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Essays, Politics of Scripture

Overcoming The Politics of Despair—Psalm 22:1-15 (Stephen Dawson)

The psalmist wrestles with despair, drawing strength from remembrances of God’s past protection and help. Politics, which must also face the threat of despair, can learn from the way that both the psalmist and Christ after him preserve the glimmer of hope against despair’s engulfing darkness.

To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

Despair is the raw feeling that comes from losing hope or having lost it entirely. It is the bleak experience of living without the comforting expectation of something desired (which is simply another way of describing hope). One vaunted cause of despair is the end of a romantic affair. The jazz standard “Where Are You?,” composed by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson for the 1937 comedy Top of the Town, provides an example. Frank Sinatra recorded the definitive version in 1957. The song looks back on the end of a love affair. The narrator expresses disbelief that he and his beloved have parted, and he wonders where she has gone. “I thought you cared about me,” the narrator exclaims, and then returns to the plaintive question, “Where are you?” He then looks ahead to life without his beloved: “All life through, must I go on pretending / Where is my happy ending? Where are you?”

The song masterfully captures that moment in which one realizes that a love affair has ended, yet it is not at all clear how one will get on with life. For this sort of despair, the passage of time is often the most effective balm for what feels like a broken heart. Friends can be very helpful in providing the space and opportunity for the brokenhearted to come to grips with his despair and make possible the return of hope.

Other causes of despair, such as illness and pain, often require more than the passage of time. Such is the despair of the psalmist in Psalm 22, who describes his condition vividly: “I am poured out like water, / and all my bones are out of joint; / my heart is like wax; / it is melted within my breast; / my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, / and my tongue sticks to my jaws; / you lay me in the dust of death” (14–15). The physical pains of the psalmist are intensified by two sources of emotional pain. The first is provided by those persons who scorn and despise him, and ultimately blame him for his misfortune. The editor of Psalms in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) notes that those mocking the psalmist treat his illness as a sign of God’s displeasure. This leads to the second source of the psalmist’s despair, his fear that God has abandoned him in his time of need: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? / Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” Being alone in this ultimate sense intensifies and makes practically unbearable the revilement by others and his physical pain. In his solitude he must strain to provide his own consolation and reasons for hope.

How can the psalmist walk back from the precipice of despair by himself? One strategy is historical memory: the psalmist consoles himself by remembering that God has helped his people in the past. They cried out for help, and God helped him. God will provide relief because he has done so in the past. Another strategy is to look back at his life. The psalmist recalls his birth and upbringing, and the way in which God protected him earlier in life. Both the historical past of his people as well as the memories of his own biography provide reason for hope. His ultimate loneliness is perhaps only temporary. These remembrances are like amulets, relics of past hope, that he can hold onto in the reliquary of his memory. They are charms protecting him against his worst fears: abandonment by God and by everyone else, the loss of health, and finally the end of life itself. Later in Psalm 22 we learn that the psalmist bravely resolves to honor God publicly upon his deliverance and return to health. The amulets of past help and protection by God provide strength and solace to the psalmist in the face of despair.

Perhaps the most desperate cause of despair is a life-threatening event in which the possibility of death looms. Such is the despair experienced by Jesus on the day of the crucifixion. Like the psalmist, Jesus suffers physical pain and the rejection of those around him. His followers have all fled. The writer of Mark references the despair of Jesus in the midst of crucifixion by sampling (in the hip-hop sense) the first verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). In Mark’s account (as well as Matthew’s), these are the only words attributed to Jesus on the cross.

I have often found myself curious about Jesus’ state of mind in the dark afternoon portion of the crucifixion. Could despair have been the last temptations of Christ? Despair in this context would threaten to wipe out the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Despair eviscerates hope, saps the foundations of faith, and compromises love. For someone in the position Jesus found himself—being painfully executed as a criminal, being reviled by his own people as a blasphemer (and a fraud, according to some—“he saved others, he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe” [15:31–32]), the feeling of being forsaken and thus unlovable would be the final straw that, if it does not breaks one’s spirit entirely, certainly brings one to the brink of despair. Unlike with the psalmist, there are no amulets of remembrance to ward off the temptation of despair. There is simply the man (“behold the man,” as Pontius Pilate instructed the crowd), and in this moment—sometime around 3:00 in the afternoon, according to the Gospel writers—despair becomes a final test of spiritual strength.

Overcoming despair is a perennial struggle for us because suffering in all of its manifestations is a universal condition of human existence. There is the heartbreak resulting from those we love going away, as in the end of a love affair or, striking a note of greater finality, the death of a loved one (think of the despair experienced by David after the death of his son with Bathsheba: “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” [2 Samuel 12: 23]). There is the pain and suffering brought about by illness, which is accentuated by the fear that we might always suffer in this condition—we will not get better. Perhaps, in fact, we will get worse and die. Then there is the spiritual pain of facing death, which asks of us our final attitude toward life.

Politics is not immune to despair. The politics of despair has much in common with the second type of despair discussed here, that of sickness unto death. Despair is a way of life under a totalitarian regime (the classic description remains Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). In democracies, despair finds expression in the need for hope. Politicians claim to offer hope. In 1992, Bill Clinton introduced himself to the American public as the “man from Hope” who proclaimed (cue husky, trying-hard-to-sound-sincere voice), “I still believe in a place called Hope.” In 2008, posters of Barack Obama bearing the single word HOPE were ubiquitous. Earlier this year Pope Francis remarked, “Our time has a great need for hope! The young can no longer be robbed of hope… The young need hope. It is necessary to offer concrete signs of hope to those who experience pain and suffering. Social organizations and associations, as well as individuals who strive towards acceptance and sharing, are generators of hope.” One effective way to meet despair, the Pope suggests, is not simply with words but with concrete signs of hope. For the psalmist, memories and a common heritage served as concrete signs of hope. We could add acts of friendship and love to our list of concrete signs of hope—there are, of course, many other items we could add to such a list. These signs make possible the return of hope, which keeps the darkness of despair at bay, both for ourselves and for others. In this way the politics of despair becomes the politics of hope.

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