By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
Babylon…happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
– Psalm 137:1, 9 (NRSV)
I’ve always hated verse 9 of Psalm 137. The celebration of violence. Against children, no less.
And it’s worse because it comes at the end of such a beautiful, sad song. I hear the Godspell version. Maybe you know Bob Marley. This aching psalm of exile and captivity.
Then this ugly verse of vengeance. Of destruction. I don’t understand it. It feels like it doesn’t belong. Like it ruins the rest.
So, I just leave it out. Skip over it. Ignore it. So do all the songwriters.
Everyone loves a sad song. No one wants an angry one.
I have been reminded of that sentiment this summer, seeing white reactions to protesting and looting and rioting after the murder of George Floyd. (After so many other murders and already now before others.)
In the protests of police violence, many of my fellow white folks drew a line between “peaceful” demonstration and “rioting.” Between acceptable forms of resistance and unacceptable destruction. Between sadness and rage.
Grief is one thing, they say. Vengeance is another. (Although – lest we get lost in the metaphor – let’s remember which side has done actual violence to children.)
I get it: I don’t understand the impulse to break a window or set a car on fire. But that’s exactly the point. I don’t understand. I can’t understand. But I could listen and try to learn.
Not skip over it. Not ignore it. Not judge it. Not condemn it. Listen to it. And try to learn.
Discomfort, discomfort, my people.
Vince Amlin is co-pastor of Bethany UCC, Chicago, and co-planter of Gilead Church Chicago, forming now.