Psalm 137 starts as a gentle lament.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Psalm 137: 1-6
The longing for what has been lost is as piercing now as it was 2,400 years ago, sung by Israelite captives in exile in Babylon. The unimaginable had happened: Jerusalem had been ransacked by the invading Babylonians, its splendid temple to God burnt and left in ruins. The captives, the elite of Israel, had been marched hundreds of miles to Babylon as a means of controlling the territory. Without leadership, the remnants of Israel would be more easily governed by the Empire’s agents. It is a song of a captive people who still remember their homeland.
This poignant hymn is rarely used in worship though: one Sunday in three years, and that as one of two options appointed for the Sunday nearest to October 5, when many churches instead celebrate the Feast of St. Francis and the blessing of the animals. And the reason is it doesn’t end with verse 6.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137: 7-9
Maybe we should have read this Psalm in worship more often. Perhaps if we did, the eruption of violent anger across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death would have come as less of a surprise.
White America has been too willing to mourn and lament over the horrific injustices of racism in this country, and not willing enough to act. We have been willing to offer thoughts and prayers, but not to do the hard self-examination that uncovers the racism that is as much a part of us as our instinct to put our hands over our hearts when someone plays the Star Spangled Banner. We have not wanted to admit that our experience might not be “normal,” that people of color have a very different experience of law enforcement than white people. We have not wanted to consider even the possibility of implicit bias in ourselves, and have elected leaders who call white supremacists “very fine people.”
We have constantly demanded that our black and brown brothers and sisters sing the songs of Zion for us. When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling at football games to draw attention to the ways in which out country has failed to live up to its promises, we directed our outrage at the man who hung up his harp rather than sing along with us. When protesters shouted, “Black Lives Matter” we declared back “All Lives Matter” and patted ourselves on the back for being so inclusive. The lives of innocent black men and women continued to be snuffed out at a frightening pace. Camera phone videos of their violent ends were shared on social media, accompanied by momentary outrage that never seemed to change anything.
And when lament and mourning boiled over into rioting and destruction, we smugly dismissed the demands, saying, “violence accomplishes nothing.” Over and over again.
Warning Israel of their failure to live into the covenant with God, to establish justice in the land, a failure which would result in defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, the prophet Isaiah offered a word from God:
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight.
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine
and champions at mixing drinks,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
but deny justice to the innocent.
Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw
and as dry grass sinks down in the flames,
so their roots will decay
and their flowers blow away like dust;
for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty
and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.
The warnings of the prophets fell on deaf ears then and now. In times of prosperity and leisure, we were too comfortable to do the hard and uncomfortable work of confronting our nation’s original sin. We have been too willing to express vague support for equality and anger against protestors who shut down streets and made it difficult to get to our jobs on time. And when tongues of flame start licking at the tinder, we are as shocked and surprised as the people of Israel when Babylon appeared at their gates.
The Babylonian Exile proved to be a fruitful time in the life of Israel. The need to find a way to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land led to a new, rich theological tradition and spiritual practices that would sustain the Jews across generations and around the world for thousands of years to come. The exiles would, one day, return to Israel and rebuild their temple, but their greatest legacy would be the promises of restoration and the words of the prophets urging new generations towards justice and peace for all.
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Isaiah 40: 1-5
God uses moments like this one. The prophets attest again and again to God’s power in turning death and destruction to the seeds of a new commitment to justice and peace. Exiles always seem more inclined to listen to God’s voice than prosperous people comfortable in their certainty that God loves them more than anyone else. New beginnings built on the ashes of the old destruction can lead to new possibilities.
Christians will remember that it was Jesus’s death on the cross that led to a salvation offered to the whole world and good news carried far and wide by the poor and marginalized. The fires of anger and violence consuming our country today call for lament, and for a soul-deep commitment to the work of reconciliation and renewal that we are given in our baptism. Our baptismal covenant makes it explicit: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of ever human being?” The work belongs to each and every one of us.
Will we take up the task, or will we continue to demand our brothers and sisters of color play us songs of joy, songs of Zion, while stubbornly refusing to hear how the song ends?