Ferguson, the Rivers of Babylon, and Racism

In my congregation, there is mixed feeling about what happened in Ferguson. In my heart, there is not. I, as a young white adult who has lived in predominantly black communities, am absolutely convinced this has everything to do with racial inequality. I value the dissenting voices in my congregation, but since I have this space I want to explain how white voices (especially skeptical ones) can makes sense of the outcry following yesterday’s announcement.

Yesterday, the Grand Jury in Ferguson announced their decision not to indict the police offer who killed teenager Michael Brown in August. Two days ago, I finished a sermon series on the Psalms. But today I have one more Psalm, for Michael Brown.

I noted, briefly, in my last sermon the existence of Psalm 137. Psalm 137 is the beginning of our understanding. Here is the Psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

That’s what you call a last line. What happened here? How is it that the Psalmist can end a prayer-song to God with a mass infant death wish? I preach in a pacifist tradition–how do I justify this?

Look. This is one of the latest written psalms, certainly after the exile in Babylon (c.586 BCE) and possibly after the return from exile (c..538). Exile was an ugly, ugly time for Jews–forced displacement; slave status in Babylon; rape and murder of teenage Jews with impunity. And that history was not undone all at once. They remained second-class citizens when Babylon fell and Rome rose to power. So yes–this is a revenge fantasy, at least in part. Revenge fantasies come from histories of abuse.

Now, listen to this poem by Danez Smith.

In the last three weeks, I have asked members of the congregation to rewrite individual Psalms in their own words. I may as well have asked Danez Smith to rewrite Psalm 137. (Disclaimer: Danez and I aren’t friends, but acquaintances and share many friends.) Look at these two side by side-

They begin with both anger and resignation. “We sat down and we wept…”/”I am sick of writing this poem.” This story has happened before. We don’t weep for the first child, or the second, we weep for all of them cumulatively living in exile, and therefore living always on the edge of dying.

“Our captors ask us to sing”/”but think: once a white girl was kidnapped and that’s the Trojan war. later, up the block, Troy got shot and that was Tuesday.” How can we sing when today is Tuesday? Captors–white policemen–kill black children and then they go home, bumping their stereos to “Can’t Tell me Nothing.” Even the music becomes a novelty, an entertainment, a quaint style that sounds better when Eminem does it. (Heard that before? “The only rap music I like is Eminem.” That’s white privilege.)

But music is all that we have. And so if there is no justice, “I at least demand a song. A song will do,” Danez says. When it was first published by the Compton Foundation in August, the ending of the poem read like this:
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
look at what the lord has made.

above Missouri, sweet smoke.

When Danez performed this poem in October at the Individual World Poetry Slam–well, you already heard the ending:
I at least demand a song. a song will do.
or, a head.

The first version, that’s a lament. That’s an elegy. The American Academy of Poets defines an elegy like this:

El – e – gy: “The elements of a traditional elegy mirror three stages of loss. First, there is a lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then praise and admiration of the idealized dead, and finally consolation and solace.”

So, even though Danez titled this poem “not an elegy,” it is, in the first form.

But it’s not an elegy! It’s a psalm of imprecation. Imprecation is defined this way:

Im – pre – ca – tion: “a spoken curse.”

The death on Michael Brown, remember, is not a death; it is death on death on death. Remember Shawn Bell; Amadou Diallo; Oscar Grant; Katharine Johnston. If you don’t know these names, look them up. Black people are disproportionately more likely to be shot by police.

So it’s not a lament for the dead. As Mother Jones said, “Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living.” This is Danez fighting for the living. It can’t end with sorrow, it has to end with justice–justice of some kind, because there is no justice coming. The truth is, Black America–not just Black America, but all those who work for racial equality–have never gotten a head; we rarely get more than a slap on the wrist. So if no heads roll in real life (physically), heads must roll in art (metaphorically). We must dream of a world where the way of the wicked perishes.

Remember Leviticus? (I know, it’s your favorite.) Remember Leviticus 24:19-21?

“Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.”

This is the lex talionis. It sounds primitive–a life for a life–but in the ancient world, it embodied grace. Only an eye for an eye. It prevents escalation. If a person dies on one side, the punishment extracted cannot exceed the offense. No, I don’t believe lex talionis is how we ought to respond in this situation. But this re-frames the poem–Danez is not asking for a massacre; he’s asking for only a head for a head, for lex talionis. (When we arrive at Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek, this turning still calls for justice, but in a new form that invites the oppressor into a transformed relationship). Justice still comes, when we turn the other cheek.

No, I do not want Darren Wilson dead. I want you to understand “why [Black] people are so angry about this.” I want you to understand why Psalm 137 is in our Bible–because when injustice is so severe, the mourning turns to anger. And anger, at its best, becomes art, becomes nonviolent resistance, becomes a peaceful rally in front of a police station, becomes a cry for God to be present with suffering.

Psalm 137 is just one psalm. After it, comes Psalm 138, and 139, and 140, and the next ten that conclude the book. Remember, the last five Psalms in the book all begin and end with “Praise the LORD.” We do arrive at praise, at grace. But we don’t get there but by going through the whole book. We praise the Lord because we need justice; because our lament exceeds lament; because “Praise the LORD,” it must not and cannot continue and God will put a halt to these deaths and God calls us to put a halt to these deaths, to rally in the streets and say “today, we aren’t bringing an elegy. Today, we’re bringing imprecation.” Because all our elegies meant nothing to the Ferguson police chief. Because when we bring elegies, you call them quaint, call them Jay Z or Little Richard or Bob Marley, you call it the “Talented Tenth” and leave everyone else to rot. Because Danez, and so many others who are in the street today, refuse to sing songs in a strange land–this is why Psalm 137 exists. To explain why we will not sing today.

As white people, if we read the reaction to the Grand Jury as a lament, we misunderstand. We avoid acknowledging the injustice. And so the rallies in the wake of the Grand Jury cannot be read as a lament; we must read them as imprecation. And we must know that justice will come. God will save the exiles. Everything will change.

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