The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel defines history as the self-development of Spirit, or as the development of Spirit in time. This idea is predicated upon a complex metaphysics that cannot be delineated here, but what is important is that Hegel sees history as itself divine, and that it unfolds toward an optimistic end. If we transpose Hegel’s idea into a higher key, there are profound implications for the analysis of this text, and for contemporary political existence.
The cry of distress in Psalm 123 is a cry for ecstatic history. Ecstatic history understands that while history itself is undergirded, created, and impelled toward its consummation by the Spirit of God, there also exist miraculous instances when history is “rewritten” to include God’s acts on behalf of his people. The civil rights movement exists as one such instance in the recent cultural memory of America. Through ecstatic history, God acts upon himself, but not against himself, to reveal himself to those who are oppressed and violated by unjust power structures. In saying that God acts upon himself, what I mean is that God, already at work in history, dispenses divine revelation such that Spirit meets Spirit. God’s Spirit meets itself in radical instances that revise and recreate the event that constitutes human history.
In this Psalm the cry of God’s people is “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.” This cry of helplessness indicates that while the people understand God’s power, they observe their own existential powerlessness against the proud and arrogant. Such are the cries of the impoverished living within slums who are forced to send their children to substandard schools. Such are the cries of millions of people who sit in cramped, and dirty health clinics because they cannot afford health insurance, while insurance corporations become wealthier by charging exorbitant health premiums. The cry of God’s people is simply, “Have mercy,” for we have no power and standing within our social environment such that anyone would care to listen.
The first verse is quite instructive. “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.” Why do the people lift up their eyes to the Lord? They look to the Lord because they realize that he is the author of history, and through divine revelation, he can cause those ecstatic moments in which history becomes “spirit-filled.” When history becomes spirit-filled, Christ remembers his promise in Luke 4 in which he proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Christ’s proclamation was a promise in that the crucifixion and resurrection become moments of ecstatic history that actualize the freedom that he proclaims. History is forever “rewritten” because Christ has mercy upon the oppressed. While the church has often allegorized this verse or rendered it mostly spiritual, Christ’s mercy is a disbursement of justice that shows up on the pages of history books and in the texts of history lessons, as time and time again the disenfranchised miraculously overcome momentous odds to become free. From the Emancipation Proclamation, to the nonviolent revolution of Gandhi, to the prayer vigil in Liberia that ousted Charles Taylor, Christ does have mercy.
Aaron Howard is a second year PhD candidate in Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University. He is an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ and has been happily married to his wife Mimi for 12 years. He has two children, a son Yosef, and a daughter named Blaine.
This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.