“The kings of the earth rise up….you will break them with a rod of iron…dash them to pieces like pottery.”
(Psalm 2:2a, 9)
I’ve begun to notice that certain parts of childhood are rather morbid. Don’t get me wrong, I was raised in a good home: great parents, likeable -if not tolerable- siblings and I even got my braces off before my first kiss. But there are aspects of it which, in retrospect, are disconcerting; one of them being nursery rhymes.
Take, for instance, ‘Humpty Dumpty.’ Parsed into a line-by-line narrative, what parents are coo-coo-ing to our children is the story of a rather obtuse person who had the further misfortune (of being named ‘Humpty’ and) of falling off a wall and receiving fatal injuries. I picture a broken neck and numerous compound fractures. Delightful. Sleep tight, kiddo.
The Psalter is equally disconcerting to me, at numerous times. The second Psalm is one of those. The proclamation, often used as a coronation psalm for Israel, depicts the violence of man being futile before the violence of God. I am not a king and I am not God. So when I read of nations being smashed and kingdoms throwing themselves against one another with violent futility, I can’t help but think of myself as inevitable collateral.
Consider this: in the Russian defense of Stalingrad- as with numerous other battles between the Germans and Russians in World War II- Soviet foot soldiers often had to choose, quite literally, between Russian or Nazi bullets. They were forced to charge straight into enemy fire and, if they dared to retreat, their commanders mowed them down the moment they turned around.
Is there hope for humankind between the violence of their fellow men and the wrath of God?
Andrew Elphinstone was a British theologian of royal blood; Queen Elizabeth was a bridesmaid at his wedding (a bridesmaid!). In his book, Freedom, Suffering and Love, Elphinstone proposes that pain ought to be seen as a neutral entity. Just as beauty can become vanity and desire manipulated into lust or exploitation, so- Elphinstone proposes- can pain be used for evil but also for good.
A strange thought: war, genocide, tsunamis famine, rape, slavery… how could the pain evoked by these horrors be neutral?
My legs ache; I went for a nice run this morning. But, at the same time, I feel great. Such an odd equation. Is it possible that we have an intrinsic understanding of pain’s neutrality, even though our core experiences only testify to it’s evil?
Part of us at least flirts with the possibility that brokenness and pain might not always be a bad thing. Bad for chubby dumpty, in the moment anyway. But also not bad enough to be excluded from the nursery. Celebrated, even.
Which brings me back to Psalm 2 whence violence of mankind (The kings of the earth rise up 2:2) is greeted with divine laughter (the Lord scoffs at them 2:4). The ‘strength’ of nations is a joke; but it invokes strong judgement. Human violence is a serious matter and for it I will be judged. But there seems to be a strange hypocrisy to the psalm, one that declares God will judge- through violence- the violence of the nations.
But God’s implementation of violence to bring justice to the nations is not a compromise with evil. The image of the divine scepter smashing the nations like pottery (2:9) reminds me that with it the queen can bless or destroy; either way she is just, and the scepter is a neutral party utilized for her justice.
It can be easy, as a white, privileged, middle-class, American, male (much less!) to want to believe that evil doesn’t exist. No one has raped my family; no one has judged me a criminal simply because of my skin color; I never lie down in hunger nor do I awake in dread. But I do watch TV. And, despite my deepest convictions, I often cheer when the villain gets the bullet. Because there’s an undeniable sense of justice in the defeat of evil.
The problem is that I often correlate divine justice with human justice. “The myth of redemptive violence runs deep.” if I kill you to avenge my father’s death, let’s hope you don’t also have children.
Justice will come. But never at human hands. Never by human means. Pain is good when used by God, evil when used in subordination. I testify to this paradox, to this tension, every day of my life: I run; I ache; I pray for peace; I cheer when the villain is killed. And I hope that the little injustices, the little horrors, I suffer (I did try for that first kiss with braces still on) might one day be vindicated- to say nothing of the grand ones felt by others less fortunate than me. The Psalter gives me hope that scars might one day be celebrated.
So does, I might add, Humpty Dumpty.