Monday, February 23, 2004

By the waters of Babylon,


there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.


This is Psalm 137, which might be familiar to you. I think it is particularly apropos for Lent, especially this year. But you should really read it all the way to the end (the Liturgy of the Hours and the text for the Mass omit the ending):

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave 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 E'domites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, "Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!"
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!


Yes, it says what you think it says. The Bible recommends smashing baby heads against rocks.

How is one to take something like this? How can it be accepted? I think we need to remember a few things. First of all, we cannot simply reject those verses while muttering some Marcionite stuff about "The mean God of the Old Testament." All of scripture is inspired, including the bits about killing babies.

The second thing to remember is that the psalms are the gymnasium of the soul (as Thomas says, although I'm sure he's quoting someone). The attitudes and dispositions of the Psalmist are those that we ought to have. So, at some point, we should be as angry as the writer of Psalm 137 who delights in the potential destruction of Babylon and the traitorous Edomites. It's okay to be that mad.

The third thing to remember is that the last lines of the psalm aren't recommending killing babies as a good act, but is delighting in such a possibility because it would repay evil done to Israel. The message of the Psalm at least seems to be that one ought to want to repay the wrongs done to oneself.

So, if someone tailgates me, should I slam on the breaks or chase him down the highway, flipping him the fickle finger of friendship for forty miles? No. The key here, the thing we need to understand, is that one should repay evil with good.

Matthew 5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
"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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.



Jesus tells us the right way to repay enemies: with love. You may think that to link this to Psalm 137 is a stretch: how does loving one's enemy destroy him? How is it smashing babies against rocks? One must read this passage with a slight degree of allegory. Consider the following points:

1) How can one utterly destroy one's enemy? By killing him? No, for he will still exist in heaven or hell. By beating him? No.

One utterly destroys an enemy by making him not an enemy. When you hate someone with cause, you must try to destroy that person as an enemy.

2) How can we repay the enemy? What have the enemies of the Faith done? They have taken every trapping of the faith, cheapened it, and sold it back to us. Thus we have Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to make it possible to ignore the birth and resurrection of Christ. Marriage, which was given to us from the beginning as a holy state, is made into a mere contract, an insurance arrangement between two (or more) people of any sex. Man, who was to steward creation, has become its slave, and woman, who was called to be helpmate and mother, has become a mere courtesan. The child is an inconvenience, tolerable in small doses, but not to be sought. The womb has gone from the place of creation to the executioner's block. Chastity is called repression, devotion is called obsession, and faith is no longer the assurance of things unseen, but a mere strong feeling, of no more value than any other feeling.

They have despoiled us, and then ask us to sing songs of Zion in a dead culture.

What is a fitting response to the desecration of the holy? How can we repay them for smashing our babies against the rocks? The proper response to desecration is to do the opposite. We must fight to sanctify the world.

They've taken our sacred things and trashed them. We should take their unholy things and bless them. That's how their (metaphorical) babies will be smashed on rocks. This is spiritual warfare, and it's what Lent is all about.

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