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

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope (5)

Gideon Strauss


November 26, 2010
?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.)

Interpreting the testimony of victims of the apartheid state and of victims of the enemies of that state during 1996 and 1997, I often found myself praying the terrible Psalm 137. Asking myself, prompted by these victims, how one stays human after the atrocities they suffered, I found that expressing the vengeful rage of that psalm was indeed a way of being human, and of remaining human, in the face of evil. (And as I will suggest later in this series, our rage at injustice is at least in part a result of our God-given desire to see justice done.)

Psalm 137 comes out of the experience of the people of God in exile in Babylon, asked to turn their songs of worship into entertainment for their oppressors. They yearn for Zion, for the city of Jerusalem, where they believe the presence of God to be.

You may remember a phrase from Psalm 137 because it can sometimes still be heard jingling in shopping malls during the holidays in the song “Rivers of Babylon,” a Jamaican reggae version of the first part of the psalm, turned into disco music by the 1970s band Boney M. A far more adequate contemporary rendering of the song, also influenced by the reggae tradition, is the Hasidic hip-hop artist Matisyahu’s “Jerusalem (Out Of Darkness Comes Light).”

But neither Boney M. nor Matisyahu include the final part of the psalm—the truly terrible part of the psalm—in their songs, where the poet asks God to wreak a terrible vengeance on their oppressors.

I find an unpublished version of the psalm, prepared for liturgical use by Roy Berkenbosch, the director of the Micah Center in Edmonton (Canada), valuable for its theological interpretation of the final part of the psalm:

O daughter of Babylon, all enemies of shalom are doomed to destruction,
a reward awaits the one who overturns your evil,
who exacts justice for your cruelty,
who denies a future to your cause.

But a straightforward translation (such as this from the English Standard Version of the Bible) gets more acutely at the raw pain of the poet:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

As I listened to the testimony of the victims of abduction, torture and murder, as I interpreted the testimony of the perpetrators of these evil deeds, I could share in the feelings of this poet, and pray a similar prayer. I could understand how the world’s victims could pray for death and destruction to come upon the children of their tormentors, and could pray a blessing on their avengers.

For the two years in which I spent close to four days a week, several hours each day, serving as a mouthpiece for those who testified about their children being killed, or, as “the voice of evil” serving as the mouthpiece of those who testified of the tortures they perpetrated on others, this was my prayer.

Psalm 137 and similar prayers demand to be prayed. This psalm is in the psalter because it does indeed, sometimes, speak for us. It brings a dark part of our human experience before the face of God.

But there are darker prayers yet needed in a biblical spirituality for political practice.

—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.”