Thursday, January 11, 2018

On humanity, enmity, and belief

Difficult verses from Psalm 21 set for Morning Prayer today—but we need to sit with them if we are to understand the role and value of religious faith in the world, something the overwhelming (and growing) majority of people hold to.

Your hand will find out all your enemies;
your right hand will find out those who hate you.
You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear.
The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath,
and fire will consume them.
You will destroy their offspring from the earth,
and their children from among humankind.
If they plan evil against you,
if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
For you will put them to flight;
you will aim at their faces with your bows.
Psalm 21:8-12

This text can be understood in several ways. We need an understanding of historical context—and contexts—and interpretive communities. The list of interpretations below is not exhaustive; nor are the possibilities necessarily mutually-exclusive.

1. This text endorses the killing of our enemies, with excessive force, with disproportional vengeance. Religion perpetuates conflict.

Variations of this interpretation include seeing it as timeless, or as of-its-time—a time and an understanding ‘we’ have moved on from (or not). Of course, this view of the world is not only a religiously-motivated one, but a human impulse...

2. This text sees God at work in human history, in that men of violence and oppression do not last for ever, but eventually are removed from the face of the earth and in time forgotten. Also reflected in this text is the belief in a human governance that, while not perfect and, indeed, not without violence, limits evil action in the world.

This understanding resonates with secular ideas of the UN and of ‘good’ and ‘rogue’ nations.

3. This text can be internalised, as personifying the thoughts and emotions that oppress us or hold us captive, such as fear and anxiety, judging ourselves (and therefore others) overly harshly, with-holding mercy from ourselves (and therefore others). In such an appropriation of the text, we find hope that these ‘enemies’ can be swallowed up when we become aware of the presence of a loving God who comes to rescue us and set us free.

This also resonates with faith in love, not as a deity but as the ultimate ground we are surrounded by.

Just because certain texts are complex, and contested, does not mean they should—or can—be ignored.

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