On Friday night, I attended a vigil outside our local Islamic Centre that was held in response to the March 15 massacre of Muslim worshipers at Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was an eclectic mixture of Muslims and Christians and conservatives and liberals and believers and unbelievers that gathered in a parking lot on a warmish early spring evening, and it was good to come together, to… well, to do what, exactly?
Vigils, historically, have been about devotional watching or observance throughout the night. They are often shared spaces for mourning and can include prayers, liturgies, Scriptures, etc. It almost goes without saying that such things are more complicated in pluralistic contexts like twenty-first century Canada. In the absence of theological or ideological unanimity, our vigils become spaces for speeches, signs, expressions of sympathy and solidarity, condemnations (white supremacy, Islamophobia, “hate,” etc.), and politicking. I appreciated many of the words offered on Friday night; others left me feeling hollow. The words probably aren’t really the thing at these events, anyway; smiles and hugs and handshakes and presence—these things say, “We are your neighbours and we are with you” more than mere words.
But, back to the words. Among those I found myself pondering long after I left were those offered by a young Muslim woman. Her remarks had traversed the familiar terrain mentioned above, but then her words grew angrier. Contra the increasingly popular approach of refusing to name those who commit such acts of terror and thus depriving them of the notoriety they so crave, she repeatedely and unapologetically named the person who live-streamed his massacre of Muslims at prayer: Brendon Tarrant. She called him a monster. She prayed that Allah would pay him back for the evil he had done. Hers were the sort of words that tolerant, compassionate, Jesus-y folks who measure and guard their words carefully (like me) and who have Jesus-y words like “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you” lodged inside of us at the neural level would be very hesitant to utter out loud.
And yet. I wonder how many of us who were there on Friday night would have been nursing precisely such thoughts in our hearts and minds in the aftermath of Christchurch (or any act of terror and violence that destabilizes and horrifies us). I hope that sonofabitch gets what he deserves! I hope he feels even a small measure of the pain that he has caused! If there is a God above or a devil below, I hope his evil is repaid in full! I hope he suffers for his ignorance, his malice, his sadistic impulses, his ugly racial tribalism, his naked craving of attention and fame. We don’t say such things aloud. We rehearse platitudes like “Love is stronger than hate.” We condemn “obias” and “isms” and “hate” and congratulate ourselves that such dark impulses don’t reside in our hearts. But we certainly hate the haters, along with the systems and ideologies that feed and are inflamed by them. I do, at any rate.
A few weeks ago, I was in a pastors’ gathering where we were trying to simply dwell with Scripture. Even the hard parts Not explain or interpret, not get busy applying. Just sit with a text and let it tell your story. At one point, our facilitator asked for an example of a passage that someone really struggled with to use as an example. “Psalm 137” came tumbling out of someone’s mouth almost immediately. Specifically, the last two verses:
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!
It is, to be sure, a cringe-worthy passage, particularly the last verse. The thought of someone taking pleasure in the murder of babies is horrible beyond description. Many of us would gladly expunge these verses from our Scriptures. They sound nothing like Jesus—indeed, they serve as about as helpful an object lesson of what Jesus condemned as anything you might hope to find. But we were asked to just sit with Psalm 137 for a few minutes. Not rush to explain it away. Not try to outdo one another in expressing our revulsion for it. Not frantically distance ourselves from its ugliness. Just sit with it.
And so I did. And for the first time, I was able to hear the awful ending of this psalm in the context of its beginning:
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!”
For the first time, I thought of a weeping mother or father in exile who had, perhaps, lost her own child to the armies of Babylon. For the first time, I thought of what it might have been like to be ridiculed and tormented by captors who had taken everything from you. I tasted the hunger for vengeance in the psalmist’s voice. There is nothing more natural in the world than to long for those who inflict pain to experience it, whether in ancient Babylon or modern-day New Zealand or Mali or Nigeria or Gaza or ________. The wounds are deep, and the rage and pain cannot but bubble to the surface. The young woman at the vigil on Friday night said what many of us are too polite to say out loud. Psalm 137 says what many of us are too pious to acknowledge. We long for vengeance. This is who we are.
At our best, we unpack these ugly impulses before God and leave them there. We say that vengeance belongs to God and not to us because we know we can’t be trusted with it. Human history is, in many ways, a story of vengeance writ large. We know, even as we acknowledge the darkness within, that a longing for vengeance cannot, must not be the last word. We know that the cycle of revenge has no end—that you simply cannot repay evil with enough evil to make it stop. We know that the righteousness of the violence always depends on which side of the it you’re on.
We know that “love your enemies” is a deeper, truer more hopeful word than “happy shall they be who pay you back.” Or at least we might be persuaded that it ought to be.