Just a week ago Kaile, Silas, and I sat down with my parents, Ann and Greg. We were in the Richmond near Geary and 19th at a little Indian place. Moments after we had settled in with our naan, chai tea, and tikka masala, I heard the man behind me speaking.
His voice grew louder.
“I’ll kill each one of you. But I will spare the mother because of the baby inside. I’ll f*cking kill all of you with my bare hands. You’ll bleed out instantly. You don’t deserve to live another day.”
I looked across the table at my father, whose now-graven face and hazel eyes were locked on the non-gentle man issuing threats. I mouthed the words, “is he talking to us?” Since my back was to the crazed man, it seemed that turning or standing to confront him would do more harm than good. “I don’t trust that guy in the least,” came my dad’s whispered reply, still making eye contact with the man who had now stood to his feet, continuing the threats.
As my palms began to sweat, I thought through a list of possible outcomes: would he attack? Would I literally risk my life for my wife, toddler son, and 60-something parents? Am I really the pacifist I profess to be? Does self-defense count?
As the threats continued, my dad slipped out of his seat and quickly went to speak with the owner of the restaurant. In an instant he was there to gently ask the man to go about his day. My dad’s experience working in an urban pharmacy helped reinforce the wisdom of seeking a local expert, the restaurant owner.
Still breathing threats of violence, he walked out of the restaurant and down the street.
Unsurprisingly, the fellow who threatened the four earthly people who know me the most was one of San Francisco’s numerous mentally unstable denizens: likely homeless, probably addicted, surely lacking in needs that most of us take for granted.
Yes, it was startling, but no, this incident is not typical in my life. I can count with one finger the number of times this kind of thing has happened [yes, once is all].
The experience made me think of certain Psalms that I’ve never quite been able to comprehend. Take for example Psalm 140. In the NRSV verses 10-11 read like this:
Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent!
Whoa whoa whoa.
That’s a little much, isn’t it David*?
These verses and others like them are picked over by skeptics: the Bible incites violence! How is this good advice for anyone-much less the word of God? Yeah, I get the reaction. Much ink has been spilled as an attempt to discredit Jewish and Christian faith on account of the anger found in the Psalms [and elsewhere, but that is another story].
Is it really too much? Should we toss out these angry imprecatory** Psalms and keep the nice ones that talk about quiet streams and shepherds and mountains?
I’d say no. In fact, I wonder how much violence has ceased because of these Psalms. Here’s the twist. The anger in these Psalms could just as easily be directed to the writer’s enemy. But look! It’s not directed at the Psalmist’s enemy; the anger is directed straight to God.
Indeed, many of the Bible’s Psalms came during dark times of loss. Some have come from very specific situations in individual lives. The angry emotion contained in these poetic phrases comes from lived experience, not from abstract or existential feelings.
As I write, I can almost hear a response: “good grief, Ben, most people don’t have that kind of anger, and if they do it’s just a mental instability and they probably need therapy.”
I don’t buy that for one second.
What if the anger came from a terrible loss? From genocide? From having lost a child to abduction or murder? From having seen family members shot or tortured? When human beings go through upheaval of this nature, anger is an inescapable response. You bet therapy is in order, but any therapist understands and counsels the wisdom of effectively coming to grips with one’s emotion and finding the best way to move through it.
These Psalms encourage those experiencing rage to find its proper channel: prayer.
Only in connecting to God can we become open to the true darkness within our own souls. Only in connecting to our Savior, Jesus, can we find someone who truly identifies with human loss-yet who also communes with the Father and the Spirit.
Ignoring our anger leads us nowhere, and acting on it will surely lead to further destruction. Consider the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Desmond Tutu and other leaders helped the citizens of South Africa move forward after countless acts of murder, racism, inexcusable and unspeakable hatred carried out under the banner of apartheid. Little doubt some seriously angry pray-ers sought solace in a God who is concerned for justice yet allows humankind to be his agents.
Going back to my opening story, I’ve thought more about the situation. No, I’m not praying imprecatory Psalms and asking God to avenge me. The man at the Indian restaurant probably needs some antipsychotic medications, a meaningful community, and a sense of self-worth; he needs hope; he needs Jesus.
But the experience is also teaching me to empathize, in small ways, with folks, rather unlike my middle class self, who do in fact have reason to pray their anger to God. Take for example the family and friends of Alejandro Nieto, shot numerous times by San Francisco police in 2014 at Bernal Heights Park. He was armed only with his licensed tazer that he was legally carrying for work [he was a full-time security guard]. An example from a different perspective comes from the grieving family and friends of police officers Liu and Ramos of the NYPD who were killed the same year, 2014, in their police vehicle. Neither had any connection to acts of police brutality.
There are a great many situations that lead our hearts to a pure and unadulterated anger. Resonating with the heart of God, we desire justice and for the law to do its strong work.
And yet, Scripture insists we pray our anger to God. As we do, we remain honest to the depth of our emotions yet also to the hope we have in his justice. After all, Jesus was unjustly accused and killed on account of it. And yes, in his desperate hour, he prayed that God would allow for another way, but eventually his prayer went unanswered as it turned into, “not my will but yours be done.”
God hears, yet even Jesus, the Son, did not always receive the answer he desired. But, with Jesus as our advocate, whether we are ecstatic, underwhelmed, or incensed, we still pray.
And why not start with the Psalms?
*Biblical scholarship has opened up our modern view toward the authorship of the Psalms. Some are certainly traced to David, but certainly not all. King David most likely wrote some, but assuredly not all of these artfully-crafted poems.
**Imprecatory or its noun format, imprecation, are words used in biblical studies to describe Psalms or other passages that espouse anger and violence toward the writer’s enemy.