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Politics of Scripture

Praise as Abolitionist Vision

What if we saw in Psalm 98 a longing for an abolitionist vision of justice? How might entering into the psalmist’s vision of a joyful, praising creation animate and free our collective vision of how we might live together?

O sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
    have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
    he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
    to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
    the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;

    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,

    with the lyre and the sound of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn

    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

    the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands;

    let the hills sing together for joy

at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming

    to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness,

    and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 98

For American Christians, the Psalms are both sources of personal inspiration as well as touchstones for corporate worship, deeply interwoven into the English language hymnody, African American spirituals, and contemporary evangelical praise music. Christians from a range of traditions have drawn upon the wellspring of the Psalms as a way to navigate the landscape of emotions – brokenheartedness, anger, awe, fear, and joy – that emerge from the living of everyday experiences. As Carmen Joy Imes writes, for the most part, Christians tend to think of the Psalms in the register of personal piety and interiority rather than the political. We rely upon them to affirm our feelings in therapeutic ways rather than jostle ourselves out of immediate contexts. Even when the royal or kingship Psalms explicitly center God’s power, we can easily embed ourselves in the poetry so that divine authority is imagined as a projection of our own desires for the world, of fulfilling our own sovereign fantasies.

Knowing that this Psalm is a royal psalm, however, precisely invites us to step into the vision of Psalm 98 as a political one; moreover it is one that suggests abolitionist possibilities. To speak of abolition in our contemporary framing is to acknowledge the prison industrial complex (PIC) as emergent from the legacies of chattel slavery in the United States. It is also to acknowledge that the crisis of disproportionate police violence against Black communities in the United States is tied to this larger, persistent narrative of Black bodies as threats that need to be contained, disciplined, and punished. The critical salience of this connection then presses into the crisis of police violence as a structural issue of racial justice, rather than a case of a “few bad apples.” On one level, then, abolition speaks to a wholesale form of repentance – a turning away our tightly-held beliefs that policing is necessary to uphold our public safety. 

But more significantly, abolition is about the creation of new structures of accountability and care, about imagining new possibilities of embodied politics. As Robert Alter notes in his commentary on Psalm 98, the psalmist’s invitation to “sing a new song” is a direct and celebratory response to God’s decisive triumph on Israel’s behalf, a deliverance for her enemies. The psalmist’s characterization of the song as “new” indicates a break from old ways of being. However the psalm depends less on imagery of God as a divine warrior (cf. Ps. 3, 12, 46 83, 92, 144) and highlights more the image of God as ruler and judge. This divine imagery invites us to consider how God’s power, newly wielded, is employed to govern our communities and life together. 

To say Psalm 98 suggests abolitionist possibilities is to say that this text pushes us to see this song differently, as well as how it might transform our understanding of justice. It questions our implicit assumptions about what is necessary and pushes us toward what is possible. In this psalm, God’s power is more explicitly described in the language of God’s righteousness and equity, but this is not limited to Israel alone. Rather, the psalmist affirms that this divine power is for all peoples. As such, while this affirmation can be read as a comment on the breadth of God’s power, it can also interrogate our ideas of sovereignty and gesture to expansive possibilities for a new politic.

The psalmist also evokes the images and sounds of a joyous noise arising from clapping trees, the roaring sea, and singing hills, joining in with the music of lyre and trumpets. Again, we could simply interpret this as another instance of how humans have often anthropomorphized nature. It could also evoke imaginative and beautiful renderings of the created order, where the very strangeness, and in fact impossibility, of the psalmist’s renderings push us to redraw our own visions of what it takes to live in community together without fear of violence or punitive structures of control. The images of laughing creation can help stir a transformation in our understanding of justice and right living with each other.

What if we saw in Psalm 98 a longing for an abolitionist vision of justice? An abolitionist vision of justice understands Derek Chauvin’s recent conviction as a right accounting for George Floyd’s death within the American criminal justice system but also recognizes that the conviction in itself does not bring George Floyd back to his loved ones. It mourns how this same system created the unexceptional grounds of possibility for Floyd’s death. In other words, as abolitionists have noted, police brutality against Black communities does not point to a broken system but rather to a system exactly working as it should, depending on the necessary surveillance of Black and other communities of color for societal order. 

In that vein, an abolitionist vision will challenge our beliefs that a prison sentencing for Derek Chauvin affirms the prison industrial complex as a sustainable form of justice, that the solution to the problem of racialized police violence lies in merely adjusting the current system as it is. Instead, as the abolitionist activist Mariame Kaba states, abolition pushes us to imagine generative possibilities to address harm in accountable ways while creating a world where “we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundation to personal and community safety.” 

At the heart of abolition are not the logics of reform, of taking out “bad apples” when the entire well has been poisoned. Nor do abolitionists deny the harm and violence that people inflict upon each other, as critics often argue. Instead, an abolitionist vision refuses to allow fear of chaos to inform our beliefs about safety and offers up imagination and beauty for visioning an equitable world. To turn to our imaginations is not a flight from reality but instead tangibly tending to the patient practices of joy and love in weaving together new, life-giving structures of accountability.

These structures not only allow for Black communities to create communities of care for themselves. It also pushes non-Black persons and communities to engage in the work of abolition as an acknowledgment of our intertwined realities, starting with ourselves and our communities to question and dismantle our assumptions about what is needed for a safe and just existence. It centers the work of writing and the arts in helping us forge new bonds where love and justice are newly entwined, so that we can indeed sing the new song of the psalmist.

The psalmist’s longing for God’s justice on earth emerges from his knowledge of God as a singular kind of judge and ruler who ushers in new possibilities instead of retracing punitive ones. The images of praise in this psalm skeeter on the edges of impossibility. But perhaps by entering into the psalmist’s world of impossibility we can begin to reconceptualize and create a world here and now that is not just beautiful for some. How might entering into the psalmist’s vision of a joyful, praising creation animate and free our collective vision of how we might live together?   

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