1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 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.
7 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!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
A disclaimer to those of you who imagine peace through John Lennon’s rose-colored lenses—today’s scripture shatters the illusion that the work—and it is work—of peacemaking is something pretty to look at, or rational in practice or idealistic in scope. Contrary to the prose of some of great pop songs out there on the subject, the practice of truly making peace is downright messy. It is profoundly realistic about the evil that exists in the world, and is only “peaceful” in light of the storm of violence and rage that all too often precedes a lasting peace. Peacemaking is full of emotion, is never detached from the world around it and always aware of the dangers that threaten it. And in a twist that may seem awfully contradictory for us peaceniks, the truth of the matter is that to make peace is, in a sense, to wage war against all of that which resists it.
To think otherwise is to live in a land of unreality.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at Psalm 137. Now, many of us feel uncomfortable when we hear this Psalm—it manages to describe images that we know ought never to go together—songs sung by victims for the merriment of tormentors, babies’ heads and sharp rocks, enslavement and suffering of the faithful people of God. The sometimes violent imagery of this psalm describes for us that which seems furthest from what we think of when we speak about peace.
Perhaps this is because, for many of us, this Psalm sounds less like a promise to fight even and more like a white flag on a barren landscape. For instead of prayers of hope for a promised future secure and free in God, we encounter lament. Instead of nonviolent resistance, we encounter hostility and angry, violent words. And perhaps, we may think, instead of faith in God, we encounter despair. We encounter chaos in the heart of God’s people.
And so it becomes tempting to skip over the difficulties of this Word. It becomes tempting to pat this sad little psalm on the head and move on to a Word from God that sounds more like the peace we imagine—strong, and vital, tranquil and still, harmonious and ultimately unthreatening.
But to do that is to make a grave mistake. To deny that this Word can speak of peace is to ignore the very voice of those who most desperately are in need of peace. The voice of Psalm 137 is the voice of the peace-less, the voice of those who cry out from the darkness for a real and an urgent and a raging peace in this world right now.
Psalm 137 is the lament of the oppressed who weep for freedom from the forces of Empire which enslave, limit, destroy, and murder.
It is the cry of people who have experienced and witnessed violence against themselves and their community—those whose babies HAVE been dashed against the rocks, or who have been sexually victimized, flayed by bullets and machetes, silenced by oppressors whose brute power over them is total.
It is the wail of the more than 1 billion people in this world for whom peace is impossible because they are literally starving for want of adequate food and water.
It is the moan of those rendered invisible by the social and economic forces of a markt whose ethics and morals are sold to the highest bidder, and to whom the powerless are expendable commodities.
To speak of peace without these voices is unfaithful, for these voices are the very reason that we dream of peace in this world. And to ignore the real and present pain and suffering of the peace-less is neither honest nor particularly helpful—for in truth, to ignore their voices or read past them is to once again do violence to those who most need to be heard, for it is to render them invisible once more, and it is to exert power over an already trampled and forsaken people.
Furthermore, we have it on good authority that we are called out precisely to listen for and to speak with these voices. For this is precisely how our Lord Jesus Christ responded to the desolate and the dejected of his own time. Rather than ignore them, he sought them out. And rather than speak for those in need, Jesus taught us the power of learning to speak with those society had rendered invisible, first by getting to know their stories and their lives, and then by inviting them to a table to participate in the ongoing conversation and work of ushering forth the Kingdom of God.
The Jesus of Nazareth whom we follow lived and worked and prayed and taught and ate and cried and lamented with precisely these downtrodden, these marginalized, these voiceless people of God. And in the end, he was willing to lay down his life rather than cease working and speaking and praying with those whom society labels the least of God’s people. Our Savior was willing to wage war against the Empire itself, and he did so armed with the Word of God and a Fierce Love for God’s people that would not back down to tormentors and baby dashers.
The least that we can do, brothers and sisters in Christ, is welcome these voices to our table, open our arms to those who grieve and cry and lament and weep for peace, and welcome them to the Table that Christ has welcomed us to as we seek to understand one another as we fight for truth peace in this dark and stormy world. We are stronger, and more faithful, when we dare to do so in the name of the One who dared to risk His Life so that we may have Life in Him.
Alleluia, May it be so.