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

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope (8)

Gideon Strauss


January 21, 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.)

For the practice of politics to be authentically human it must be rooted in the practice of prayer. The primary reason for this necessary connection is the darkness of human evil we encounter when we dig into political life. There is a saying, often attributed to Otto von Bismarck, that "to retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making." And yet, the call to responsible citizenship demands of us that we keep our eyes on that very process and get our own hands dirty with the making. The darkness and dirt can not be borne while remaining human without resources of wonder, heartbreak and hope beyond our human capacities. The gateway to such wonder, heartbreak, and hope is prayer. And the school of prayer is the Bible's Book of Psalms. So far in this series I have been reflecting on prayers of heartbreak, and I will continue doing so for this one more column, turning the corner from heartbreak to wonder next week.

Last week I wrote of my realization late in 1996 that I am, at heart, as much of a perpetrator of political evil as the torturers and terrorists whose testimony I interpreted as a "voice of evil" for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The evil and darkness we face in political life is not only within others. It is our own evil and darkness, also. This recognition demanded that my prayers of heartbreak go beyond the honest, necessary prayers of rage and lament, coram Deo, that I learned from Psalms 88 and 137. I needed to learn more thoroughly how to repent.

Augustine on his deathbed had seven psalms inscribed on his ceiling: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. He wanted these penitential psalms—prayers of repentance—to be his last words. Eugene Peterson writes that "this isn't morbid, as some have supposed, but an exercise of lively joy in what God does best: graciously forgive sins, gloriously save sinners."

Our political spirituality must not only take account of the evil in our own hearts—it must provide a mechanism with which to deal with that evil before it consumes us and turn us toward destruction. And when we reflect on our own lives honestly, we recognize that no degree of heroic virtue, no amount of moral athleticism, is adequate to the task. What we need first is not more effort at doing the right, but forgiveness.

The prayer that teaches me repentance most deeply is David's Psalm 51. Here are some of its lines in Eugene Peterson's paraphrase:

"You're the One I've violated, and you've seen it all, seen the full extent of my evil. You have all the facts before you; whatever you decide about me is fair. I've been out of step with you for a long time, in the wrong since before I was born. What you're after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life…Going through the motions doesn't please, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don't for a moment escape God's notice."

David prayed this prayer in repentance after being confronted over his abuse of political power.  He had ordered the murder of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, whom David bedded while Uriah was risking his life, soldiering in David's service. It is political dirt at its dirtiest. And yet God hears David. So do we all need to be heard, when our work for justice twists toward dirt and darkness. Without repentance and forgiveness, who could sustain a lifetime of work in politics?

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

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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.”