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Essays, Justice, Politics of Scripture, Quick Takes, Traditions

The 23rd Psalm in an Age of Terror: A Pastoral Response to Boston

It all comes flooding back. One minute you feel safe and secure, like you can go about your business without a care for anything except maybe another recession, and the next thing you know all the horror of 911 gets dredged up in the wake of the most recent Boston Massacre. That’s how I felt anyway when I turned on my TV yesterday afternoon. I’m sure lots of other people have felt that way, too. My niece is a student at Boston University and was in her dorm just blocks from where the bombings took place. Her mom and dad are on a trip in Rome 4000 miles away. It’s a toss-up as to who is shook up the most. You don’t have to have been there or be from there or have some intimate connection to there to have had your normal feeling of safety disrupted as we all did twelve years ago. And that’s what concerns me.

I’m a lectionary preacher. I like the discipline of having the texts picked for me so that I can’t duck the uncomfortable ones. Looking at this coming Sunday’s text awhile back I thought that, after what was for me a few weeks of challenging texts, I had an “easy” one, Psalm 23. I’ve read it a thousand times, memorized it as a child, translated it in grad school, preached and taught on it in the parish, and have even sung several settings of it as a soloist and in a choir.

It’s always been interesting to me how the intervention of life can break open a text to me in ways that had not occurred to me before. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said no one enters the same stream twice. Had he been a preacher he could’ve said the same thing about scripture. At about 5:00 PM yesterday, watching the news of mayhem and destruction after having been working on my sermon for Sunday, the 23rd Psalm became for me a very different stream than any other in which I had ever walked.

The historical setting for Psalm 23 has been notoriously slippery for scholarship to nail down. Basically, every conflict of either Israel or Judah, inside or outside of the Bible, from David in the 10th century BCE to the Maccabees in the second, has been suggested by somebody. The fascinating thing about this is that all of these suggestions are incredibly convincing! The psalm has an enormous capacity to absorb the imaginative historical construals of biblical scholarship in a way that makes each one seem uniquely realistic. Which is why it is so fortuitous that the 23rd Psalm is our Old Testament lectionary text for this coming Sunday, because it is a psalm that was made for terror. The preacher will not have to stretch too far to bring her congregation into the world of this text on this Lord’s Day, because this week the Bible and the newspaper seem capable of being held in just one hand.

And how this text challenges us! It is typically read as a psalm of comfort, and that is surely still there, but there are also at least two penetrating critiques that stand out in sharp relief when viewed against the last twelve years of national experience.

“I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

The Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of evil, nor its capacity to wreak havoc. But the Psalmist has adopted a resolute stance in the face of this real threat–No Fear. Not because the FBI is already on the scene. Not because enhanced surveillance methods will allow the CIA to identify the perpetrators more quickly and effectively. Not because our military has new tools to exact vengeance expeditiously so that these people will never hurt anyone again. But rather because “YOU are with me.” It’s the core claim of biblical faith that there is but one God and that all trust belongs to that God, yet when trouble comes solace is found in every place but the proper one, even among the community that is supposed to have embraced this core claim more completely than anyone.

“You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

If our first impulse is fear in the face of terror, our second impulse is vengeance. Just as the Psalmist does not deny the reality of evil, neither does he ignore the cold hard fact that there are people in the world who mean him harm. Crucially, however, the Psalmist’s mention of the enemy is subordinated to his primary confession about the goodness of God and the bounty with which he has been blessed. The impulse to vengeance, in other words, is short-circuited by the deep awareness of grace, which re-directs the energy that would have been drained to exact retribution and is instead harnessed to render joyful thanksgiving. I’m not arguing that the Psalmist is some kind of proto-Gandhian, but rather that the text presents an alternative worldview in which reactive violence is shunned in favor of a more thoughtful process which integrates the faith tradition instead of bifurcating the matter of what to do with the enemy into the secular sphere, as is so typical in our own society. The interposition of a reflective moment of thanksgiving between the impulse to vengeance and the enactment thereof creates a space that opens up prospects for personal and social transformation, including that of the enemy. And such a moment is as needed today as it was the day this Psalm was penned.

Our reaction to terror over the last twelve years has been a disaster. A hard-hitting, world-remaking, “shock-and-awe” response was widely thought to be the tonic for getting us over our fear and punishing our enemies. Even the church cowered in the shadows, mostly afraid to speak up in the face of widespread public clamor that something be done. Yet after all the application of force, the abridgment of human rights, and the shortcuts with the Constitution, there is now widespread dissatisfaction with all those efforts, as well as widespread awareness that, not only are we not any safer, we’ve actually made things worse in the world thereby.

It is essential that we get our response to this most recent outrage right. And this time, the church needs to lead, if not society, at the very least its own adherents, which it can start doing by living up to the claims and calling of its own texts. We have responsibilities both to God and our enemies which transcend whatever electrical charges are currently emanating from the reactive, reptilian portion of our brain. This time, rather than blending in and going along, the church needs to lead society by reframing in its own faith and life this present act of what seems to be terror in terms other than those which appear in the tunnel vision of crisis.


Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology and a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church USA.

2 thoughts on “The 23rd Psalm in an Age of Terror: A Pastoral Response to Boston

  1. Gosnell of Philidelphia fame has killed and frozen way more humans than were injured, maimed or killed in Boston. Will the media ever proclaim him as a terrorist or mass murderer? Hannibal Lector has nothing on Gosnell.

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