Justice Against the Oppressor–What to do with Imprecatory Psalms

Another gem of a passage from Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, offering perhaps the most satisfactory discussion of the issue of imprecatory psalms and forgiving enemies that I have yet read:

“The oppressed Christian who discovers Jesus’ solidarity with him must take account of one respect in which Jesus in his suffering prayed differently from the way the psalmists prayed.  Jesus prayed for his enemies’ forgiveness (Luke 23:34), thus practising his own teaching (Matt. 5:44).  The psalmists never did this: their attitude to their enemies is consistently unforgiving.  They pray for God’s judgement on their enemies (Ps. 10:2b, 15), sometimes in the form of solemn and extensive curses (Ps. 69:22-8; 109:6-20).  But such prayers are not unknown in the New Testament (Rev. 6:10).  They need to be accorded a kind of provisional validity, which does not excuse any Christian from the duty of forgiving enemies, but does help us to understand what is really involved in forgiveness.  Jesus’ demand for forgiveness of enemies does not, we might say, simply revoke these prayers, but takes a step further beyond them.  We have to appreciate what is valid about them before we can rightly take, as followers of Jesus must take, that further step.  

First, these prayers spring directly from the psalmists’ demand for justice.  Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, whose demand was for the judge to vindicate her against her adversary (Luke 18:3), the psalmists’ primary concern is positive—justice for the oppressed—but they cannot envisage this without its negative corollary—justice against the oppressor.  Nor, in concrete situations of political injustice, is it often easy for us to do otherwise.  Our prayers in and about such situations are not superior but inferior to the psalms if they do not manifest the psalmists’ thirst for justice and anger at injustice.  As John Goldingay writes, ‘If we do not find ourselves wishing to call down a curse of divine magnitude on some perpetrators of evil, this may reflect our spiritual sensitivity, our good fortune in not being confronted by evil of such measure, or it may reflect our moral indifference.’  Love and forgiveness of enemies should not be invoked to sanction an easy and careless disregard for justice.  The force of Jesus’ command to love enemies is lost if we forget that it presupposes real enemies, and makes no attempt to pretend that they are not enemies.  Love and forgiveness of enemies are authentic only as the costly and difficult step beyond the psalmists’ valid demand for justice.  

Second, the psalmists’ prayer for justice serves in principle to protect their concern for justice from degenerating into vindictiveness, even if it does not always do this in practice.  The prayer is essentially for God to execute justice, and draws the psalmist, beyond feelings of personal vindictiveness, into a desire to see God’s justice prevail.  Admittedly, it is possible for talk of divine justice to be used in the interests of personal revenge.  But the believer who is genuinely open to God in prayer is subordinating his own judgement of the situation to the standard of God’s righteous judgement. . . . 

Third, the referring of the situation to God’s justice is the first step towards love and forgiveness of enemies.  In expressing to God their rage against their oppressors and their desire for vengeance the psalmists are at least submitting and yielding those wishes to God, even relinquishing them to God.  Personal vengeance can be renounced, because one’s cause has been entrusted to the just God who claims vengeance as his own concern (Deut. 32:35-6; Rom. 12:19). . . . In the course of repeating Jesus’ demand for love of enemies—blessing, not cursing them (12:14), not retaliating (v. 17)—he [Paul] forbids his readers to avenge themselves (v. 19a), but does not require them to renounce their concern for justice.  Rather this can be left in God’s hands (v. 19b). This then frees them to treat their enemies forgivingly and to welcome their repentance (v. 20).  Where those in the grip of personal vengeance msut be frustrated, like Jonah, when repentant enemies are spared judgment, those who have committed vengeance to God can promote and rejoice in the compassion by which he at once safeguards and surpasses justice.  They can pray for their enemies’ forgiveness.” (pp. 65-67)


Praying for the Conversion of our Enemies

Awhile ago, there was something of a debate on here as to whether it was legitimate for Christians to desire the destruction of their enemies.  I argued–not being an outright pacifist–that, although it might be legitimate in certain cases to take action to kill enemies, it would never be legitimate to rejoice in that action; we might have to destroy our enemies in rare cases, but we should never desire their destruction.  Various Biblical counterexamples were alleged against my position, and it was suggested that perhaps the difference between my interlocutor and I was that his position was logically a pure Calvinist position, whereas I tended to qualify my Calvinism with a heavy dose of Barthianism.  

So I was intrigued today to come across, in Calvin’s commentary on Romans 12:14-21, a resounding and powerful statement of the need for Christians always to desire the good and the salvation of their enemies–not only not to take vengeance, but not to desire that vengeance be taken:

“In this passage, Paul requires a train of conduct yet more difficult, not to pray for evil and curses to light on the heads of our enemies, but to wish them every kind of prosperity, and supplicate God to grant them every blessing, however much they may harass, and treat us with the most barbarous inhumanity.  We ought to labour after the attainment of this mildness with the more intense diligence, in proportion to the difficulty of its attainment….”

“Prayer for our enemies is more difficult than to refrain from the active revenging of an injury which we have suffered.  For there are some characters, who, notwithstanding they hold their hands from violence, and are not driven on by a desire of injuring their enemies, would still be glad to find destruction or loss befall them from another quarter.  Even if the injured are so much appeased as to wish no evil to their foes, yet scarce one in a hundred desires the safety and prosperity of the injurer; a large portion has immediate recourse, without feeling any shame, to horrid imprecations.  But God, by his word, not only restrains our hands from any act of violence and injury, but also subdues all bitter feelings in our minds.  Nay, he even desires us to be solicitous for the eternal salvation of those, who bring ruin on themselves by cruelly harassing us in an unjust manner.”

“Not only does Paul prohibit us from executing vengeance with our own power, but we are not to indulge such a desire in our hearts; and on this ground any distinction between private and public vengeance is altogether vain and frivolous; for that person is no more to be excused, who implores the aid of the magistrate with a malevolent intention, and a determined resolution to revenge, than we can acquit the voluntary contriver of plans for self-revenge; nay, we ought not always to ask God, as will afterwards appear, to avenge us; for if our requests for this purpose arise from private affection and passion, and not from the pure zeal of the spirit, we do not make God our judge, but a servant of our depraved desires.  We are not therefore to give place to wrath in any other way than by patiently waiting for the proper season for deliverance, wishing and praying, in the mean time, that such as now vex and disquiet us may become our friends by repentance.”  

“We ought not, indeed, to supplicate God to avenge our enemies, but should pray for their conversion, that they may become our friends; and if they pursue their wicked career, they will experience the same judgment, which other despisers of God may expect.”


Of course, then the question remains–what do we do with the imprecatory Psalms?