Whether we know it or not, our brains are predisposed to think in black and white terms. It’s easier than having to pay attention to the grey. For example, even if we recognize that people have different opinions and come to them in a variety of ways, we default to believing that one person in a conflict is right and the other wrong. Even if we admit that people are complicated, we respond to them as if they were simply good or simply bad. And if the truth be told, we have an automatic bias to think of ourselves as right and good, and anyone we’re in conflict with as wrong and bad.
That self-enhancing way of thinking can also apply to our groups. If you’ve ever taken an undergraduate psychology course, chances are you’ve heard of the Robbers Cave Experiment. Twenty-two 11-year-old boys attended a three-week summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park (so named because the infamous outlaws Jesse James and Belle Starr were reputed to have hidden there) in Oklahoma.
The boys were divided into two groups named the Eagles and the Rattlers. In the first week, neither group knew about the other. Each group simply did fun things together, building their cohesiveness and loyalty as a group. Then the groups were pitted against each other in competitions for trophies. Suddenly, the Eagles and Rattlers became enemies. Hostilities escalated even to the point of vandalizing each other’s cabins. Only when the groups were forced to work together for their mutual benefit did they finally let go of the prejudice that the experimenters created through their manipulation of the situation. (This is why we have research ethics committees.)
Think about it. These boys were made to hate each other by creating a completely arbitrary “in-group” to pit against an equally arbitrary “out-group.” Similar experiments have been done again and again, with similar results. It’s a well-established psychological fact: it takes very little prompting for people to settle into a hostile attitude of “us” versus “them.”
Imagine, then, how deeply rooted the prejudice can be when the distinction between groups seems obvious and anything but arbitrary.
. . .
Psalms 14 and 53 seem to be laments about being persecuted by enemies; each ends with a plea for divine deliverance. Though the psalms are nearly identical, there are some differences. The enemies are described as foolish, without knowledge, as if the psalmist were to say, “You people have no idea who you’re dealing with, do you?” Both psalms agree that the psalmist’s enemies will find themselves “in great terror” (14:5; 53:5, NRSV), but differ in the reason for that terror. Psalm 14 has the milder version: “for God is with the company of the righteous. You would confound the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge” (vss. 5b-6). Psalm 53 ups the ante. The terror will be unprecedented: “For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them” (vs. 5b).
As we’ve seen, the larger context is one in which the psalmist seems to grieve over the sorry state of humanity, which has become corrupt and perverted. The fact that the psalmist contrasts the “righteous” (14:5) with the “ungodly” (53:5) suggests a bit of “us versus them”; God will rescue “his people,” and “Jacob” and “Israel” will rejoice (14:7; 53:6), while punishing the psalmist’s enemies for their wickedness.
When, therefore, the psalmist says that everyone “has gone astray” and become “perverse,” when he says that not a single person “does good” (14:3; 53:3), does he really mean everyone? Even God’s people, whom he calls “righteous”? Or is he only referring to the abominable and foolish behavior of his enemies (14:1; 53:1), who don’t “call upon the LORD” (14:4; 53:4) as God’s people do?
Honestly, within the context of these two psalms themselves, I don’t know.
But the apostle Paul seems to have an opinion on the matter.
. . .
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome had to deal with a difficult situation. The Jesus movement had begun among the Jews in Jerusalem, and only gradually spread to Gentiles around the empire. The expulsion of the Jews from Rome, however, and their eventual return, seems to have flipped the script: the Gentiles had become the majority, and felt a sense of entitlement over against the Jewish minority, as if God had switched allegiances. In his letter, Paul tried to correct the misperception that God was done with his people. At the same time, however, he had to make sure not to promote a Jewish sense of entitlement that made Gentiles second-class citizens of God’s kingdom.
It’s in this context that Paul uses the language of the Psalms and prophets, adapted to make his case. Listen to the similarity between his words and the words of Psalms 14 and 53:
There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one. (Rom 3:10-12)
Paul’s argument is that everyone in the church, Jews and Gentiles alike, “are under the power of sin” (Rom 3:9), and have nothing to crow about in themselves. Paul cites a number of texts that the Jews in the congregation would normally have understood as condemnation of their enemies, and makes them about everyone. There is no us versus them. All have sinned. All have been saved by grace alone, not by obedience to the law.
We must take care, then, to read each psalm in the context, first, of the Psalter as a whole: there are angry, bitter complaints against one’s enemies, but also humble confessions of penitence. And we must read the Psalter in the context of the Bible as a whole, for Paul turns an us-versus-them understanding of the lament psalms on its head.
We are free to voice our laments. We should lament injustice, and run to God for help. But at the same time, we must also examine ourselves, asking God to reveal to us where our prayers are self-serving in a way that is offensive to the gospel.
May God in his grace help us to see beyond the “them” to the “us” that he has created.