Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetic Passage* (Psalm 74) transports me to a scar-spangled scene of epic proportions, as the Babylonian General’s scorched-earth policy leaves a remnant of covenant people wondering where the AWOL God of creation and Exodus has been hiding while all this was going on. A nationalistic faith that had traded true community for a temple-taxed and highly stratified sacred society screams out a self-righteous rebel yell as it hears its national anthem morphing into a defiling sacrilege: The smoldering glare, axes laying walls bare, gave proof through the night that their flag was still there (that is, the blasted Babylonian banner flying over the destroyed capitol).
Haunts of violence fill the place and the plaintiff Psalmist pictures the Defender and Warrior God standing passively by, striking a pose instead of striking enemies, with a Napoleonic right hand tucked inside the coat. This is the same mighty right hand that split seas and mauled monsters. The Psalmist’s question of God’s absence signals the Waterloo for imperial theology, exposing its flaws and hinting at its corrective. These rebellious people who revered God as their proud General protecting the borders of the old Southern Kingdom were bound to share the fate of General Lee’s old South. Religion that blesses the conquests and consumptions and prejudices of its adherents is bound to crumble under the weight of contradictions: the original covenant call to bless all nations juxtaposed with a colonial call to overthrow neighboring nations, the original commonwealth economy of generous sharing juxtaposed with a concentrated wealth economy of greed, the universal and unconditional love of God juxtaposed with a prejudicial love restricted to temple dwellers.
One short verse of the Psalm provides a hint of the kind of theological corrective needed: Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. Ironically, it was the very disgraceful oppression of the poor that caused God to retreat and withdraw the hedge of protection from Jerusalem and the Temple in the first place. Lessons to learn from history: keep the original faith, the faith that sets at liberty those who are oppressed, that gives grace to the sinner and good news to the poor. Don’t expect God to protect and preserve the grand institutions that inevitably build up and crowd out the simple faith of love. Be free enough to let institutions come and go without losing sight of our real hope, the hope of the poor, the hope of Jesus, the hope of a carried cross. Carrying that hope, that banner, may all of the poor and oppressed of our world march to the music of an enigmatic faith that finds victory in the midst of defeat: I feel like I win when I lose, Waterloo, I was defeated, You won the war.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.