The following is a sermon delivered to seminary classmates and Homiletics professor on Tuesday, May 29, 2018.
This week I became aware of a new U.S. border policy. Our country is now prosecuting 100% of those who cross illegally into the U.S. in criminal instead of civil court and separating children from their parents. In a Time Magazine article, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ is quoted as saying: “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” Last week, a Border Patrol official testified that 658 children were taken from their parents in just two weeks in early May. And last month, Senators at a subcommittee testimony said almost 1,500 migrant children went missing after federal officials put them in the homes of adult sponsors around the country, some of which likely became victims of human trafficking.
The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona is helping these families. Lauren Dasse is the Executive Director and she said this:
“We met a terrified six-year-old blind boy taken from his mother at the border. All he did was beg for his mother. If we cannot represent him, he will stand in front of a judge and represent himself, since there is no public defender system in immigration court, even for children. So will the 12-month-old baby we met—stripped from her inconsolable mother’s arms. So will the 58 other children living in that children’s detention center in the middle of Arizona right now, all under the age of 10, all afraid and desperate for their mothers and fathers.”
The other night my five-year-old son woke up crying. He was still half asleep and having a hard time telling me what was wrong. He finally communicated that his legs hurt, but he wouldn’t calm down enough to swallow some medicine. He was inconsolable, and I felt helpless. My husband rubbed his legs and got him comfortable enough to take some medicine and got him back to sleep. I was struck by the fact that he had two loving, patient parents able to care for him in his distress. What if we had been those parents at the border, separated from him with no knowledge of when we’d see him again. What if we were sitting in a detention center while he was in a house of strangers? Who would have rubbed his legs in the night?
I’ve been chewing on Psalm 79 for awhile. Psalm 79 is an imprecatory psalm, which is a term I just learned. It basically means praying for God to smite your enemies. The arrangement of the psalter serves to retell the history of Israel, and this particular psalm falls in Book Three, which is the section of the psalter dealing with the divided northern and southern kingdoms after the reign of King Solomon, and the downfall of both of these kingdoms at the hands of foreign nations. So this section of psalms is darker, full of turmoil, confusion, broken promises. The structure of psalm 79 is disjointed, reflecting the deep distress of Israel. Jerusalem has been destroyed, the temple has been burned, the people have been murdered or carried off into exile, and they call for God to act.
Here’s a taste:
“Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, / and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.”
“Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants / be known among the nations before our eyes.”
“Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors / the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord!”
When I first started studying this psalm I was caught by a line in my commentary: “The people cry out to be rescued and at the same time want those that hurt them to be hurt, for a moment forgetting the ways they also grieve God.” I latched onto this thought and a righteous indignation built in me at the blindness of Israel to their participation in their own suffering. Didn’t the prophets warn them again and again to turn away from their oppression of the poor and their worship of other gods, to follow the law and acknowledge Yahweh as sovereign? But instead they continued in their idolatry and injustice and were conquered by other nations as punishment. They brought this on themselves!
[Didn’t those parents know what would happen if they got caught at the border? They should have entered through legal channels and not. broken. the. law! They brought this on themselves! people say.]
Perhaps because of the privilege and safety in which I live, I couldn’t at first empathize with Israel’s plight and, other than my struggle with road rage, I couldn’t conceive of a situation where an imprecatory prayer would be appropriate. So I started imagining myself a prophet and how I could preach this psalm against the church’s historic complicity in slavery and oppression of women, its callousness toward the poor, its participation in imperialism and its lusting after power. “We must acknowledge where we’ve failed, repent, and heal!” I said to myself.
But when I read about the children being separated from their parents I found myself filled with rage. As a parent myself, I could easily imagine praying for God to act against the border agents taking my son out of my arms. I could easily imagine the desperation of my mother’s heart at the horror of separation from my innocent boy. Of him being sent to strangers. Of the possibility that he would be lost and I’d never see him again. Is there anything I could have possibly done to warrant this evil treatment?
[Pour out your anger on those who rip families apart,/ on the policymakers who justify it.
For they have devoured our humanity / and laid waste to our dignity.]
And that’s when my heart softened toward Israel. Because while they did grieve God by breaking the covenant, this psalm is also a community cry for help. It’s the desperate prayer of a desperate people. A people whose suffering is out of proportion to their guilt. A people whose grandparents may have been the ones to instigate this punishment, but who were still experiencing the effects themselves. A people struggling to understand how God could let this happen, but trusting in his power and mercy anyway. Listen to their pleas:
“O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.
Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power preserve those doomed to die.
Then we your people, the flock of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.”
Or in other words:
[O God, men have taken our children,
they have carried them off to the homes of strangers;
our family is in ruins.
They may have given the bodies of our children
to traffickers for profit,
the flesh of our babies to evil men.
We have poured out our tears like water in detention,
and there is no one who hears our cries.
We have no home to return to,
and no knowing if we’ll see our children again.]
In the psalms and the Old Testament we see again and again God responding to the prayers of the oppressed. We see his patience, compassion, and trustworthiness, but also his deep anger at injustice. I don’t think I ever understood the purpose of God’s wrath until now. He is absolutely grieved when we treat each other unjustly. This is the purpose of the law, and when it is not upheld he will act. He will do whatever it takes to bring us to repentance, to transform our hearts toward love and mercy and compassion, reflecting his own heart.
In my initial haste to rain fire and brimstone on Israel and the modern church, I also failed to notice, at first, that the psalm actually does acknowledge Israel’s waywardness. It does ask forgiveness and they do repent.
“How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and forgive our sins,
for your name’s sake.”
[How long, O Lord? Will we stay in detention forever?
Do not remember against us our border crossing.]
This psalm asks for forgiveness, for rescue, and for justice for enemies. It shows us God is big enough to handle our distress. But as Christians, in light of our perspective on this side of Jesus, are we uncomfortable with the idea of imprecatory prayers? Because Jesus taught us something different in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
How do we reconcile the imprecations against enemies in Psalm 79 with this command to love and pray for our enemies in Matthew 5?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is someone who would have been justified in praying against his enemies. He was a theologian in Germany and was imprisoned for resistance to the Nazis. He wrote letters and ministered to his fellow prisoners and guards, but in 1945 he was executed by the state. He wrote a tiny book called Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. He has a section called “The Enemies” about imprecatory prayers.
“The question is therefore: Can we as Christians pray these psalms?…Nowhere does the one who prays these psalms want to take revenge into his own hands. He calls for the wrath of God alone…The imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him…I leave the vengeance to God and ask him to execute his righteousness to all his enemies, knowing that God has remained true to himself and has himself secured justice.”
As I’ve said, God is grieved at injustice, when the weak are mistreated and evil goes unchecked. It’s never been about punishment for its own sake, but for redemption. And Jesus has made redemption possible. He’s in the business of redeeming all things.
Because here’s the scandal of the gospel: It’s for the oppressed and the oppressor. It’s for the parents and children separated at the border and the policymakers and border agents. It’s for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Nazis. It’s for Israel and the nations. Because of Jesus we can move past wishing harm on those who’ve destroyed our city or taken our children, even though that would make sense and that’s what our humanity craves. Instead, we pray for our enemies, for God to grab hold of their hearts, the way he once grabbed hold of ours, and transform them into people who weep for injustice, who cry out on behalf of desperate parents and terrified children, who understand God’s character and seek to imitate him, for the sake of the innocent and for the sake of their own souls.
Because maybe, as N.T. Wright said, “it isn’t so much that the world doesn’t believe in God. Most people simply can’t imagine what it might be like to live in God’s world, in his time, in his space, and in his matter.” And that is what the church is for. To help people get a taste of what it’s like to live in God’s world as he intended it. To help welcome and train people into a new way of life, where parents and children are never separated, where we don’t need to keep people out, where there’s enough for everyone.
I don’t know if the Israelites who prayed this psalm had this intention. But God did. And because of Jesus and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, he invites and transforms us into people who can pray for our enemies to stop causing harm and become redeemed people who align themselves with God’s heart for justice. I think we can pray the imprecatory psalms with confidence that God will be the one to enact justice, and we can hope, because of Jesus, for the redemption of even our worst enemies.
I know all of us in this room love Jesus. He’s transformed us into people who are thirsty for justice. If you’re heartbroken by this border policy separating parents and children, there’s an organization I trust called Together Rising that is working with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona. They’re raising money to hire bilingual lawyers to help represent these families and reunite them as soon as possible.
I’ll leave you with this: As N.T. Wright said in The Case for the Psalms, “Our confidence in the future restorative justice of God may even give us confidence to do justice ourselves in the present.”
May it be so with us.
RACHEL WOMELSDUFF GOUGH and her family ditched the city for a patch of earth in the Snoqualmie Valley. She seeks to foster shalom in her neighborhood by rooting deeply, connecting people, and practicing hospitality. She is a Master of Divinity student at Fuller Theological Seminary, and she can’t live without books, coffee, and mountains.