Back in the 1960s I wrote my Minister Provincial, Fr. Dominic Limacher, for permission to cut down on some of the breviary psalms that we were obliged to say. My main reason was that I could not get comfortable with all the talk about “enemies” in the psalms. I suppose I could have followed Thomas Jefferson’s strategy and simply cut out of the bible the passages that I thought were not good any more for modern times.
Now that I am praying and reading the psalms with more experience, I am re-evaluating my earlier attitude. Maybe our problem is that we modern people have gotten too used to solving our problems by segregating ourselves from people who give us problems. The psalmists did not have that luxury. They had to stay and deal with their enemies right where they were.
Ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution, people have been experiencing more abundance than they used to have. The abundance was made possible by technological inventions. For example, gunpowder and guns let Europeans have powerful enough weapons to overwhelm peoples who did not have such weapons, which made colonialism and slavery possible, and in our country, made it possible for Europeans to drive the natives off the land so they could “go west.”
We learned how to deal with interpersonal conflicts: move away from them.
The same process has operated on a smaller scale within our families. We used to have to share radios and TVs in the house; now everybody has his or her own TV. And of course, it has now reached the point where we each have our own TV right in our pockets, and can screen out other people 24/7.
Our tendency to want to move away from problems is the source of the physical segregation that keeps racism alive among us. It allows us to live in media “silos,” where each of us consumes only the media that reinforce our own comfort. Then, when things do not go our way, we have no solution except to lash out.
At least the psalmist prayed instead of lashing out.
I need to accept the discipline of staying involved with people even when the involvement makes me uncomfortable. Not only that, but if vulnerability is part of living, I want to stay respectfully involved with people even when they actively hurt me.
We look down on African cultures which assume that enemies can hurt you through witchraft and sorcery. We can’t get hurt that way--we move away. But we run out of room to move, both physically and psychologically. We are going to have to learn to face down our problems right where we are. We have “enemies,” people who are out to frustrate our plans, all around us. If we are to love such enemies, we will have to be involved with them--respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully. We will be able to pray the psalms with more empathy.