Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope (9)

Gideon Strauss


January 28, 2011
by Gideon Strauss

(In this series I reflect on my work as an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, and try to tease out some of the biblical beginnings for a spirituality of political practice, looking in particular at a few Psalms.)

The men who, in the service of South Africa’s apartheid regime, tortured my friends and comrades, did so for love. They acted as they did, for the greater part, not out of some twisted sadism, but out of an honest desire to protect their friends and families, to protect a political order in which they and those they loved lived well, an order which itself they loved. The men and women who, in resistance to the apartheid regime, planted landmines that killed soldiers and young children alike, did so for love. They acted as they did, for the greater part, not out of pleasure in sowing terror, but out of an honest desire to make a better world for their friends and families, to bring about a political order in which they and those they loved could flourish—an order for which they yearned deeply. The evil we do results from our disordered loves.

The rage we pray against the political evil of others and the repentance we pray over our own political evil presumes an ability to discern indifference, injustice, and hatred. And that ability depends on a prior recognition of a proper order of justice and love. It is a part of our common humanity that we are able to respond to the mute world and discern the ways in which it is patterned—patterned by God’s intentions in creation.

While the first prayers called forth by our political experiences are often prayers of heartbreak (like Psalms 51, 88, and 137), our political spirituality must be shaped even more deeply by prayers of wonder: wonder at the goodness of creation and of God’s ordinances for creation—including the ways in which the gift of justice provides a normative pattern for political life.

Time and again Psalms of wonder have tethered me to such a sense of the good order of creation when faced with the brokenness of the world and the disorder of my own heart. I recall vividly the vocational epiphany I experienced when, near the end of my tether in the final weeks of working on my doctoral dissertation, I paused to read through Psalm 119 and came across its 18th verse:

Open my eyes that I may see
wonderful things in your law.

Of all the Psalms of wonder, Psalm 19 has for me been the most pivotal. It is a much beloved Psalm—C.S. Lewis called it "the greatest poem” in the Psalter, and “one of the greatest lyrics in the world." Calvin Seerveld writes in Rainbows for  the Fallen World:

“Psalm 19 is enough to leave you limp. It makes vivid that all creation is a burning bush of the Lord God, revealing his just, merciful presence by the praise of countless creatures. It sings the glory of the law and ordinances by which Yahweh's mouth rules all goings on in history with wisdom and compassion . . . and . . . it ends by confessing . . . that in keeping the law and in doing what's right there is no justification . . . [God] save us! . . . Set us free from our sinful selves to be your willing servants, Lord!

Psalm 19 talks about the ways in which creation reveals God’s patterning in beautiful poetic language:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.

As Calvin Seerveld writes, Psalms like this are "good for believers and unbelievers.” Psalm 19 suggests the possibility of a public Christian spirituality for justice: it celebrates the common reality in which all human beings exist.

—Gideon  Strauss is editor of Capital Commentary and CEO of the Center for Public Justice.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”