Lenten Reflection: “On Violence in Scripture”

In your steadfast love cut of my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries; for I am your servant. (Psalm 143:12)

This Psalm is the one of the lectionary readings for today. Often times the lectionary will not require the reading of an entire Psalm or passage, but it omits certain verses or makes them optional. For today’s reading, verse 12 (the one above) was an “optional” verse. It is not difficult to understand why this verse is made optional. In fact, verses like this are often just excluded altogether, so even to have it as an option is somewhat surprising!

Why are passages like this so challenging? There has definitely been a “revival” of discussion about the violence depicted in the Bible over the last several decades. Some of this comes from post-Holocaust reflections, along with the devastating impact of two world wars. It is also influenced by the rise in religiously motivated violence, as well as the large number of younger evangelicals who no longer buy what traditional evangelical theology has been selling in its explanation of these kinds of passages. But whatever the causes that contribute to the increase of interest in the “violent” parts of scripture, it is an issue that persists.

Personally, I have followed this discussion over the last decade or so among theologians, pastors and your run-of-the-mill bloggers. And though I have some thoughts about how one may be able to affirm that these ‘violent’ passages should be included in one’s account of sacred scripture while also not taking them as direct descriptions of “what God is like as revealed in Jesus,” I will not be addressing that here. I just want to ask the simple question, “Is there anything in the world that one could consider an ‘enemy’ that should be ‘cut off’ and ‘destroyed’?”

This Psalm is a prayer asking God to destroy all the adversaries of this “servant of the Lord.” One suspects that this psalmist may have had actual people in mind when he prayed this, but assuming that a Christian cannot pray a prayer for God to kill someone else since Jesus told us to pray for our enemies and to love them, what other “enemies” might need to be “cut off”? Is there anything for which we ought to pray that the “steadfast love” of God should destroy from the earth? Is all destruction bad? Can a Christian who is committed to the non-violent way of Jesus still pray this prayer?

I think so. Allow me just one example. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)

In this verse it is easy to see that with the increase of love, fear decreases until it eventually is “cast out”! Here is an “enemy” that the steadfast love of the Lord “cuts off” and “destroys”! Fear is a legitimate enemy that we should pray to the Lord to fight on our behalf against. This kind of fear — “having to do with punishment” — is not a part of the kingdom to which we belong and for which we pray will come. And the beauty of it all is that the “weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but spiritual…” and it is through that same Spirit, who “pours out the love of God into our hearts” (Rom. 5:5) that destroys this awful enemy. Love triumphs over all. Love never fails. Amen.

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Chris serves as rector of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Broomfield, Colo., and is my best friend. His many and varied interests include the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, his 4,000-volume personal library and news shows from different political perspectives. He also firmly supports the claim of Benjamin Franklin that “beer is proof that God loves us.”

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