Violence, Babylon, and The Boss

If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot them on sight, I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be alright…

Bruce Springsteen, Jack of All Trades, Wrecking Ball (2013)


O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you backwhat you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!  

Psalm 137:8-9

[You can find a talk based on this post here: Psalm 137: Anger & Non-violence ] 

Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Jack of All Trades” chronicles the journey of a day labourer in the USA, driven out of work and home by the Global Financial Crisis. The lyrics mourn his current plight, before building to the final line, recorded above; where the victimised sings out his desire to bring retribution to those who have caused his suffering. This song provides a voice to those suffering, or living in the aftermath of great injustice, a voice crying out to end the suffering and right the wrong. It functions in much the same way as a Psalm of lament or imprecation. The existence of this song suggests a need for such expression in both individual and societal life. Ironically this evident need appears at the same time the Church is shying away from its own texts of lament and imprecation.[1] Is this creating a dissonance between the Church and the world outside its walls?[2]


According to Joel M. Le Mon there is has been an increasing discomfort and avoidance of Psalms such as Ps 137 in the church today.[3] Some objections to these psalms take on a supersessionist tone. Where the violence of the Hebrew Bible is viewed as outdated and incongruent with the teachings of Christ.[4] Other objections are more cautious in language and born out of honest wrestling with “confusing” passages.[5] Often the discomfort with the violence is heightened by rising awareness of the Church’s own violent history. Whatever the case may be, Psalms such as Ps 137 have fallen out of favour in the lectionary and liturgies of many churches, and one may well argue, are used sparingly in the believer’s personal devotion. Countering this there is an increasing push to reclaim such psalms of discomfort (or as Brueggemann would say “disorientation”)[6] as essential to creating honest and rounded spaces of worship. “It is remarkable” Brueggemann writes “that while these ‘psalms of disorientation’ [including Ps 137], occupy a full one-third of the Psalter they have largely been lost in the practice of the church”.[7] However I feel that Ps 137 has much to contribute to both corporate and personal worship and piety. Furthermore, from what we see in lyrics such as Springsteen’s, where the church has shied away from the raw ‘unattractive’ emotions of these psalms, secular art has maintained the tradition of use, and provides a stunning case for their power and importance.


The Violence 

It is difficult to argue away the importance of the Psalms to the Christian or Church’s life. There are two Psalm readings on each day of the Daily Office, every Sunday’s lectionary reading includes a Psalm, and the Gideon’s Bible excludes all of the Old Testament, with the exception of the Psalms and Proverbs. The Psalms not only shape devotion and worship, but theology. As LeMon writes: “the theological claims of the Psalm have an impact on those who recite it” shaping the “character and activities of the faithful”.[1] However this can lead to discomfort towards Psalms such as Ps 137. LeMon again: “There remains a challenge for all those who would pattern their lives after the piety of the Psalms. The challenge comes via the images of violence pervading the Psalter”.[2] How do Christians, seeking to base their beliefs and actions on the Psalms, rectify the dashing of infant’s heads on rocks with the “modern world” or even with the teachings of Jesus? Some, as we addressed at the outset have said no, and sought to remove or ignore such Psalms. But this seems neither appropriate nor wise. What is of more interest are the varying responses to the violence. What follows is a brief survey of approaches to the violence of Ps 137.


A preliminary point, consistent to all three positions, is that the Psalms are not dogmatic statements but are replete with poetic imagery, symbolism, metaphor, and most importantly in this case, hyperbole. For Gerstenberger, “liturgical language” is not colloquial, but is rather “always poetic or semipoetic”.[5] This has serious ramifications to any conversation on violence in the Psalms, for we must always hesitate before taking violent cries or curses at a literal face value.


The Human Voice

One attempt to accommodate the violence in Ps 137 is to see the Psalms not as the words of God talking to humanity (as much of the Hebrew Scriptures are), but as humanity talking to God.[6] Thus they have more to do with the nature of humanity than God. If this is the case we approach Ps 137 in much the same way as a Springsteen song: a record of a persons emotions and an honest attempt to express that artistically. Where Jack of All Trades plays a role of emotional catharsis, so Ps 137 is a form of “theological catharsis for those who suffer greatly”.[7] However, this approach has limits. Firstly, Ps 137 expresses the voice of the community. Secondly, its canonical inclusion shows the “accepted importance of these Psalms for the overall understanding of the relationship between YHWH and YHWH’s followers”.[9] Therefore, though it helps to understand that the Psalms have a function as chronicling human emotion and expression, this approach is probably unsatisfactory in dealing with concerns of violence.


The Cry of the Oppressed

Few of us have first hand experience comparable to what birthed this Psalm. Christians in the Global West rarely will have the experience of being an oppressed and displaced people. There is a depth of emotion untapped by many that was associated with the exile; which was “equated with descent into the world of the dead”.[10] When we read the final verses of Ps 137 as a cry of the oppressed, living (or remembering life) in a desperate situation, we begin to interpret the cries of violence differently. Not only are these the words of the oppressed, they are spoken to the oppressor, as seen in verse 8. As LeMon argues, we must realise that “violent psalms reflect the emotions of those at their weakest state” who cannot fight back through their own power, nor see, amidst the desperation, that their liberation will be achieved without violence.[11] Ps 137 is thus read as a politically charged work, borrowing images from actual military practices of their times.[12] It is a protest “shaped neither by hatred or the irrationality of revenge” directed against the “viciousness and brutality of the great empires of the time toward their smaller neighbours”.[13] It seeks simply to “redress… human power relations”.[14] This reading sees the Psalm functioning in much the same way as Springsteen’s work; speaking truth to power. Providing a voice to those whose are being ignored or suppressed. This liberation reading provides a lens of understanding the depth of emotion felt by those oppressed around the world. It may also address the problems some Christians have reconciling the use of Ps 137 in light of the Church’s violent past.


The non-violence of the violence

A final reading of the violence we will examine sees Ps 137 as presenting “a radical ethic of nonviolence.”[15] In Ps 137 the Psalmist does not ask for the power to execute the punishment. By doing so the Psalmist rejects the “right of human retribution” and demonstrates their commitment to YHWH alone as the distributor of justice.[17] When reading Ps 137 alongside Springsteen we are reminded that when we, or our loved ones, are wronged the basic human desire is to seek revenge.[18] However the words of Ps 137 are not a holding tightly to earthly rights of retribution but a giving over to YHWH, asking YHWH to “remember” and act (v 7). We do not expect, in spite of his lyrics, Bruce Springsteen to act violently towards those who have perpetuated injustice. He presents his emotion and anger and gives it over to a listener to choose their response, which potentially may be to hold the wrongdoers to justice. Similarly, Ps 137 is an attempt “in the face of profound humiliation and helplessness, to suppress the primitive human lust for violence in one’s own heart by surrendering everything to God”.[19] This psalm is thus a process whereby “Israel moves from articulation of hurt and anger, to submission of them to God, and finally to relinquishment”.[20] Through this process of relinquishing, we see evidence of a commitment to non-violence despite the violent imagery.


It is this approach may be the most helpful when seeking to reclaim Ps 137 in Church worship and Christian piety. Heartfelt expression, coupled with the giving over of the right to act for self, provides an example and opportunity for those who enter the worship space filled with their own anger, sorrow, or mourning to do the same. This powerful potential could be behind the “recent scholarship suggest[ing] that modern Christian communities should reclaim the full scope of the Psalter as a source for piety”.[21] As great as Bruce Springsteen is, and despite the vitality and timeliness of his song Jack of All Trades, the Church must not hand off the responsibility of lament and imprecation. There is a need in communal worship spaces and personal devotion, to reclaim Psalms such as Ps 137, allowing them to disturb, guide, and grow so as to end the dissonance with the world that leads to imprecation and lament, and the Church that is determined to ignore it.


[1]{C} LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms”, p. 94.
[2]{C} Ibid, p. 98.
[3]{C} Hossfeld and Zenger, Psalms 3, p. 512.
[4]{C} deClaisse`-Waltford, “Theology of the Imprecatory Psalms”, p. 90.
[5]{C} Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms Part One (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 24.
[6]{C} Ibid, p. 78.
[7]{C} LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms”, p. 100.
[8]{C} deClaisse`-Waltford, “Theology of the Imprecatory Psalms”, p. 85.
[9]{C} Ibid, p. 80.
[10]{C} Berlin and Brettler, ed., The Jewish Study Bible, p. 1435.
[11]{C} LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms”, p. 108.
[12]{C} Hossfeld and Zenger, Psalms 3, p. 519.
[13]{C} Ibid, p. 523.
[14]{C} Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 7.
[15]{C} LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms”, p. 101.
[16]{C} Hossfeld and Zenger, Psalms 3, p. 523.
[17]{C} LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms”, p. 101.
[18]{C} deClaisse`-Waltford, “Theology of the Imprecatory Psalms”, p. 89.
[19]{C} Ibid, p. 91.
[20]{C} Brueggemann and Bellinger, Psalms, p. 7.
[21]{C} LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms”, p. 109.
[1]{C} Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) p. 11.
[2]{C} Nancy L. deClaisse`-Waltford, “The Theology of the Imprecatory Psalms”, in Soundings in the Theology of the Psalms, ed. Rolf A. Jacobson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), p. 83.
[3]{C} Joel M. LeMon, “Saying Amen to Violent Psalms”, in Soundings in the Theology of the Psalms, ed. Rolf A. Jacobson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), p. 99.
[4]{C} deClaisse`-Waltford, “Theology of the Imprecatory Psalms”, p. 79.
[5]{C} Frank Lothar Hossfeld and Eric Zenger, Psalms 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), p. 512.
[6]{C} Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 11.
[7]{C} Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 289.