I’ve been coming back to Psalm 137 ever since the Orlando shooting. It’s the Psalm I prepared for our vigil for Orlando. Of course, it is an awful Psalm and contains the worst, most despicable line in all of scripture. It is angry, vengeful and completely out of control. In fact, if the fruits of the Spirit are our guide (love, joy, peace, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, generosity, patience and self-control–Galatians 5) then Psalm 137 is the most dispirited of scriptures. It contains exactly zero of these fruits and advocates a war crime.
The Psalm comes to mind in regard to Orlando because it seems to me like we have reached a new level of anger. I’m not talking the rage of the perpetrator. By all accounts, he was pretty cold-blooded about the whole thing. I’m talking about the public discourse that has followed. After Columbine, we were in shock. After Virginia Tech, we were dismayed. After Newtown, our national resolve and creativity seemed to die its own death. So after Roseburg, we were resigned. Certainly there was anger after each of those. There was pain and public outrage. But they seemed to be focused on perpetrators or apathetic politicians. This time, it seems like we are just damn sick of everybody. There is a carelessness to where our anger is directed. We aren’t waiting for answers anymore because we cannot process the losses anymore.
It’s Grief Stupid
This is grief…a particularly undignified grief. I wonder if we are all coming to terms with all the various losses we are all feeling at the same time: the loss of innocence, the loss of hope, loss of national identity, loss of the convenience of easy answers, loss of togetherness, the loss of safety and the realization that none of this is coming back anytime soon. Loss upon loss and grief upon grief.
Grief is the ‘coming to terms with loss’. We have lost any excuse we once had to not know about the multiple problems that contributed to Orlando. We know about guns and we cannot pretend not to. We know about extremism because of San Bernadino and Oklahoma City. And now we can no longer claim any ignorance over anti-LGBT hatred. This list has been required reading for a long time, it seems. I’m sorry I never saw it earlier. The compilation of losses has dealt a serious blow to the psyche of the nation.
Grief is powerful. It can be very destructive. It can also be very constructive, if we face the losses. In an individual who has lost a loved one, we typically speak about the “new normal”. That normal being life without that loved one. In my standard funeral homily, I also speak about honoring the deceased. I encourage people to tell the stories, show the pictures, eat the food and go to the favorite places of the deceased. When a personal loss occurs, I advocate seeing the time as an opportunity to place the loved one’s life in a different perspective and to begin seeing that life as a whole.
But I’m not sure what to do with a grieving nation, much less one with multiple griefs to process. It’s harder in the sense that we still have to live here. The new normal is emerging ever-so-slowly from the old normal. The old normal, with its simplicity and idealization is tough to let go of. Then again, the tragedies that we are grieving percolated in the old normal. It’s not only that we want that old normal back, it’s that the old normal was an illusion. I enjoyed the old normal behind a cloak of ignorance and privilege.
[I had always thought of the Allegory of the Cave as ignorance of goodness, knowledge, wisdom and beauty. Now I see it more like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the cave was my ignorance also of evil and pain. And we cannot have wisdom or beauty without the risk of pain and evil.]
The Truth about Grief
In grief, honesty can be a very healing salve. To be able to say ‘we didn’t get along but I loved him’ is better than ‘we never had a fight’. Truthfulness brings understanding to your pain and pain recognized is the first step to comfort. Right now we do not fully understand our national problem with mass killings. Part of this is by design: those afraid of what the truth may say have obstructed information gathering on mass shootings. perhaps this is because mass killings have become profitable for some. If truth sets us free, and if America is the land of the free, then anyone obstructing the basic gathering of information is obstructing the most basic purpose of the nation. I’m not sure how healing can happen without truth telling.
The honesty also needs to turn inward. In fact, the outrage seems to be all too accompanied with semi-automatic blame. ISIS did this. Muslims are evil. The gays had it coming. There is no shortage of ready made villains. Except the truth doesn’t stick to any of these easy answers. Without a long look into the deep, dark, truthful mirror freedom will continue to elude us. Why am I still on the sideline? What do I know about my neighborhood? Which outsider have I ignored? What have I done to address animosity against the LGBTQ community? Why am I an ineffective ally? Truth is a multi-angled lens. And I cannot expect truth to heal my nation, unless I allow it to examine my own iniquities as well.
Psalm 137 in Context
In Psalm 137, the psalm ends with the people begging for violent revenge against their oppressors. In reality, a different prophecy was given to the people exiled to Babylon:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Corny, I Know, but Overcome Evil with Good
And it seems that is what the Judeans did. What about us? Maybe we live in a time of exile. Maybe we work for the welfare of a city or nation, but as refugees from elsewhere. Maybe we treat this land as a new nation whose rules aren’t necessarily for the children of light. But we do the work necessary for the good of land. I know for my children’s sake, working for the welfare of the land is my only good option. In either case, the mindless rage is neither useful nor healing. How then do we help the nation work through the rage to hear the better prophecy?