My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.
They repay me evil for good,
and hatred for my friendship.
I have recently read one of the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. For those who are unfamiliar with Frederick Douglass, he was born a slave in the southern states of the USA in the 1830s. He never knew his father (possibly his white slave master) and he never knew the date of his birth (as it was deemed to be unimportant). Douglass was bright and courageous and eventually escaped to the north and to freedom where he became an inspirational figure in the fight against slavery. He has the distinction of being the first black man to stand for the Vice Presidency of the USA. He was a truly remarkable man and he was a Christian having converted in his teens. His autobiography tells of the harshness and brutality of slavery and lambasts the hypocrisy of those who called themselves followers of Christ and yet profited from the misery of their fellow human beings.
It’s powerful stuff. In addition to the day-to-day humiliation and subjugation there are a handful of incidents that highlight the evil of slavery, acts of sadistic but sometimes also casual violence.
As Black Lives Matters protests spread, statues of a Belgian monarch were daubed with red paint. The horrors of Belgian colonisation are well documented in Adam Hochschild’s superb book, The Ghost of King Leopold. Leopold II ruled the Belgian Congo as his personal fiefdom from 1885 to 1908 and subjected the Congolese to forced labour, leading to millions of deaths while he exploited the country’s rubber reserves. Sadly, for that region of Africa, the violence and brutality didn’t end with independence. Such violence has continued in one of the deadliest and most forgotten of conflicts – torture, rape and summary executions have all been day-to-day realities in that part of the world.
What links all these examples is the conscious and systematic use of violence. None of these were random acts of violence but were calculated and deliberate actions. It is to situations like these that Psalm 109 speaks. We might be shocked by some of the language the psalmist employs. We may feel it is sub-Christian, it is not what we would expect in the Bible. The clue I think is in verse 22, the Psalmist says his heart is ‘wounded within him’. He writes from a position of pain, and the whole Psalm is an expression of that pain.
Jesus spoke a lot about forgiveness but the first phase of forgiveness is to speak plainly about evil and to condemn it unambiguously and without reservation. Faced with horrific evil there must be some sort of judgment and some sort of justice. Those of us who have not experienced the violence the Psalmist experienced have certainly no right to tell them to moderate their feelings or their language. Not to have the desire for justice, not to have the desire for some sort of accountability is sub-Christian and the feelings of hurt need to be worked through if there is to be any prospect of healing.
Interestingly enough, towards the end of Psalm there seems to be some softening of the Psalmist’s position. Rather than the annihilation of his enemies his desire is more to do with the recognition that they have been in the wrong (v. 29).
As we have seen a few times in the Psalms, prayers such as this one call us to stand with and to pray for all who are victims of injustice and oppression and who might feel as hurt and as angry as the Psalmist because of what others have done to them. Our prayers can at times be very parochial, centring round ourselves and our loved ones. Psalm 109 reminds us that this world is far from perfect and summons us to stretch the boundaries of our intercessions to include all those who are hurting.