Psalms of Resistance #2: A Call to an Unreasonable Faith

Why do the nations rage
And the people’s plot in vain?
The Kings of the earth set themselves
and the rulers take council together
against the LORD and against his anointed
saying
Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us”

He who sits in the heavens laughs
the LORD holds them in derision
Then he will speak to them in his wrath
and terrify them in his fury, saying
As for me, I have set my king
on Zion, my holy hill”

I will tell of the decree
The LORD said to me, “you are my son
Today I have begotten you
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage
and the ends of the earth your possession
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise
Be warned, O rulers of the earth
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling
Kiss the son
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way
for his wrath is quickly kindled
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Scholarly sorts aren’t agreed on when this song was written.

Was for some mad Israelite monarch who thought his tiny kingdom might one day smash the huge empires that ruled the known world? Or the wishful messianic ravings of a destitute people after their kingdom had been crushed into obscurity by the Babylonians?

In either case, coming from the margins, it makes little reasonable sense. It either speaks of someone who’s lost their mind, or, someone who who knows something we don’t.

The song was taken up by the Messianic movement after some were arrested for dissent (Acts 4). In an empire where Caesar’s title was “the saviour of the world,” they said the recently executed Jesus of Nazareth, who lead a movement of healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and redistribution, was in fact the saviour of the world, and that “there is no other name under heaven, given among men and women by which we must be saved.” Then they accused their own government (4:8) of collusion with the powers that had killed him. They were, in their own way, marching through the place of government, saying, Not my president. Not my government.*

When released, they gathered the community to pray, and they sing Psalm 2:

“Why do the nations rage
And the people’s plot in vain?
The Kings of the earth set themselves
and the rulers take council together
against the LORD and against his anointed”

Here, the song’s subversive core rings out. It’s not the tiny little resistance movement, still clinging onto its crucified leader, who are laughable – it is the imperial Powers and their collaborators. It’s not the community living under constant threat who should “be warned” – it is rather “the rulers of the earth.”

The rash tone here evokes a political hope that permeates the Psalms: the Maker will bring down the self-confident and corrupt Power. This conviction steadied the backbone of the small as they confronted the great. It gave them a quiet confidence and a peace. They didn’t protest merely as those who fight for their own rights. They announced a coming Peace, that would end the self-defeating folly of the Powers. And they did it as if they wanted to offer even these vain rulers and kings, an open door out of their own disasters. I think it might have been this quality of peace in their actions that really terrified the Powers – the peace that suggested that these nobodies knew something they didn’t.

For example, the disciples mentioned above who confronted their rulers. The elites “perceived that they were uneducated, common men” and were “astonished.” When given an order of silence, they refuse, saying “whether it is right in the sight of God, to listen to you or to listen to God, you must judge.”

Or Paul. On trial before King Agrippa, he wryly says “I would to God that not only you, but all who hear me this day, might become such as I am – except for these chains” (Acts26:29). This marvellously ironic statement, spoken by a prisoner in chains to a king on a throne, echoes with our psalm beautifully – where the powerless warn the powerful: “Be warned, O rulers… Kiss the son lest 13394112_10157051878455525_5957106952229146029_n.jpghe be angry.”

Or such as the homeless Messiah Jesus, who is brought before the Roman governor Pilate, in his grand palace (John 19). Pilate quickly becomes unnerved. He begins to feel that it is he who is on trial… he who should be afraid. The governor’s wife sees it, and urges him to have nothing more to do with this frightening man.

Today, when every day seems to bring another vote or executive order from the Powers against any respect for God’s creation, or for the image of God in any but a privileged few, this song is a call to an unreasonable faith, in the light of whatever odds. As Walter Benjamin said; “every second of time [is] the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter.” To live in that expectation is to stand before the Powers with a twinkle in your eye.

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* For context, the stir was caused by their having healed a disabled man. Their statements of dissent were not the political opinions that angrily bubble over whenever someone mentiones Thatcher. They were practicing a life of healing and compassion. When they were obliged to say what they were against, it was because they had demonstrated what they were for.

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Psalms of Resistance #1

The world feels disoriented and afraid. I know so many people who can’t sleep these days. Here’s the first of some ancient songs of resistance and resilience for people and communities.

Blessed are they
who walk not in the council of the wicked 
nor stand in the way of sinners
nor sit in the seat of scoffers
but delight is in the law of the LORD
and on his law they meditate day and night

They are like trees
planted by streams of water
that yield fruit in season 
and their leaves do not wither
In all that they do, they prosper
The wicked are not so
but are like chaff that the wind drives away

Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous
but the way of the wicked will perish*

On What We Choose to Listen to…

We’re drowning in bad news – and while I’m glad to know, but the political powers in the UK and US have become so absurdly cruel, they almost seem like caricatures of wicked politicians. There’s something addictive about watching the next absurdity announced.

I think of Rene Girard’s comment almost every day, that we should choose our enemies carefully, “because we will become like them.” While transfixed on the absurdity of evil, we are in danger of being sucked into the absurdity ourselves. We mirror it. Responses become hateful, social divides become wider and more dangerous, and the real work of resistance, resilience and goodness is neglected amidst satire, memes and mutual commiseration. Too much of the embittered opposition to the Powers today that be has become a noise that does nothing but blow off steam and help preserve the status quo.

To be clear, I don’t propose we put our fingers in our ears, but there is something to be said for taking a step back from “the council of the wicked… the way of sinners… and the seat of the scoffers” – lest we allow the Powers to dictate the terms of the argument. The barrage of their noise is overwhelming, and we can’t put roots down into this narrative. There is no sustaining vision here.

Our song offers an alternative source from outside the chaos: meditation on the law of the LORD. “Law” here is torah, meaning, not rules (A. A. Anderson suggests), but “the revelation of the will of YHWH, which is both demanding and liberating.” Here is a vision that feeds both our view of what is happening, and also our practice in the midst of it – the good hard work of liberating practice.** This grass roots vision outlasts the self-defeating absurdity of today’s wicked Powers. But how so?

On Resilience vs. Quietism

Martin Luther King’s statement that the arc of history bends toward justice, is a restatement of what the Psalms say constantly. The just community, like green trees, will outlast the malfunctionings of the wicked Powers, which will blow away like chaff – the part which history doesn’t keep. This isn’t a call to quietism, and it certainly isn’t a call to grin and bear it in the hope of a happier afterlife. The arena of the Psalms is creation and history. If “the way of the wicked shall perish” it will perish from the earth, just as “the meek,” (not the proud) “shall inherit the earth.”

What is said in this song is repeated through all the rest; the arc of history does bend toward justice, the Creator’s Goodness will outlast the wickedness of corrupt Power. It is with this defiant conviction that we are rooted in a vision greater than the todays absurd narratives. Drinking from this river we can resist evil without being sucked into mimicking its rationale, becoming fearful and hatefulness ourselves. From here, “the wicked” might even become the subject of our pity and compassion.

Today is Ash Wednesday (when Christian’s remember Jesus’ journey out of the hubbub and into the wilderness to overcome evil). A good day to come apart and be watered by a bigger vision.

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*I hope no-one will mind too much that I have made this song (psalm 1) gender-neutral. I’ve also made it communal, which gives it something, but also takes something away – namely, its call to the individual to walk wisely when the crowd lose their head.

** The prayerful action of the NO DAPL movement is, I think, an extraordinary and beautiful example of this.