As part of my current religious practices, I am charged with praying a daily office, consisting of morning and evening prayer periods with specified scriptures, prayers, chants, etc. The Psalms are central to most traditional offices, and obviously almost all of Christianity makes use of the Psalms in some way. While many parts of the Psalms are quite beautiful, inspiring, and comforting, there are others that I have long found disturbing and even contradictory to the messages of Jesus as I currently understand them. Of course, this is true not only of my reading of the Psalms but also of other writings in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament; I am nevertheless most frequently presented with this challenge by this particular book attributed to King David. I explicitly refer to King David because he was a warrior king who clearly saw bloodshed as a legitimate way to serve God. As I dig into these issues, please keep in mind that nothing I say here is meant to denigrate the Jewish people or their scriptures or traditions, but merely to reflect upon how I am challenged by those scriptures as a member of a faith that preserves its historical connections with them.
Here is an example of such passages:
In your unfailing love, silence my enemies; destroy all my foes, for I am your servant. Psalm 143:12
So I ask myself, how can I reconcile with such a prayer, let alone actually speak it, when I have received this teaching from Jesus?
But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Luke 6:27-29
I could simply refuse to speak such words as in Psalms 143:12, and at times I have done so. There are Christians who essentially ignore the Old Testament because they regard too much of it as incompatible with their understanding of Jesus. The rejection of scriptures that beg for or seem to command hatred and violence toward others is, to me, a completely understandable response to the teachings of Jesus about agape. However, that approach also concerns me because I sense in it the slippery slope of denial about who we are as the Church, which includes where we came from and how we got to where we are. For me to deny that violence and ill-will toward our fellow human beings is part of the Church’s past would be just as misguided as me trying to deny the racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes of my youth simply because I want to be free of them now and in the future. For this reason alone I can find value in frequently revisiting these scriptures, and so when I speak them it is not to voice their literal meanings but to acknowledge them as part of our history and thus part of our present and our future. That kind of mindfulness is meaningful to me because I’ve found truth in this adage from George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
Thankfully there are other benefits to maintaining my connection with even the most disturbing of scriptures. At times I have found it a meaningful connection with the fact that I do sometimes feel anger and fear toward others and then, despite my best intentions, perhaps even fantasize about a violent intervention that would forever end the threat. On other occasions it has seemed helpful to think of these scriptures as speaking about the enemies I perceive in my own soul, vices that lead me to do things I regret, and about which I grow impatient and angry with myself. Yet whether the perceived threat is external or internal, I believe that hatred and violence is not the answer. In those moments, scriptures like these can help me accept and integrate those dark thoughts and feelings and more carefully ponder the perceived threat and discern a more loving response.
Harsh scriptures also help me to empathize with those Christians, Jews, and Muslims who feel compelled by scripture to take a more dogmatic, legalistic, or militant approach in their religion. I am further reminded of how the Bible and other spiritual writings, such as creeds and liturgies, are very much human texts, and how even the most illuminated prophets cannot help but respond to Divine inspiration in ways that are more or less affected by countless cultural and personal factors. I strive to remember that this must also be true of my own understanding of life and the Divine, and so I try to not allow myself the conceit of feeling superior to those who “just don’t get it” the way I think I do.
In discussing this matter with a friend, it was further suggested to me that Judaism’s own awareness and struggle with such scriptures has been invaluable to the development of their culture’s social justice movements. The spirit behind the warrior-like words of Psalms can be taken as a combination of pleas to God and zealous determination to right wrongs, protect the weak, defend the innocent, free the oppressed, and support the righteous. We Christians inherited that spirit from our Jewish forebears. There is a parallel to this transformation of historical messages within Christianity as well, where once hateful and bloodthirsty orders of Christian knighthood have been reconstructed as peaceful orders of service to all humanity. I am fully aware that their existence is offensive to many people, especially those whose ancestors suffered the Crusades. Yet, in what I personally consider to be the best examples of such orders, rather than deny or celebrate the heinous parts of their history, they acknowledged them with humility and remorse. The sword that was once an instrument of conquest and oppression has become a symbol for courageous commitment to Truth and a reminder that intolerance and violence too often only beget more intolerance and violence.
In terms of what most people typically think of as mystical experience, the practice of reciting such scriptures doesn’t seem to do much for me. For that sort of thing, I’ll take the Rosary, the Jesus Prayer, chanting Maranatha, or sitting in centering prayer over reciting the Psalms any day. This practice has, however, obviously helped me to become more aware of my place in the family of the Church, the “Mystical Body of Christ,” and to feel more compassion for and communion with all Christians, Jews, and Muslims. And since I believe any awareness of love is an awareness of the Divine, then in that sense I must acknowledge that this practice, even with all its operational and discursive distractions, is mystical in its own way.