Sunday, 23 February 2014

Can hatred be holy?

The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Psalm 58: 10.

There are times when, reading the Bible, I find myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable. I hope I’m not alone in this, but I have to admit that some parts leave me thinking “I really wish that wasn’t in the Bible!” This verse is one of them.

Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to forgive those who wrong and hurt us. Yet here is the psalmist positively gloating in the prospect of triumphing over “the wicked”; however metaphorical the idea of “bathing our feet in their blood” may be (and I’m sure it is metaphorical), it isn’t exactly a nice sentiment, to put it mildly.

How should we who call ourselves Christians respond to such passages? I think that in practice there are three main options. (I assume that none of us would regard verses like this as justifying hatred and vengefulness in our own dealings with our “enemies”, so I don’t include that as a Christian option.) 

Option one is, I suspect, by far the most common: ignore them. When we come to these parts of the Bible (and they crop up, by the way, in the New Testament as well as the Old) they can easily activate an off-switch in our brains. We screen them out and hurry on to something more pleasant. Natural enough, I suppose. But it really isn’t honest, if we believe that the whole Bible, and not just bits of it, is the inspired word of God. No: we have to face them fairly and squarely.

Option two is to make excuses for them. “Ah yes,” we say, “but of course the person who wrote that psalm knew nothing of Jesus. He lived at an earlier point of history - he was a man of his time, so what can you expect?” But this response also really won’t do, for while, yes, there are places in the Old Testament where God in his justice decrees the destruction of Israel’s national enemies, there are also various passages where God’s people are commanded to love their personal enemies: that command didn’t originate with Jesus! I can’t quote them all here, but if you are interested in following it up, take a look at Proverbs 25:21 and Exodus 23:4-5. And Proverbs 24:17, in fact, could have been written with Psalm 58:10 especially in mind. 

No. We have to go for option three: try to understand the sentiment behind these ferocious words, however imperfect it may be, and use it to become better people

What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s be brutally honest with ourselves: however sweetly we may smile, there are times when we feel towards someone else the sort of anger and resentment displayed by the psalmist. All right, we would never dream of expressing it in the same lurid terms: God forbid, we’re far too polite and well brought up for that! But it’s there, lurking deep in our souls. Can any of us honestly claim to have spirits cleansed of every trace of spite and retaliation?

In other words, let’s at least give credit to the psalmist for being honest - there is no hypocrisy here, no plastic love, no pretended virtue: things which, I suspect, we all too easily cultivate. What actors we can become! This man is one of those embarrassing people who tend to say what the rest of us only think. He cares about wickedness, enough to long for the destruction of those who perpetrate it. There is no indifference here, no shrugging of the shoulders. 

If nothing else, this psalm can challenge the way we tend to turn a blind eye to the injustices of our world - rather as we switch television channels to something entertaining when we really don’t want to think about the horrors we are confronted with. 

So... No, I don’t think we can excuse the man who wrote the psalm. And I certainly don’t think we are meant to follow his example. But I do think that a man crying out in anguish at what he has witnessed - and perhaps himself experienced - has something good to teach us about honesty, about caring, about a passion for justice and rightness.

And hopefully such thoughts can also lead us closer to the one who, in his great suffering, prayed to God: “Father, forgive them - they don’t know what they are doing”.

Oh God, give me a holy hatred of all injustice and wickedness. Empty me of all indifference. And fill my heart, I pray, with the forgiving spirit of Jesus himself. Amen.

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