Striking a pose: Psalm 18 and positional righteousness

Picking up from yesterday: what has gone wrong with us—members and heirs of certain American Christian traditions—that what we believe and do diverges so starkly from the ways of the one we claim to follow?

I said yesterday it’s all about truth. It’s also all about righteousness. The two are closely related. With regard to righteousness American evangelicalism has suffered from a kind of phobia. Based on the biblical (prophetic and Pauline) insight that our own righteousness is as filthy rags, so that only God’s own righteousness as embodied in Jesus Christ can save us, the American evangelical tradition somehow came to see our own actual righteousness not as the goal of divine mercy but as its enemy.

We were taught about receiving “positional righteousness” and turned it into dogmatic confidence in the sufficiency of striking a pose.

The teaching was insightful and valid, as far as it went, but its insufficiency, apart from more robust teaching about sanctification, is demonstrated by the result: people whose heads and mouths are full of holy teaching but whose conscience is too dead to perceive that our actions and inactions, utterances and silences, contradict the teaching.

The middle section of Psalm 18 provides some grist for meditation.

The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the LORD,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
So the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you show yourself tortuous.*
For you save a humble people,
but the haughty eyes you bring down.
For it is you who light my lamp;
the LORD my God lightens my darkness.
For by you I can run against a troop,
and by my God I can leap over a wall.
This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the LORD proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

* Here I have altered the ESV, which unjustifiably uses a different English rendering for precisely the same Hebrew construction in these three lines.

John Goldingay points out the difficulty of imagining David as the speaker of these words. “[T]he picture we receive of David from his story is that he was a great killer, a great politician, and something of a womanizer, but a failure in personal relationships.” The Psalms themselves do not claim to be written by the shepherd-king himself, but in the tradition the Psalms were generally seen as “Psalms of David.” So we hear dissonance between the canonical David, the pious psalm-writer,and the historical David, the leader of a private militia, seller of protection, killer, adulterer.

What about our own dissonance when we try to pray this psalm, making our own its claims to perfect rectitude? One might make Christ—the only truly blameless one—the subject of these verses, and then make them our own only through our union with Christ.

But that doesn’t solve the problem of the dissonance between the canonical us and the historical us. The canonical us is: us according to Scripture. The historical us is: us as seen by people around us. What to do about the difference?

Seems to me there are two possibilities: (1) serious devotion to closing the gap, (2) mingled denial and complacent acceptance of the gap. In one word: (1) sanctification or (2) hypocrisy. In our moment, what the world is seeing in white American evangelicalism is the latter.

The watching world sees white evangelical Christians—who sincerely believe that their verbalized theoretical belief in Jesus is, and should be received as, a powerful witness to the watching world—piling on to praise and affirm public figures who curse and deride the poor, the hungry, the weeping, whom Jesus pronounced blessed, and congratulate and fortify the rich, the full, the laughing, unto whom Jesus proclaimed woe. The watching world sees resentful and fearful white evangelical Christians clinging to a vulgar secular messiah who promises to save them from a mixed multitude of Christians, anti-Christians, and non-Christians who don’t share their political views.

The watching world doesn’t see positional righteousness. It sees hypocrisy. We love to sing “In Christ alone my hope is found” and maybe also “clothed in his righteousness alone faultless I stand.” And rightly so. But those clothes are meant to be taken out of the mental closet and worn in the real public world. Merely believing in the possibility of being clothed accomplishes nothing. Positional righteousness was not meant to remain theoretical. Striking a mental pose—saying some words in your head which are then not enacted with your body—just doesn’t cut it.

The psalmist, or the Christian who learns to pray this psalmist’s words, enters into blamelessness by putting on the righteousness of the Righteous One not just mentally but bodily, not just in thought but in action. Including (of course! why on earth would this sphere be excluded?) political speech and action.

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