Ann Althouse commenting on the transcript of Wright’s interview. Watch how up becomes down very quickly. Post here. Her long post examines whether Bill Moyers was too soft on Wright–which is a separate question then the one I want to deal with here.
In the midst of that post, dealing with that sermon and its relationship to Psalm 137 that I described here, Althouse makes an egregious error.
First Wright’s words:
I had to preach. They came to church wanting to know where is God in this. And so, I had to show them using that Psalm 137, how the people who were carried away into slavery were very angry, very bitter, moved and in their anger from wanting revenge against the armies that had carried them away to slavery, to the babies. That Psalm ends up sayin’ “Let’s kill the baby-let’s bash their heads against the stone.” So, now you move from revolt and revulsion as to what has happened to you, to you want revenge. You move from anger with the military to taking it out on the innocents. You wanna kill babies. That’s what’s going on in Psalm 137. And that’s exactly where we are. We want revenge. They wanted revenge. God doesn’t wanna leave you there, however. God wants redemption. God wants wholeness. And that’s the context, the biblical context I used to try to get people sitting again, in that sanctuary on that Sunday following 9/11, who wanted to know where is God in this? What is God saying? What is God saying? Because I want revenge.
I think he’s saying that the Psalm — God speaking? — is saying that people who have suffered want revenge and feel motivated to do terrible things. But he’s really held himself open to a terrible interpretation — and calling it my “hermeneutic” isn’t going to help. “What is God saying? What is God saying? Because I want revenge.” What is Wright saying? That’s going to sound to a lot of people as though he’s saying 9/11 was God‘s revenge on America. He quotes the Psalm: “Blessed are they who dash your baby’s brains against a rock.” Well, now, it really sounds as though he’s saying that God blesses the 9/11 hijackers! God damns America and God blesses the hijackers? Wright has not backed down. He’s stepped up.
Althouse’s basic confusion stems from not actually reading the Psalm. (You can do so here, simply enter Psalm 137 in the appropriate box). The Psalm is the voice of the people speaking to God (as most Psalms are) not God speaking. The people want revenge. The people want the heads of the babies smashed on the rocks. The people (Israel) bless those who want to kill the children. This is not leaving himself (Wright) “open to terrible misinterpretation.” That’s what the text actually says.
God does not show up in the text of Psalm 137. We then are left to decide what God thinks of this prayer and blessing by the Israelites–smashing babies–does God approve, yea or nea?
When you replace God as the speaker in Psalm 137 with the people (which if you read the thing you would know is wrong to do) then you end up making off-base statements like the one above. God is not blessing the 9/11 hijackers. The most you can manage out of that line is to say that if al-Qaeda were in the positions of the Jews (and America was Babylon), then they would sing a song of joy at the attack because they desire revenge.
However this is not what Wright said in the sermon nor in this interview. In his analogy Americans are the Jews–because America had its Temple (World Trade Center and Pentagon, financial and military temples) destroyed. It is America who is calling for revenge.
The whole sermon (again listen it to here) is that the people want revenge but God doesn’t.
What Wright hasn’t spelled out (and here may be the source of the confusion on Althouse’s part I don’t know) is that he is saying God is actually against Psalm 137. This is implicit in Wright’s analysis to be clear–implicit insofar as he doesn’t quote another Biblical text to say God desire wholeness. And that may be where the misinterpretation comes in.
The people express their emotions and while God understands this reaction, God still stands in condemnation of it (according to Wright). It is one thing to have the desire for revenge; that is a natural human reaction. It is another to base policies or act out of that desire. To do the second is to cross the line and to be under judgment of God.
Wright was warning in the wake of 9/11 to not allow natural human desire for revenge to actually become the basis for judgment. A lesson post 9/11 America still needs to hear and should have heard I think particularly in the run up to the Iraq War. Fear and Revenge are never good counsel.
In other words, if you take the whole arch of God in the Bible–and here this is Wright’s hermeneutic (and others), i.e. his interpretive principle–he argues God desires restoration, wholeness. Others read the Bible, and there is plenty to support this reading as well as plenty to support Wright’s, that God would sanction the desire for revenge. We have seen that in the preaching of conservative Christians who supported the War on Terror. And again there is strong biblical basis for each position. This is only a problem if you have a hermeneutic (religious or secular) that thinks the Bible must never contradict itself in order for it to be true. I don’t subscribe to such a view, so I’m not concerned by these disagreements.
So we the readers have to make a choice because the texts are ambiguous, like life (some say one thing, another says another).
Wright clearly stands on one side of that divide and you can agree or disagree with that view. But all of things Wright certainly did not say, God did not bless the hijackers would be the first and foremost. Again listen at minute 8:22 of the sermon where he talks about the terrorists as those who attacked based only hate. Where al-Qaeda is analogized to the Babylonians who murdered innocent civilians in Israel when destroying Jerusalem (like Americans on 9/11). Hardly damning America and blessing terrorists.
The key you see is the condemnation of terrorism as such. When he condemns actions in American history–e.g. treatment of native peoples, slaves, use of the atomic bomb–he does so on the basis of saying they are terrorism. All terrorism then is wrong in this analysis whoever is the terrorizer. Again you could argue those weren’t terrorist activities, but you can’t say he is blessing terror. And that for Wright, God stands in blanket condemnation of all terrorism–again arguable theologically (I happen to agree but it’s open to debate). What is not debatable is that somehow for Wright God blesses terrorism.