4. Praying against injustice
Psalm 58 begins with a word of judgement against corrupt rulers and the whole psalm is aimed against those in power who abuse the weak. As The Message translates it:
Is this any way to run a country?
Is there an honest politician in the house?
Behind the scenes you brew cauldrons of evil,
Behind closed doors you make deals with demons…
…God, smash their teeth to bits,
Leave them toothless tigers.
This shows us that it can be appropriate to cry out against those in power who act unjustly. In saying this we have a difficult line to tread, because the spirit of our age is to display an abusiveness to those in authority which I do not believe the Bible validates. Jesus was not afraid to call Herod, “that fox”, which was an insulting term, but at the same time both the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul instruct us to treat those over us with respect. Christians should not make personally derogatory statements about political leaders, no matter what their political persuasion. That is not to say that we cannot be critical of their politics, but that is very different from a thoughtless abuse of these people. And even to try and translate the emotion of Psalm 58 into how we relate to our political leaders is to grossly miss the point. The contrast between what we experience in a western democracy and the experience being described in the Psalms is as great as the difference between a wrongly applied parking ticket and what happened to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.
But despite these cautions, the sad reality is that around the world there are rulers who need to have their teeth smashed.
In 2006 a 19-year-old woman, from Saudi Arabia's Shia minority, was gang-raped 14 times in an attack in Qatif in the eastern province of the country. Seven men were found guilty of the rape and sentenced to prison terms ranging from just under a year to five years. At the same time the woman was punished for violating laws on segregation of the sexes – she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack – and sentenced to 200 lashes.
Her lawyer Abdel Rahman al-Lahem told the BBC Arabic Service that the sentence was in violation of Islamic law: "My client is the victim of this abhorrent crime. I believe her sentence contravenes the Islamic Sharia law and violates the pertinent international conventions. The judicial bodies should have dealt with this girl as the victim rather than the culprit."
It is in the face of this kind of injustice that we should pray with Psalm 58, God, smash their teeth to bits.
Far from saying to ourselves, “How can a Christian pray these psalms?”, we should say to ourselves, “How is that the church has so often been so complacent about grave injustice?” Why was it that when South Africa was under apartheid so often evangelical Christians seemed to side with the apartheid regime more than with the struggle for freedom? Why did we leave the freedom struggle to the godless far-left? Why is it when Bono campaigns for Africa to be treated with economic fairness that we evangelicals condemn him for not being “Christian” enough because of some of his other lifestyle choices? Why is it that when we see American Christians campaigning vigorously against abortion we feel embarrassed by their lack of subtlety?
So these psalms stand as a challenge and a rebuke to us. Whenever in the church we start to talk about political issues there are complications – Yes, the problems facing Africa are complicated, and reducing it to a question of whether we should all be drinking fair trade coffee oversimplifies things. And Yes, the manner in which we approach social issues like abortion needs careful thought. And Yes, there will be a spectrum of belief about what the British involvement in Iraq should be. But all those complications and real issues do not exempt us from a passionate concern for justice.
You see, these cursing psalms are not really about cursing at all. They are about presenting our passionate laments, petitions and desires before God. The psalms use 94 words descriptive of enemies. In the psalms we see a raw recognition of the fight we are in. In the psalms we see a crying out to God which isn’t a selfish individualism – these aren’t prayers of, “give me more money, give me a foreign holiday, let me upgrade my car.” These are prayers of justice on behalf of the poor and weak. We can pray all those personal prayers – we can ask for good things in our lives – but probably the prayer that most of us need to learn are these bigger prayers, these prayers on the behalf of others, these prayers for justice.