Reflections on rage, racism and Jesus
Jesus did not just teach justice and love, he lived it.
By Alex Zunica
August 15 2020One night at church, after preaching a Psalm, I was asked this question: “How do we reconcile what Jesus says about loving our enemies with the words of vengeance in the Psalms?”
It’s a complex and profound question. It’s about reconciling seemingly irreconcilable parts of scripture. It’s about how we respond to, and process, anger and injustice. It’s also about how we read scripture, and the Psalms in particular.
One reason we connect so deeply with the Psalms, I think, is because they are not just God’s words to us, but our words to God. The Psalms give voice to our highest joys and deepest struggles. In the Psalms we see ourselves raw and unfiltered before God:
I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears. Psalm 6:6
But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?...
You have taken from me friend and neighbour—
darkness is my closest friend. Psalm 88:13-14, 18
One of the more uncomfortable aspects of this, perhaps, is seeing our anger and thirst for retribution laid bare:
May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.
May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children. Psalm 109:10-12
Psalms 69, 79 (and others) give expression to similar desires. Perhaps the most confronting Psalm of all is Psalm 137. It’s about the horror and despair of exile, which then gives way to rage:
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
How can such violence and atrocity exist in our sacred text, particularly on the lips of God’s people? Well, first, let’s think about the context. Jerusalem has been invaded, destroyed and sacked. As one author said “What kind of song do you write if you are forced to watch the murder of your wife, your child, your neighbour?”1 Well, you write Psalm 137. It’s the expression of raw, unfiltered trauma.
As relatively safe, insulated and privileged western Christians, it’s hard to make sense of these words. I suspect people in other times and cultures could more readily relate to these events and emotional responses.
In any case, what do the presence of such words tell us?
Well, they tell us of the presence of barely imaginable evil in the world.
They tell us that the response to this evil is anger, and a desire for justice, because we are not nothing. We are made in God’s image. All lives are precious to God, and one day there will be an accounting for all violence and bloodshed.
They also tell us that sometimes, when the injustice is great, the response will spill over into rage, and a lust for vengeance. In that sense, what’s happened in response to George Floyd’s death is not surprising. It’s not about one unjust death, but centuries of systemic violence, oppression and racism. These are heinous sins that God detests, and have caused incomprehensible suffering.
But the presence of these words also tells us something else. They tell us that God can handle our rage. They tell us God gives us space to feel, and express ourselves in all our unfettered rawness – notice that these words haven’t been censored or torn out.
However, I said earlier that the Psalms are not just God’s words to us, but our words to God. At this point, we need to read scripture carefully, because the presence of these words does not mean simplistic endorsement, or that they are a model for us to follow.
The same scriptures that contain this rage, also look for the salvation of those who perpetrate such atrocities. Remember God’s word to Jonah, who thirsted for the blood of the barbaric Assyrians, “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh…?” (4:11) Remember God’s word through the prophet Isaiah (Is 49:6):
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
For Christians the model of how to respond to violence and injustice isn’t Psalm 137. Instead, it’s the word and character of God most clearly expressed in our Lord Jesus Christ. He gives voice to the scandalous grace of God:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. Matt 5:43-45
Remember, these words were spoken to a people who, for centuries, had been systematically brutalised and oppressed by various imperial powers.
Jesus, however, not only gave voice God’s grace: he embodied it. He did it as he lived a life of compassion and care, and he did it as he hung on the cross as the ultimate victim of violence and injustice. As the Son of God, he could have called down words of rage and vengeance on his enemies, but instead, he prayed:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34
And then he gave his life to make made that forgiveness possible.
It’s entirely understandable that the death of George Floyd, and all it represents, would spark rage, rioting and violence.2 That’s the nature of humanity, made in God’s image, but flawed and fallen. But this is not the way of those who follow Christ, and who are being remade in his image. Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. And as those who know the grace of the one who reconciled us while we were still enemies, we are called to the way of Christ.
Now, I believe all of this with all my heart. However, I’m keenly aware that I’ve never suffered because of the colour of my skin. For others though, that suffering is a daily lived experience. I also speak as a white person, the people who are largely responsible for this oppression. I’m also aware that this kind theological reasoning has been weaponised to keep oppressed and abused people under submission.
So perhaps my first step, then, is not so much to speak, or make judgements on what’s happening, but to listen. To listen to the to the hurt, the pain, and the trauma of black Americans and our indigenous brothers and sisters. To listen to their stories and lived experiences. And to listen to the real stories of our history, our current policies and frameworks, and the systemic barriers they face. Perhaps then I will better understand the suffering they’ve endured, and the magnitude of what they face each day. Perhaps then I will better understand the why of what’s happening, and better understand how to respond.
Then, perhaps, the next step, as I follow the way of Christ, is to stand in solidarity, and to support their advocacy. For Christ did not only preach and model peace and forgiveness, he preached and modelled justice, the public expression of love. He did it as he taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves, as he sought to include the excluded, as he rebuked corrupt authorities, and as he upended oppressive attitudes to power. If I sit in judgement on those who riot, yet stay silent on the violence, murder and dispossession of racism, I risk hypocrisy of the worst kind.
And again, Jesus did not just teach justice and love, he lived it. Ephesians 5:1-2:
“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us..”
So sisters and brothers, let’s keep talking about this together. Let’s keep asking God to sanctify us, and to show us what it means to practically walk in the way of love against racism and for reconciliation.
1. Esau McCaulley, "What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger", The New York Times, 14 June, 2020
2. I recognise that some of those who riot do so with other motives.
The Revd Alex Zunica is Senior Associate Minister (Carlton Campus) at St Jude’s Anglican Church, Carlton. This piece is a pastoral letter he wrote to members of his congregation following the death of George Floyd.