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The Politics of Scripture

Violent Fantasies and the Language of the Unheard

While the Judahites were the recipients of physical violence, they only had the power to return rhetorical, fantasized violence. They were forced to entrust actual retribution to other powers: to God, and perhaps to the Persians (envisioned as God’s agents).

[content warning: descriptions of violence against children]

1 By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song

   in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

   let my right hand wither!

6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

   if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

   above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites

   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!

   Down to its foundations!’

8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

   Happy shall they be who pay you back

   what you have done to us!

9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones

   and dash them against the rock!

Psalm 137 (NRSV)

Reading Psalm 137 is an emotional roller coaster ride. It comes to a jolting stop with the final line about dashing infants against the rock—from which we instinctively recoil, as we should. Other, more palatable parts of the poem have been accepted into the popular consciousness through musical renditions, like the Rastafarian hit “Rivers of Babylon,” introduced by the Melodians and made an international platinum hit by Boney M. The popular version interprets the poem as a kind of apophatic resistance to colonial demands for performances of exoticized “foreign” culture—a valid and compelling reading! But it conveniently omits the violent fantasy toward which the biblical version drives. This is the same hesitation that led the compilers of this week’s readings in the Revised Common Lectionary to harness the pain and desperate hope of Lamentations 1:1–6; 3:19–26, while eliding the fantasies of violent revenge that conclude each poem (Lam 1:21–22; 3:64–66).

However, like the poems in Lamentations, Psalm 137 is incomplete without its conclusion in verses 7–9, and its poetic (and political) potency is blunted. On the other hand, if we listen to the voice of the community that produced this poem, we can appreciate their echoes in the pained exclamations of so many oppressed communities, past and present. To do this, we must struggle to understand the chilling fantasy of infanticide that concludes the poem.

The psalm is a liturgical poem that comes to us (as I conclude with other scholars) out of the experience of Judahites shortly after the end of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century, BCE. Before their exile, the people of Judah had enjoyed a few centuries of relative independence and national autonomy. But eventually, the conquest-bloated Neo-Babylonian Empire sacked their capital city and exiled a significant portion of their elite population, forcibly displacing them to settlements in Babylon. It wasn’t until a generation later, when Persia supplanted Babylon, that some of the exiles were permitted to return to Judah and to Jerusalem. Those who returned carried with them the trauma of what they had experienced, along with a raw sense of vulnerability about their identity as a people in covenant with God.

The trauma of displacement and occupation was compounded for them by a kind of theological trauma. Up until the exile, many had held onto the hope that God would surely protect them from all invaders. After all, who was Babylon compared to the God of heaven? They had sung songs of the covenant, about God’s promise to keep Jerusalem in the center of God’s watchful eye, about how God would never forget her and would keep her safe forever. Songs like this one: 

“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion
which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 125:1–2).

Or maybe songs like the lines quoted in Psalm 137:5–6 (which I take to be “Zion song” lyrics composed in the voice of YHWH, a song the musicians could not bear to sing in captivity):

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”

How could they sing such a naïve song in the land of their conquerors, when God apparently had forgotten them, when it seemed that human might made right, after all?

The beginning of Psalm 137 captures the paralysis of divine disappointment in poignant poetry. Their captors taunted them, mockingly demanding a “Zion song” about how their god would never forget them. But there they were, on foreign soil, with their beloved Jerusalem stripped bare (the language in verse 7, unfortunately abstracted by the NRSV as “Tear it down,” actually draws on a metaphor of mob sexual violence, chanting “Strip her!”), and the temple of God was ravaged. In such a moment, they just couldn’t bring themselves to sing—this was not the way it was supposed to be. So they put aside their instruments, sat down on the ground, and wept. Many who have experienced the cognitive dissonance of perceived divine abandonment know this paralysis.

The disorientation of communal trauma, combined with the immense power imbalance between imperial Babylon and colonized Judah, provokes the kind of imprecatory language we find in those difficult last few lines of the psalm. After a generation of persistent oppression, Babylon finally got its comeuppance. In 539 BCE Cyrus the Great waltzed into Babylon and established Persian sovereignty over the sprawling Babylonian empire. Those who had borne the brunt of Babylonian cruelty celebrated its downfall, and expressed their hope for a kind of lex talionis in which the cruelty that Babylon and her allies had dished out would be paid back upon them. Behind the cold fantasy expressed in verse 9, that “your little ones” would be dashed against the rock, is the unfathomable pain of parents who had likely witnessed the same scene played out against “our little ones.”

I find this psalm easier to read after my service (for a brief season) as a hospital chaplaincy intern. People say all sorts of things from the midst of crisis—often things that probably should have been communicated years before—and in the middle of their trauma, those things rarely get expressed in a gentle and considered way. One of the first lessons a chaplain must learn is how to suspend judgment, to not be offended by patients, and to listen with an empathetic curiosity to try to discern the experience of the divine in and behind their words. That’s how I try to listen to this psalm. When I do, I find it to be a moving, evocative expression of deep disappointment and grief in their sense of abandonment, with just a hint at the edges of hope that God may yet bring justice to God’s people in the face of their oppressors.

On another level of analysis, the fantasized infanticide in Psalm 137 also expresses an ancient communitarian understanding of behavior as hereditary: parents’ own temperaments were understood to live on in their children. If the parents were good folk, that goodness continued in future generations. If the parents were evil, their wickedness was practiced by their children and grandchildren. If the parents were powerful despots, children were bound to be tyrants. This understanding prompts many of the generational condemnations in Scripture that modern individualists like me find so puzzling and disturbing (e.g., punishment to the third and fourth generation in Exod 20:5; herem death penalty for a perpetrator, Achan, and his wife and children in Josh 7:24–26). The wish for Babylonian infants to be destroyed is, in part, an expression of desperate hope that the legacy of Babylonian violence would be cut off completely, that their reign of terror would not be perpetuated by the next generation.

This approach does not condone the fantasized violence, but it helps us listen with empathy to the cry of the hurting and affirms with them their longing for protracted abuse to cease.

You may notice that throughout this post, I have characterized the violence in Psalm 137 as a “fantasy.” To me, there is an important distinction to be made here. Subjugated Judahites were not in a position to enact the violence that is described in this poem, even if they wanted to. While they were the recipients of physical violence, they only had the power to return rhetorical, fantasized violence. They were forced to entrust actual retribution to other powers: to God, and perhaps to the Persians (envisioned as God’s agents).

I am not saying that fantasies of violence, expressed rhetorically, are harmless—all too often we witness so-called “harmless” rhetoric that incites acts of physical violence. For example, racial dog-whistling by politicians regularly contributes to hate crimes against minorities and immigrants. On the flip side of the power dynamic, sometimes violent rhetoric among the oppressed spills out into desperate acts.

Nevertheless, the intersections of rhetoric and power matter. Violent fantasy in the rhetoric of the powerful is easily realized in actual physical violence against the vulnerable, marshaled in order to maintain fear, dominance, and supremacy. But similar violent rhetoric coming from oppressed communities, while not harmless, is often an attempt to escape invisibility, to have their humanity acknowledged and dignified, when other modes of asserting basic rights have failed. As the great champion of nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr., famously said, “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Through the liturgical poetry of Psalm 137, conquered and forcibly displaced Judahites asserted their own humanity in the violent language of the unheard. This month, American freight railroad workers threatened a massive strike so that their humanity would be recognized, after years of peaceful pleas proved fruitless. In recent years, persistent mistreatment and violence against black Americans by police has sparked massive protests, whose rhetoric has been interpreted as violent and threatening by those invested in white supremacy. Palestinian resistance to perpetual Israeli military occupation is expressed in violent rhetoric in some quarters (and occasionally manifests in actual acts of violence). In each of these examples, rhetoric of violence from the oppressed is not a means to control, but a plea to be seen, heard, and humanized.

Though I personally embrace the values of nonviolent resistance to oppression, I recognize that my social location as a person of great privilege limits my ability to pass ethical judgments over the words and actions of those who live with their backs against the wall. I find that the ethical questions surrounding violence and violent language are complex and confusing—I am a biblical scholar, not an ethicist by trade. So, ethicists in the Political Theology Network may have wiser reflections on these matters (like here, here, or here). But whether fantasies of retributive violence from marginalized communities (such as those found in Scripture) are deemed right or wrong, cathartic or pathological, we ought not gloss over them. Let those fantasies snap our attention toward the humanity of the speaker/author and their community, and invite our empathy for the pain that lives behind the rhetoric. We need skills of empathetic listening in rhetorically charged contexts, like the election season we are entering in my US context. May our attention to the pain behind violent rhetoric strengthen our resolve to pursue true justice for the oppressed, offer mercy to our enemies, and live humbly with the divine and our human family.

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