How can we say, "Destroy all those who oppress me" (Psalm 143)? Isn't this exactly the kind of thinking we need to be rid of? The kind of thinking we need to transcend if we're going to create a world of harmony?
The answer is yes, if you look at it from the level of public proclamation. Should we really be declaring, as Psalm 137 does: "Oh daughter of Babylon doomed to destruction happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock."
It's not exactly acceptable stuff and it has caused great agony of conscience to many men and women of good conscience, who say that the psalms no longer represent the emotions we want our religion to embody.
This perspective has led to many attempts to revise, edit, and re-orchestrate the psalms. Perhaps this is necessary, but I would point out that as psalmody has always been intuitively understood in contemplative tradition, the psalms are not primarily vessels of public proclamation but vessels of interior work, psychological tools. The major purpose is confronting, acknowledging, and embracing the shadow.
As long as there is in human nature one dark corner of violence, one dark corner of jealousy, one dark corner of loneliness or abandonment deep within us, then the psalms are familiar and relevant. They are also deeply hopeful because they say, "Yes I've stood in this place; I've been here. You can stand in this place; you can be here. You can name the shadow."
Some of the most profoundly transformed Christians I know have spent a life struggling with the psalms and, through this work of prayer, confronting their own darkness at deeper and deeper levels.
"How can I be a Christian," I asked her, "while still praying, 'Destroy all those who oppress me?'"
Without batting an eye, this ancient woman replied, "This used to bother me too. But what I've come to see is that it means destroy in me that dualizing tendency that divides my world up into friends and enemies. Let me realize that there is only one world, and that the oppressors are all figments of my own projection."
She looked at me and twinkled. This is a woman who for 60 years of monastic life has been taking the heart of our deepest Christian truths of forgiveness and love and laying them unflinchingly side by side with those dark places in herself.
Helen Luke, another stellar wise woman, who died in 1995 at the age of 94, once wrote: "Wholeness emerges out of the acceptance of the conflict between the divine and the human in the individual psyche." There's profound truth in this. Within each human being is the divine striving that "longs for the courts of the Lord" (in the words of Psalm 84).
Then there's the human being, shadow and all, the real person we're looking for, the whole person, not just a cleaned up and edited version. The search for a genuine integration of the human and the divine--that's the path of purification.
The psalms in their deep, unflinching honesty help us keep grounded on that path so that our spiritual practice doesn't become an escape from the psychological work that must be done. This is another reason why intentionality is so important in chanted psalmody. We do not use the psalms to escape into beautiful music or beautiful experiences. We stand right there on the earth where we are and sing about the various colors that we recognize and confess in ourselves.