between our steps 2016 nov 09 double
I have been thinking about lament, and the role it can have in helping us to express our grief. Public lament can be a powerful tool to release pent up emotion. But as I ponder this, I am aware that there is another question: what reaction will our grief and lament feed?

One of the ancient Hebrew songs that I have always loved is a beautiful poetic expression of grief. I learned a hauntingly sung version as a teenager. It is in the current United Church hymn book both to be spoken and sung. Psalm 137 begins, "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion." This is written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the army of Babylon when many were taken into exile. The writer goes on to say that when asked to sing the hymns of home, they hung up their harps in the willow trees and refused. The songs had no place in the foreign land.

This psalm speaks of the pain of dislocation, and how hard it is to sing or pray when a person has been uprooted. There is a loss of hope and faith as well as home.

The song I learned and the versions for use in public worship leave out the last three verses of the psalm. The desire for violent revenge is left out. In the bible, after a prayer to never forget the holy city, comes a prayer that those who destroyed it will be punished. The poet writes that the one who pays back Babylon for what they did will be happy.

The desire for revenge is understandable. The psalm expresses a natural human reaction. The next line, however, shows how problematic the desire for revenge can be: "happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" (NRSV)

I understand why the hymn book takes out these lines. We do not want to say them out loud. But there is an honesty to them as well. The desire for revenge is a natural human reaction. When someone hurts us, anger leads us to hurt back.

And the vicious violence expressed in the last line is not unknown to us. We heard about this kind of violence in Rwanda, among the Rohingya, in many violence-torn communities. Humanity is capable of hoping for this kind of retaliation.

But should we let grief lead us to hope for this kind of pay back?

In our society, when someone is the victim of a violent crime, we allow for victim impact statements. Once a person is found guilty, the victims are able to tell the court how they suffer from the violence. This impact is taken into consideration in sentencing so that the punishment fits the crime.

Maybe this gives some consolation. But watching the person who hurt us get punished does not assuage the pain. Reading a statement of hurt publicly may give the victims some relief. But it may also feed the desire for revenge and that can be a kind of poison.

Sometimes we hear that when a loved one is lost to a drunk driver, the driver is forgiven. They are still held accountable by the courts, but the family lets go of anger.

Those who taught active non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, have told us that to break the cycle, to address abuse of power, to start onto a new path requires letting go of the desire for revenge. Facing violence without fear or anger, calling on the other to act with respect, compassion, humanity can heal the torn fabric of community.

It feels important to me that the expression of the desire for revenge is there in the scripture. We need to acknowledge that people are capable of wanting this. But it also feels important to me that this hope is not in the psalms we pray out loud together. Not everything in the text can be read without comment. Not everything in it is intended to be our prayer.

Reading the whole of this psalm leaves us with the question: how will we deal with bitterness? Where will lament take us? Ignoring pain does not deal with the wrong. But revenge is not the only option. We have been shown another path, one that leads to healing for us and for the community.

Cathy Hird lives on the shore of Georgian Bay.




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