I have been reading the Psalms for Lent. There are 150 Psalms. I need to read three or four Psalms per day to read the entire Psalter by Easter Sunday.
The Psalms address the breadth of theological issues that are dispersed throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Reading the Psalms is like hearing a CD of the Old Testament on shuffle play. A song of trust and security in God is followed by a prayer for deliverance from persecutors is followed by a royal thanksgiving is followed by a hymn to God’s glory in creation. The Psalms evoke many different images of God: a storm God, a warrior God, a God of presence, God as judge, God as liberator, God as an eagle spreading her wings over her young.
There is a diversity of images and theology, but there is also a disturbing pattern. The Psalms are replete with prayers for deliverance from enemies. I just finished reading Psalm 58. Should this Psalm be read from the pulpit as good news?: The wicked go astray from the womb; They err from their birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent … O God, break the teeth in their mouths; Tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! … Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; Like the untimely birth that never sees the sun … The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; They will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
This is only the most extreme of many Psalms in which the psalmist describes people as wicked and unredeemable — they are like aborted fetuses.
The Psalms were written in a time much more violent than our own. We have a false image of the noble savage who lived in peace with his neighbors. Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist, masterfully demonstrates in “The Better Angel of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (Viking: New York, 2011) that the number of people who died violently, either by war or by murder, was 60 to 100 times higher in the early states of Babylonian, Greek and Roman times than in Western societies today. Dying violently at the hands of another human being was a real threat then instead of the remote possibility that it is today.
This pervasive threat of violence made its way into the sacred writings of the three great religions that were founded in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christians cannot pretend that the Old Testament has been superseded by a non-violent New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew repeatedly predicts there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for the perceived opponents of the gospel writer.
The Second Letter to the Thessalonians, most likely written by a disciple of Paul, reassures its audience that their persecution will be avenged: “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also are suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might … .”
The three great world religions of the Middle East each display a penchant for Manichaeism. Mani was a third-century Persian prophet who preached that the world was divided into the battleground between the forces of light and darkness. It is a dualistic perspective that sees good and evil instead of shades of gray.
A Manichean perspective is understandable in the hyper-violent cultures of 2,000 years ago but it is dangerous today. It demonizes people whose beliefs and perspectives differ from our own. It instills the attitude that compromise is sin and that the in-group must seek to be victorious over all other groups.
Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” (Pantheon: New York, 2012), urges us to draw on the Chinese model of Yin and Yang, which sees light and darkness, female and male, life and death as complementary instead of oppositional. Yin and Yang form a whole.
As our society becomes increasingly diverse, we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by a Manichean perspective. We must recognize it when it appears in our sacred texts and call it bad news for today. In the season of Lent, we repent and turn to God. Sometimes that means understanding texts in the Bible within the context of the times in which they were written.
DON HEATH is pastor of Edmond Trinity Christian Church. He may be reached at email@example.com.