This guest post, and the accompanying artwork, are from my friend
musician, visual artist, and physician.
By Babylon’s streams,
there we sat, oh we wept,
when we recalled Zion.
On the poplars there we
hung up our lyres.
For there our captors had asked of us
words of song,
and our plunderers—rejoicing:
“Sing us from Zion’s songs.”
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on foreign soil?
Should I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I do not recall you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my chief joy.
Recall, O Lord, the Edomites, on the day of Jerusalem, saying:
“Raze it, raze it, to its foundation!”
Daughter of Babylon the despoiler,
happy who pays you back in kind,
for what you did to us.
Happy who seizes and smashesTranslated by Robert Alter
your infants against the rock.
About fifteen years ago, there was a song that came on the clinic radio most every hour. It was a big hit for singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles. “I’m not going to write you a love song,” the chorus goes, “’Cause you asked for one / ’Cause you need one.” The verses detail a complicated, codependent, possibly abusive relationship. The chorus serves notice of the singer’s intention to take charge of the situation and refuse the other’s request. The irony, if you need me to point it out, is that Bareilles’s composition provides precisely what the song says that she will not do. In recent years, Ms. Bareilles has revealed that the song was written as a reaction, “nasty in a passive-aggressive way,” to her treatment by her recording company, who kept pressing her for more “radio-friendly” work.
I imagine Psalm 137 having a similar birth story. Babylon has overrun the kingdom of Judah, with the encouragement of Judah’s neighbor, Edom. Jerusalem has been besieged and laid to ruin. The people of Judah have been forcibly relocated to Babylon, to live at the whims of their captors: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” So, Jeremiah—some think the prophet wrote this Psalm—composes a song. And this song has it all: Lament! Nostalgia! Infanticide! “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Jeremiah asks. “By living for the day that we can watch you fall!” is his apparent answer. “Not the song you asked for, but the song you deserve!”
I asked my pastor friend which of the Psalms he thought was the most difficult. He recommended this one. There is brutality in the words of this Psalm, in the expression they give to the pain and anger born of deep trauma. Could a congregation misconstrue these verses as endorsing violent action taken on the impulse of righteous anger? Or, am I allowing my own bias against violence to tame the intent behind this Psalm?
It hasn’t been difficult to think of people in more recent history who have suffered oppression and displacement comparable to Judah’s exile. Our news catalogs how political chaos has brought upheaval for the lives of Syrian, Yemeni, Uighur, Haitian, Sudanese, Salvadoran, and Ukrainian people.
Our American national story begins with generations of people stolen from their homes in Africa to be oppressed, abused, and degraded in a foreign land. That story continues to unfold as the children of those generations continue to be systematically denied their full entitlement to happiness, liberty, and life.
Our world is not only broken, it is breaking. Injustices infest human relationships at every scale: the global and environmental to the intimate and individual. The psalmist’s cry for retribution is as familiar as it is ancient. We have all wished for it to be done to others as badly as we have found it done to us. Meanwhile, we have the testimony of generations of grievances unsettled and wounds unhealed that vengeance does not restore what has been lost. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” If Psalm 137 poses a risk to the integrity of our faith, it may be that the bright burning intensity of righteous anger, whether it is on our own or another’s behalf, may still fail to illuminate our desperate need for reconciliation. For all the betrayal that Judah experienced at the hand of Edom, Edom likely had felt its share of injustice from Judah. Then, and now, we live in need of an intervention that can break the cycles of violence.