Let’s keep it polite…?

Family therapists have a concept known as pseudomutuality, meaning a false or superficial unity. Pseudomutual families feel compelled to live by a kind of niceness myth: “We’re such a close and caring family, that we don’t even feel any negativity toward each other, ever.” Accordingly, there’s an implicit relationship rule that negative emotions are not to be expressed toward other family members. Those who violate the rule are rejected (nicely, of course), until they “come to their senses” and fall back in with the game.

I believe that there is also such a thing as a pseudomutual church, in which we follow the implicit rule that Christians, by definition, are supposed to be “nice.” As a group, we tend to shy away from conflict and confrontation (though not, unfortunately, from gossip), feeling as if such things shouldn’t exist in the church in the first place. Even if we’ve been fighting with each other on the way to church, once we park and get out of the car, everyone automatically knows to put on a smile. And people who try to point out problems may be tolerated to an extent — but if they don’t shut up about it after a couple of subtle (or not so subtle) hints, they’re shunned and labeled as malcontents and troublemakers.

We eagerly sing praise songs but may have no place for corporate lament, unlike the diversity of voices in the Psalms. And as I suggested in the previous post, we may be embarrassed by what are known as the imprecatory psalms, in which the psalmists curse their enemies with death and destruction. We prefer not to dwell on such psalms, and rarely if ever are they heard from the pulpit. They’re just not, well, nice.

But they’re part of our Bible, right out there in the open for all to see. Maybe, just maybe, God thought we could learn something from them.

But if so, what?

. . .

Psalm 109 is one of the most difficult psalms to read. Its middle section is a prolonged imprecation; fully half the psalm is devoted to cursing the psalmist’s enemy or enemies. Take out these verses, and you have a coherent complaint and a plea for help that reads like many other psalms. Leave them in, and it sounds like the psalmist has lost it.

Here, for example, is the first part of the curse:

Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
    let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
    and may his prayers condemn him.
May his days be few;
    may another take his place of leadership.
May his children be fatherless
    and his wife a widow.
May his children be wandering beggars;
    may they be driven from their ruined homes.
May a creditor seize all he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
May no one extend kindness to him
    or take pity on his fatherless children.
May his descendants be cut off,
    their names blotted out from the next generation.
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
    may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
May their sins always remain before the Lord,
    that he may blot out their name from the earth.
(vss. 6-15, NIV)

Some translations, like the New Revised Standard and the Common English Bible, seem to take a bit of the sting out of the harshness of these words by putting quotation marks around them and adding “They say” (a phrase that is not in the Hebrew text). The suggestion is that the psalmist is only quoting what his enemies are saying about him.

Perhaps. But even then, we’d have to account for what the psalmist says at the end of the curse: “May this be the LORD’s payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me” (vs. 20). In other words, even if the psalmist is only quoting what someone else has said against him, he answers with, “Oh, yeah? Well, the same to you buddy!”

It makes more sense, I think, to treat this as the psalmist’s words. What place, then, does such cursing have in the psalm, in the Bible, and in the life of faith?

We’ll explore this further in upcoming posts. For now, let’s keep a simple fact in mind: the psalmist’s social, cultural, and religious context is different from our own, and the words must be read accordingly. In the context of a church that follows unspoken rules of politeness, the psalmist’s words sound like an uncontrolled rant, a spiritual tantrum — angry, spiteful, and inappropriate.

But in the psalmist’s context…

Don’t worry. I’m not about to tell everyone to cut loose and start cursing everyone who offends us (not even on the freeway). But there is something positive we can learn from what the psalmist says, even if there are good reasons not to follow his example.

More in the next post.