By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
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.
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!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Grief does incredible things to a person. It can make us stronger than we ever were before. It can leave us without faith, losing that thing closest to our hearts in the wake of the terror of loss. Further still, it can cause us to become angry, to become bitter, to lash out and wish ill on others. The cries of those who are hurt cannot be expected to remain as well-wishing and dreams of a better tomorrow. Our emotions are not so simple, they are not so binary as good or bad, there is more to how we respond than simply reacting to a situation.
The people of Judah, taken away from their homeland and set to work for their new Babylonian masters would have been left with almost no hope. There was nothing that could bring them out of this period in their history but a major shift in the order of the world. Those at the top could not stay that way because they had built their thrones on the bodies, on the labor, of the oppressed peoples they had conquered. When the foundation of your kingdom is cruelty then it is almost impossible to change it.
For this reason, the exiles imagined a day when they would see someone treat the Babylonians as poorly as they had been treated. Thinking of their home, of the life they used to have, they were compelled to anger at those who had brought them to such a place. The request to sing the old hymns to God were bitter and mocking in their ears, they did not want to think of home they wanted to be home. They wanted every evil that was done to them to make its way back to the Babylonians. Even up to and including the murder of their children. Morality had been erased, they did not see this statement for what it was, for as vicious as it was. When grief, and especially communal grief becomes great enough – survival naturally takes precedence over civility, the desire for bloody redemption overtakes the desire for peace.
Psalm 137 is perhaps the most butchered psalm in the history of the Psalter. The later readers could not accept that scripture would say something as disgusting as it does, “Blessed are those who dash your children against the rocks.” The early church changed its meaning entirely, insisting it was actually about destroying worldly desires. Over time it simply fell out of the vernacular of the church – even as songs would adapt the opening lines of it. “By the Rivers of Babylon,” is a popular gospel song. “On the Willows,” brings Godspell into its third act. We know the opening of this Psalm so well, but we never conclude it because we know it advocates something vicious, something disgusting.
The tendency we might have then is to throw this verse away, to make sure it never sees the light of day and that no one ever has to think about it. It can go into the sea of other verses we skip because they make us uncomfortable, never to attack us or to attack our sensibilities again. Bury it deep, bury it far away, do anything and everything we can, but be sure to bury it.
Perhaps even now we try to explain it away – that was the Old Testament after all. We must not even entertain this thought. God was not cruel when God spoke Hebrew. God did not suddenly become good when God spoke Greek. If we believe that God is One, that God is eternal, then we cannot push away this verse with muted anti-Semitism. The 137th Psalm stands as a testament to human grief, it stands as a testament of us calling out to God for something to happen, it stands as a testament to how dark our vision becomes with our horizon darkens and no escape seems possible. It stands as a witness to us. How do we react?
We are not like the people of Judah. We are not exiles in a land that would see us dead. We are not displaced wanderers in the world. We cannot see, except in very particular circumstances, the world as the Psalmist did. So we cannot pray these words sincerely – we hold too much power in our hands for us to speak these words from desperation.
The most fitting response we can have is to make sure that no one every prays such a prayer against us. That we never are part of wrongdoing so great that anyone would want to see us destroyed. We must never become Babylon, we must never mock those who are in danger, we must never build ourselves up on the pain and suffering of people in need. We must be better than this. Moreover, we must never have a fellow Christian pray such a prayer against us.
No one should suffer on our account, but if we cannot be kind to those in our own faith then there is no hope for us to ever be kind. If we cannot do good to the least of these in the household of the faith, then we cannot hope to ever do good to the least of these outside of it. Our goodness cannot be particular, our goodness cannot be limited by our own worldly hold-ups. Our goodness must be like God’s.
One of the earliest moments in which the Church acted out against its siblings in the faith was shortly after 70 AD. When the Temple was destroyed and their Jewish brethren sought safety, the Church shut its doors. “Hypocrites! Christ Killers!” The people of God were strangers in their own countries, and they were strangers among the people who worshipped the same God as them. They became the victim of marginalization and violence throughout Christian history, violence that culminated in a supposedly Christian extermination of them in Germany.
Christians went to war with one another soon after they gained power. After Constantine gave them power and then they used it. They attacked political enemies, exiling them. Wars began to start over aspects of worship and political power. Europe was so scarred by years and years of violence that to this day people do not overly associate with a single church, so afraid are they that the old fights will start up again.
Christians attacked foreign powers and other faiths as well. Whatever argument of defense could be made for the first Crusade fell apart the moment crusaders reached Jerusalem. Killing anyone they found – Christians, Jews, Muslims – they all died together in the streets as soldiers bearing the cross struck them down. They died because they were darker skinned than the invading armies, they were killed because they did not care if they were combatant or non-combatant. They died because the church was callous and cruel. Today, Christians in the Christian African Republic make war with their Muslim neighbors, seeking not to defend themselves but to wipe out a people they see as inferior, as less than worthy of living.
Violence. That is not the defining aspect of faith or of God. Killing. This will not bring about the Kingdom. We worship a God who died under the oppressive rule of a broken system. Why do we insult that God by becoming like the people who killed him? We come to this table today, and we are joined by all those who came before us in the faith. Those we agree with, those we disagree with, those who lived like saints and those who did great violence. We take today as one body, we celebrate as the Church throughout the world today. We take as oppressors and as those who are oppressed.
This table, this offering of grace is offered to all, and we must offer ourselves and our love as freely as this bread is given. The world should drink grace without restraint, should eat the goodness of God and never tire of it. Yet, we kill, yet we steal. We create a world where a family loses a son, where a church loses a member, and the best we can do to bring the perpetrator to justice is give them a ten year sentence they will likely serve two years of. We live in a world where we let our politics get in the way of accepting the reality that global poverty, and our exploitation of economically weak nations has led to mass migrations of people. We let our quest for power and security allow us to forget that children, children as innocent as our own family members, are dying on their way to find safety. Drowning in rivers we will not let them cross, dying of diseases we refuse to cure. We cannot wince in a pulpit when a scripture advocates the death of children and then look the other way when they die under our care.
We have made this table weak. We have made Christ’s body become a byword of the nations through our cruelty. The Church lost its place in the mind of the world as a beacon of light and peace and love because we refused to embody those principles. The world is hungry for the grace of God, and we must feed it. If we are not prepared to love, then we must pray our anger and our fear. We must put it in God’s hands to do something with. Because regardless of where we stand politically, we must agree that there is something wrong in this world. We must agree that there is something broken if we have people who are willing to see children die – whether we wish it upon others or they wish it upon us. Something must be wrong, something must be broken, and the only thing that can possibly fix it is sitting right here. Grace, sacrificial, self-emptying, and willing to die for people of all nations, people in all social standings, people who we love and people who we hate.
If we are not prepared for that reality, for the fact that this table includes those we would sooner see die. Then we should not gather around it. We should not take of this grace if we are unwilling to receive it. However, if we are not willing to desert the grace of God, then we must be thoughtful, we must be prayerful, and we must stop wishing harm on one another. We can pray the words of Psalm 137 and mean every one of them, but we cannot shut up our ears when God gives us an answer we do not want. We cannot forget grace that is not as vindictive as we are. We cannot deny this table has no end, we cannot limit it to a nation, a church, a pew, a preacher. – amen.