Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 26) transports me to the late night comedy club, where stand-up comic Jeff Caldwell is on a roll, lampooning the wonderful age we live in and the great products the scientists are giving us. “Anti-bacterial soap.” Yeah, I kind of thought that was understood as part of our contract with soap. What the hell have I been washing my hands with all these years? Bacteria-neutral? Virus-friendly? I can almost picture the Psalmist David reciting his poem in a stand-up comedy club, when he says that he has washed his hands in innocence. You don’t have to read far into David’s life to see how far from innocence he often was. But here he is claiming integrity and crying out for vindication nonetheless.
It’s interesting to look at the origins of that word, innocence, which has come to mean simply “not guilty.” It comes from an old Latin word, innocentem, literally meaning not noxious. Not harmful. Not destructive. It casts a whole new light on the Psalm, which is often read as a simplistic holier-than-thou dualistic good and evil scenario. I’m good! You’re evil! I won’t sit at your table! Understanding innocence in its original meaning, though, can help us re-read the Psalm and see that David could well have been saying that he was avoiding the counsel of violence, cleansing himself of the voices of destruction. He did not want to be swept away with the sinful movements of his day that were pushing him toward imperialism. He did not want to be packing evil devices or taking bribes like some mob leader. He wanted to be innocent. Not noxious.
Whether or not that’s what David meant in his poem, we know that the Son of David, Jesus, certainly lived out his life in this fuller meaning of innocence, much to the chagrin of the religious leaders of his day. The Pharisees undoubtedly read Psalm 26 as a call to a simplistic holier-than-thou dualistic life of good guys and evildoers. Being a good guy for them meant maintaining a strict separation from anyone who would taint them. And along came Jesus, with a different read on the Psalm. In the midst of the noxious prejudice and hatred fuming out in the guise of faith, He washed his hands in innocentem, in non-violent love, and it ruined his reputation. He became known as the friend of sinners, a drunkard and glutton, and He told stories of “good” evildoers (the Samaritans were good for nothing in the eyes of the upright). We live in a similar environment as Jesus, in an atmosphere where noxious fumes of hateful religious diatribe constantly fume out, with the purity-driven faithful taking Jesus’ name in vain while promoting violence, holding the cross in one hand and devices of destruction in the other. Jesus gives us a model for how to live in this environment. Washing our hands in innocentem doesn’t mean separating ourselves from those deemed unworthy and tainted by the religious voices of purity. It means crossing the great divides, eating and drinking with them, sharing fellowship with them, building relationships with them. In short, it means engaging them with non-violent love. Innocentem – it’s not for the faint of heart. It will make you guilty in the eyes of the religiously pure.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.