate us. They do say, “Let us go and wipe them out from being a nation so that the name of Israel / America never be mentioned again.” In the face of such hatred, love is not the answer. There is a time for love and understanding, but war is not one of those times. There is a time for reason and negotiation, but an environment of incitement and ongoing terror is not one of those times, even if the enemy dresses terror in national liberation. Rather, we must pray for the sound and thorough defeat of our enemies. We ask God to annihilate them, if there is no other choice — and sometimes there isn’t.

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A PSALM OF ANGER AGAINST GODPsalm 44
 

COMMENTARY[5]

This psalm is a psalm of rage against God. Our generation reads this psalm in the shadow of the shoah. It is not a survivor’s psalm, but a victim’s psalm; and we identify with the victims. It expresses our rage — for them, for their suffering, for our own suffering through them. We rage at our enemies. We rage at those who betrayed us, by action and by inaction. And we rage at God. Otherwise, we have not confronted the shoah.

The psalm is divided into five parts: recalling of God’s miraculous acts in the distant past (vv. 1-4), remembering of God’s saving deeds in the lifetime of the psalmist (vv. 5-9), confession of shame at the current defeat of the people (vv. 10-17), strong protest of innocence (vv. 18-23), and an angry cry-prayer for immediate help (vv. 24-27).

Verses 1-9 are set as a prayer before battle. The people and their leaders gather to pray for victory, invoking God’s historical help and pledging their humble loyalty to God. Verses 5 and 6 invoke God’s defending power in strong words. War is not a cup of tea with crumpets. War is goring one’s enemies, as an ox gores another ox or a person. Life is fierce loyalty to one’s family and people. Life is also watching out for, and actively combatting, those who would do you in. Life is sometimes a jungle. Hatred and jealousy, not love, often motivate life. In such moments, why should one forgive one’s enemy? Especially if he or she has done nothing to indicate any feeling of genuine remorse? Better to be wary, to return hostility. Sibling jealousy, fear of death, economic envy, racial prejudice — these do not go away. Better to know and acknowledge one’s enemies, to be ready to gore them.

Décalage. Between verses 9 and 10 the battle takes place and the people suffer terrible losses.

Verses 10-17 turn to the immediate defeat of the people and their degradation at the hands of their enemies. The psalmist does not mince words but speaks forcefully, with powerful images, and in short, choppy sentences. The following midrash catches the shoah context well.

(Winter, 1944):
“You desert and shame us” — as they cut our beards and mass-rape our women.
“You do not go out with our armies” — with our resistance.
“You put us to flight from our enemies” — in mass exodus and transports.
“Those who hate us tear us to pieces at will” — using our skins for lampshades and our flesh for soap.
“You hand us over like sheep to be devoured” — in the gas chambers, crematoria, and gang burning-pits.
“You cast us among the nations” — as stateless and displaced persons.
“You sell Your people for nothing” — we are worth less than slaves, less than animals.
“You do not make a profit on their sale price” — our value is precisely calculated for work, starvation, and death.
“You make us an object of shame for our neighbors” — so that no one touches us, in the camps and even after liberation.
“A thing of scorn and derision for those around us” — they toss scraps of bread into the trains of our starving people; they make us defecate in our clothing.
“You make an example of us to the nations” — of degradation and dehumanization, a sign par excellence and a symbol of Jew-hatred.
“An object of head-shaking among the peoples” — in disbelief that something like this is happening to anyone, much less to us, Your chosen people.

Verses 18-23 are the people’s protest to God. In full consciousness of the degradation of the people, the psalmist turns on their behalf to God. He angrily asserts their innocence and affirms their undeviating loyalty with rhetorical questions and statements. This is the core of his defense of the people which is, at one and the same time, a prosecutorial argument against / with God.

The following quotation from Elie Wiesel captures well the juxtaposition to verse 23, “truly, we are considered sheep to be butchered.”

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
“Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
“Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” [6]

Verses 24-27 are the people’s cry-prayer for help. In his deepest anguish, the psalmist commands God. It is an act of protest, of accusation. No quarter is given. Nothing is swept away in false piety, in aesthetic imagery, or in elegant theological speculation.

The language is very strong: We are being slaughtered like sheep; God must save us! God is asleep; God must wake up! God cannot hide from our suffering! God is like a drunken soldier Who must be roused from God’s stupor to avenge God’s people (Ps. 78:65). The Hebrew verbs here are in the imperative form. The language is so strong that the levites who chanted this psalm in the temple were called “the arousers” and the rabbis actually suppressed the daily recitation of this psalm.

The emotion of this psalm is rage. It is hurt and anger, magnified. Yet this rage is morally transformed into a religious affection, into the ongoing emotional attitude of righteous anger. It is not enough to feel rage; it must be channeled into a demand for fairness, into a cry for justice.

The transformation of rage into righteous anger is a function of the theology of covenant. God’s proclaimed love for us and God’s announced commitment to protect and be fair to us bind God to moral behavior towards us. The covenant holds God in its scope. The rage of disgraceful defeat, then, can be transformed by the covenant into a moral demand. The humiliation of suffering, then, can be transformed through the covenant into a moral claim.

As God is a jealous God demanding loyalty from us in covenant, so we, in our searing humiliation, demand. We transform our anger, through the covenant, into our moral claim against God. As God is angry with us in covenant, so we are angry with God in covenant. We experience a true anger, which becomes a true moral claim, rooted in our mutual covenantal debt.

Finally, the affection of moral righteousness is a proclamation of love of God, of concern for God’s honor and God’s people. Hurt becomes a moral demand, which is really a defense of the Beloved. Anger becomes a moral claim, which is really an expression of love.

PRAYING THIS PSALM

To pray this psalm is to take your life in your hands. [7] It is a terrifying psalm and an even more terrifying prayer. One cannot use it often, but there are moments when rage against God is the only appropriate response. So says the psalmist. And one must have the faith and the courage to pray it — not for oneself but for one’s people, for history, indeed for God Godself.

At Yom Hashoah services, have a reader read the selection from Wiesel out loud. Then, continue reading the Wiesel selection in a low voice while another person reads this psalm with the full range of fury that is in it.

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CONCLUDING THEOLOGICAL FRAGMENTS
 Prayer is serious business; it is not just mumbling the liturgy, or group singing, or individual meditation on the source of all tranquility. Prayer is living in the Presence of the divine, in grace and in rage. It is being present to God, for better and for worse. Hurt, anger, and rage are normal parts of life and, hence, must be normal parts of our prayer life. We, therefore, always speak the truth of our hurt, pain, anger, and even our rage to God. We never hide or repress the truth of our anguish.

In bringing our anger to God, we also always confess our powerlessness, our inability to achieve justice and moral balance in the world; we submit the limitations of our power to God. And, at the same time, we call upon God to assume power where we cannot exercise it. We pray to God to rectify the wrong done to us, to impose justice, morality, and righteousness. In our powerlessness, we invoke God’s covenant with us and we call God to action. This includes the sound and thorough defeat of our personal and national enemies.

There is nothing wrong in this; covenant implies loyalty on both sides. Covenant means justice for both parties. When we are hurt and abused, God, too, has been hurt and abused and, when God’s kingship is denied, we are the first victims. Righteous anger defends covenant. The sound and thorough defeat of the enemy are part of covenantal relatedness — precisely because it is not pornographic violence that is the goal but action that seeks justice for both parties to the covenant. Acknowledging the sovereignty of God in all of God’s creation, including personal and national history, is the goal. Vengeance is sometimes the only way to do that. [8]

 

As I noted above, prayer is serious business but prayer is not speech. To speak is to express, to externalize a thought or feeling. Prayer is performative speech; it is talking that intends action. A curse or a prayer for vengeance is, therefore, not just an externalized emotion; it is speech moving toward power. As such, a curse or prayer for vengeance is ethically permissible; it is real prayer, one we fervently hope God will fulfill.

Serious prayer, however, is not serious action. One may pray “take now my life” (Jonah 4:3) but one may not commit suicide. One may pray that God kill one’s enemy but one may not commit murder. [9] Prayer, then, is more than speech and less than action.

The Talmud recognized this distinction clearly and records the following difference of opinion:

There were certain hoodlums in the neighborhood of Rabbi Me’ir who were bothering him greatly. So, Rabbi Me’ir prayed that God should have mercy on them so that they die. His wife, Beruria, said to him, “On what verse do you rely [that you pray for the death of these hoodlums]? If it is based on the verse ‘May hatta’im be ended on earth’ [Ps. 104: 35], it does not say hot’im [sinners] but hata’im [sins]. Furthermore, look at the end of the verse, ‘and the wicked will be no more.’ [From this we learn that] when sins have ended, the wicked will be no more. Pray, therefore, that God have mercy on them that they do repentance.” He prayed for them to do repentance, and they repented. [10]

On the other hand, the Silent Devotion recited three times daily as part of the Siddur (prayerbook) contains the following prayer:

Let there be no hope for the traitors. Let all evil be wiped out in a moment. Let all Your enemies speedily be cut off. May You uproot, smash, grind down, and subdue the evil ones, quickly, in our days. Blessed are You, Lord, Who smashes enemies and subdues the evil ones. [11]

The tension between these two attitudes toward the wicked, located as they are in the most classical of rabbinic Jewish sources, is meant as a guide: we are to do both — to pray for the utter destruction of the wicked and to pray for their repentance. We cannot do one exclusively. We cannot pray only for the sound and thorough defeat of our enemies, nor can we pray only for their repentance. We must do both. To be sure, we cannot do both at once. So we must alternate. At some times, we must pray for the utter destruction of evil people and, at other times, we must pray that God grant them insight, wisdom, and courage to see and to do that which is just and moral.

As the tension between wickedness and wicked people exists in our prayers, so it exists in our behavior in the real world. There are times when we must fight, even kill. But there are also times when we must have the wisdom, insight, and courage to negotiate. We must alternate between making peace and making war. [12]

 

I do not want to be angry — not at my personal adversaries, not at my national enemies, and certainly not at my God. I would rather concentrate on the positive dimensions of life, or at least be left alone to do what I do best. But life and history will not let me alone. I do have adversaries and enemies, and the God Who is active in my personal and national life sometimes acts against me / us. When that happens, I know that submission is not really an option. When bad things happen to good people, I know that acceptance is only half the answer. The other half is acknowledging anger and rage — learning to think them, to feel them, and even to pray them. That is what the angry psalms are for. That is what the liturgy of protest is for. To help us bring our anger and rage to God, even if it is God we are angry at.

If we succeed, we pray our anger and our protest, though we cannot stay on that path for too long because we will get lost spiritually. There comes a moment when we must bracket that rage and consciously turn, difficult though it may be, to the psalms of love and praise and to the liturgy of acceptance and belonging. There comes a moment when, hard though it may be, we must turn to resolving wickedness. Life weaves back and forth between anger and love; we all know that. Just so does the prayer life weave back and forth between protest and devotion, and just so does real life weave back and forth between war and peace.

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*Appeared in Cross Currents (Summer 2002) 178-99.The text of the psalms used is taken from the Cross Currents printing.

[1] On the alternation of emotions in prayer, see my Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1993), chapter 5; my “Confronting the Character of God,” God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann , ed. T. Linafelt and T. Beal (Minneapolis, Fortress Press: 1998) 38-51; and my “Theodicy: Dissonance in Theory and Praxis,” Concilium, 1: 95-106 (appeared simultaneously also in Italian, German, French, and Spanish); both articles are also available on my website <http://www.emory.edu/ UDR/BLUMENTHAL> under Articles.

[2] For a full commentary on this psalm, one which reads both against and with the text, which brings spiritual subtexts, and which contains more philological detail, see Facing, chapter 9.

** In the printed version the masculine and feminine texts are set side by side, which is the way is should be.

[3] For a fuller liturgical context for this psalm, see my “‘Make Them as Tumbleweed,'” Strike Terror No More: Theological Ethics and the New War (St. Louis, MO, Chalice Press: 2002) 130-37.

[4] In Jewish tradition, one may, indeed one must, act in self defense and one may even kill to prevent the killing of another, but one may not murder. On this, see M. Broyde, “Battlefield Ethics in the Jewish Tradition,” Proceedings of the 95th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law (2001) 92-98 and the literature cited there.

[5] For a full commentary on this psalm, one which reads both against and with the text, which brings spiritual subtexts, and which contains more philological detail, see Facing, chapter 8.

[6] Elie Wiesel, Night, 32.

[7] For my own reaction to praying this psalm, see “What I Believe,” Commentary (August 1996) 23-24; “Theodicy: Dissonance in Theory and Praxis”; and “Make Them as Tumbleweed”; all available on my website.

[8] In much of English usage “vengeance,” perhaps under the influence of Christian tradition, has a negative connotation; it is seen an unbounded violence. I do not think this is correct. The term I use for that is “pornographic violence.” Rather, “vengeance” is violent action which is, nonetheless, retribution for a previous violent action. What makes “vengeance” ethically acceptable is that it is still proportionate to the previous violence perpetrated — ‘the punishment still fits the crime’ — which is not true in “pornographic violence.” As noted below, “vengeance” does not resolve wickedness but, by restoring moral balance, it is a natural and necessary step toward reconciliation.

[9] See above, note 4.

[10] Talmud, Berakhot 10a. Actually, Beruria has misread the grammar of the verse. Hatta’im means sinners and not sins, it being a professional noun form. The Talmud ignores this grammatical error and takes the lesson for its moral meaning.

[11] Translation taken from my forthcoming book on prayer.

[12] On alternating paths as a way of life, see Facing, chapter 5.

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