Yesterday I came home from a local peace and justice meeting in which we decided to issue a press release urging an immediate ceasefire in Gaza (following the UN’s own urging–with the US abstaining). Present at our meeting for the first time were two Palestinians. One spoke at length about his sense that the only true Jews in Israel were the ones present before all the immigrations of Jews from Europe and Russia and Africa and the Middle East; these folks were often simply secular, he said, and most were Zionists. The Jews he defined as authentic were orthodox Jews who believed the Messiah must come before the state of Israel ought to be created–1200 such Jews in his West Bank community stood by the Palestinians and against Israel. No one directly challenged his definition of a proper Jew, though it’s clear that most everyone else present at the meeting supports the existence of both the state of Israel and a Palestinian state.
As this man spoke, I felt a grounding in deep quiet solidify within me. I found myself making space for him to speak, knowing that if he comes again to a meeting, I will find words to speak with him (if my friend Peter, a secular Jew, doesn’t do so before me) about the importance of hearing the narrative defending Israel’s existence–the importance of both Palestinians and Israelis being able really to hear each other’s narratives. Many involved in the peace movement already practice this. But yesterday I could only make space to hear his story as he shared it, even as I felt troubled by his claiming to have the “true” story: “I know, I am from the West Bank, I have lived in Tel Aviv, I know how it is.”
I came home with my friend Adam and we shared 30 minutes of prayer/meditation (he meditates while I do lectio). One of the psalms for yesterday was Psalm 6–a short psalm of complaint of victimhood, ending with a call for revenge: “May all my enemies be ashamed and panic-stricken! May they turn back in sudden disgrace!”
The emotional truth in this Psalm is clear. This is the Psalm of the Israelis near Gaza who live in fear of the rockets tossed by Hamas. It is the Psalm of the Palestinians in Gaza who are being killed in the hundreds by bombing, seige, and Israeli military excursion. I know that one way to pray a psalm of revenge is to tune it towards listening to the pain of someone who is hurt in contexts precisely like those right now in Gaza–to bear witness to the human suffering that generates such a cry-out for revenge.
But yesterday I swiftly found myself instinctively praying a contrary prayer–praying against the psalm. I found myself praying that the Palestinian who shared his story that excluded most all Israelis would stop longing for his enemies to be ashamed and panic-stricken, stop longing for the disappearance of the state of Israel. Praying too that the Israeli government would stop praying for Hamas to be disgraced and totally taken out (an impossibility) and pray instead for mutual conversion.
It seemed right to fight with the Psalm in this way. In any case, that is the prayer I was given while reading it. It was an angry prayer–it had the same spirit of outrage as is voiced in the psalm–but the outrage was turned against the sentiment of the psalm itself.
I am trusting this is one form of prayer the Spirit invites.
Thank you for your candor. I too am conflicted about the current situation in Gaza and about the “revenge” psalms in general.
About the former, I have mostly questions: “Why did the Palestinians elect Hamas to lead their government? How could that action have ended any differently than it has these last few weeks?” “Why won’t Israel allow civilians to leave the areas of most intense conflict? How can the world’s most sophisticated and best equipped military intelligence establishment not have a clear enough grasp of their own sovereign territory to avoid killing civilian children?” “Why is an otherwise aggressive, often bullying, US foreign relations community maintained such an obvious double standard with regard to the Palestinian Authority and Israel for the last 50 or more years? Why does the US, along with many other nations, continue to fund, at obscene levels, such a disastrous status quo?”
As to the psalms, I admire your wrestling against the violence and I believe that it is a valuable way to pray these texts. For my own part, I have learned that if I go ahead and pray those angriest of words and emotions, God inevitably releases me from the internal violence and allow me a new, more sane and more productive perspective on the situation and the people involved. Ironically it is the bold praying of such horrific texts–Psalm 137:
“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!”–
that somehow, miraculously opens me to a new compassion toward my perceived enemies.
St. Benedict encourages us to direct those very words and emotions against our own sinful thoughts “while they are still young,” including I assume, our blind rage and our bitter brooding. I think he would endorse your approach.
Again, thanks for broaching the subject. I hope that others will join the conversation.