by Paul Hooker
22 November 2017
Shelton Chapel Faculty Series on Memory
Psalm 137 is not, on its face, the word of God. Certainly is it true that Scripture as a whole is the Word, and God be praised for it. But let there be no mistake: this psalm not the voice of God; it is the voice of people in crisis, addressed to anyone who will listen, maybe even to God. Psalm 137 is a dangerous wildfire of a poem that threatens to get out of control and burn up everything in its path. It is therefore a word we need to hear.
The poet cries out from the battered soul of the exilic community in Babylon in the mid-sixth century BCE. He asks whether it is possible to sing Yahweh’s song while a prisoner on Marduk’s turf. It’s a question we will struggle with. And while it’s not the only psalm that connects lament with the hope of revenge, this psalm is the only one to paint that connection in the colors of such cold, naked, murderous anger.
This psalm embarrasses us. The vicious, violent “beatitude” in the last two verses is abhorrent, even to us moderns, inured as we are to broadcast bloodshed. To read those verses is to turn one’s head away in disgust. Better to ignore them, pretend they aren’t there.
When I was young, there was a famous reggae group, Boney M, that had a hit record drawn from this psalm. In lilting Jamaican rhythm, the song bounced through the first verse of the psalm:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
I remember the first time I heard it; I knew how the psalm ended, and I wondered how that upbeat, innocent reggae rhythm was going to handle smashing babies against rocks. It didn’t. After the first two verses of Psalm 137, the song bailed out and switched to David’s pious prayer in Psalm 51: “Let the words of my mouth/ and the meditations of our heart/ be acceptable in thy sight/ here tonight.” Cowards.
Well, I don’t want to be a coward. I may be a fool, but I am willing—if you are—to walk open-eyed into the universe of these dark and terrifying words. I want to explore what it means to remember Zion. And I want to suggest that, if you sit beside the waters of Babylon, literally or metaphorically, remembering Zion comes at a cost. To remember Zion is to dwell in places of darkness lit by fires of rage.
Darkness and Memory
Psalm 137 is the cry of refugees and exiles, people who have watched the swords and spears, the bombs and bullets of invaders level and burn the very structures of their lives. People who have looked upon the dismembered corpses of families and friends. People who have fled in the night, been frog-marched along paths of despair to places of hopelessness and helplessness. People who have looked back over their shoulders to watch the western sun setting on the smoldering rubble of their dreams. These are the words of a people in darkness.
To hear this psalm is thus to dwell in dark places: in the place of African slaves standing in chains on the docks of Newport, Rhode Island or Charleston, South Carolina. The place of the Cherokee trekking the long Trail of Tears from Alabama to Oklahoma. The place of Jews stuffed into cattle cars rattling along the Polish via dolorosa to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. The place of Syrian refugees begging at the borders of countries that do not want them or sinking in deflating rafts into the blue Aegean Sea. To dwell in these places is to know that you will never again see the forests of West Africa or the greenwoods of the Great Smoky Mountains or the streets of Warsaw or the onion domes of Aleppo. It is to be overwhelmed in darkness. And that is where this psalm begins.
Memory and Silence
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat, all of us, weeping
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows in that place we hung up our lyres.
For there they required of us,
our captors, “Sing a song!”
our tormentors, “Be joyful!”
“Sing for us one of those songs of Zion!”
But how could we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
We begin with weeping. We weep for burned-out homes and broken down walls, for sacred places desecrated and despoiled. For the altars thrown down, for the Holy of Holies violated, for the Ark of the Covenant overturned and empty. For the royal palace ransacked, the Throne of David abdicated. For the great gates torn from their gateposts lying shattered and burned in the street. We weep for those who have died on the journey, starved or thirsty, drowned or abandoned, too weak or too sick or too young to walk another perilous mile. We weep because we have made it to the destination, knowing all the while that this place is no place we want to be. Memory begins in weeping.
Soon enough, though, weeping gives way to silence. The lyres and psalteries, drums and pipes, violins and qanuns—all hang soundlessly on the trees here, no tune playing on their strings and skins and reeds. This place is no place for music. Psalm 137 is positioned in the Psalter immediately after the Psalms of Ascents, the joyful songs of celebration Judaean people sang on their way up to the Temple: “I lift my eyes to the hills…my help comes from the LORD.” “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the LORD.’” “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mt. Zion/ which cannot be moved, but abides forever.” Only it doesn’t. Psalm 137 gives the lie to all that. The Babylonians manage to move Zion by burning it to the ground, and those who trusted in the LORD are cattle-prodded across the desert at the point of a spear. Suddenly all the songs of Zion sound empty, hollow, discordant. Such a strange and bitter end to the joy of ascending the holy hill! Now there is no hill, no Temple, no Zion. No hope. No wonder the lyres are hanging from the trees.
So it is that singing the LORD’S song becomes the antic of the circus monkey, the bark of the trained seal. Drained of its meaning, memory is hollow, and the command to sing yet another song of Zion is nothing less than a cynical mummery by those in positions of power and privilege.
Every year, February brings with it the observation of Black History Month. The mostly white choir in which I sing breaks out its repertoire of spirituals. Every year, the congregation responds to our recitations with “amens” and thanks. I’m glad they appreciate the beauty and grace in those powerful songs. They are good songs worth good singing. And yet, every year I must confront again the fact that I am no slave, nor child of a slave, but a descendent of captors and tormentors. These are not my songs. And I can’t escape the feeling that, by singing them, I am perpetrating that mummery all over again.
So it is that memory becomes at last obscenity. Sweet songs of trust and faith taste of wormwood in the exiled mouth. Those who trusted in the LORD are come a-cropper. We find ourselves in a land where the LORD is not God, where the creed of the faith—“hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one”—is a lie. To remember Zion in this land is to curse a faith turned false, turned to dust, turned to dung.
Must we forget the LORD’S song in this strange land? Maybe. Maybe not.
Memory and Forgetting
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand cringe!
may my tongue stick to my palate
if I do not lift Jerusalem above my highest joy!
These words are an oath, and like most oaths they envision two possibilities. One is the possibility of forgetting Zion. I suppose one might argue that this path is the easier, or at least the more pragmatic: better to leave the past in the past, pronounce it dead and gone, and get over it, to undergo the anesthesia of amnesia. To forget is to walk the way of darkness and silence, but at least after a while it will be a familiar darkness, a comfortable silence. To forget is to ensure that the hand that once plucked the lyre-strings never touches them again. Indeed, it recoils and cringes from the prospect, if for no other reason than to strum the chords of home is to freshen the memory, reopen a wound too lightly healed. To forget is to ensure that the tongue that once sang the songs of Zion now sticks stubbornly in the palate, so that neither song nor speech emerges, but only the inarticulate grunts and groans of pain and loss. To forget Zion is to sing no more forever. And maybe that’s just as well.
But maybe not. The other possibility implicit in the oath is to remember Zion, no matter the cost, regardless of the pain, even if the memory is ashes in the mouth and obscenity on the tongue. It is to take down the lyre and with a trembling right hand pluck the very chords that evoke all that has been stolen or burned or killed. It is to say the words that seem accursed with tongues that even yet utter the curses. It is to sing a song in a place where that song does not belong, precisely because it does not belong. It is an act of protest, and maybe, of hope.
In the fall of 1971, Rod Stewart had his first big hit song, “Maggie May”:
Wake up Maggie, I think I’ve got something to say to you
It’s late September and I really should be back at school
I know I keep you amused, but I feel I’m being used
Oh Maggie, I couldn’t have tried any more.
You led me away from home just to save you from being alone
You stole my heart and that’s what really hurts.
I was 18 that autumn, and that song was the soundtrack of my college freshman year. I had just reached the age of military maturity in the eyes of the United States Selective Service, and Vietnam loomed like a storm cloud over my life and the lives of my friends. There was something about Rod Stewart’s gravelly, irascible voice singing about lost opportunity and innocence and maybe virginity that gathered up all our anger, our hopelessness, all our fear of dying in some dark, murky swamp in a forgotten corner of an alien land. By the rivers of Babylon. Stewart threw all that despair back in the face of an imaginary older woman who—in some way known best to poets—became for us the symbol of a country at whose hands we all felt we were “being used.” Still, to sing “Maggie May”—at the top of our lungs—was not to give up, but to cling to the hope, however forlorn, that beyond the loss was a tomorrow, that we might one day resume our lives and “get on back to school.” Every time I hear that song even now, a taste of that forlorn hope comes flooding back. My wife caught me singing in the shower this morning, “Oh, Maggie, I wish I’d never seen your face.” I’m sure she wondered what the hell had gotten into me.
Memory and Rage
And Hell is exactly what has gotten into me, and what gets into anyone in exile who has the temerity to remember Zion, to choose no matter the cost not to forget. To remember Zion is to be enraged at all that is not Zion. To be enraged is to burn with the very fires of Hell:
“Remember, LORD, the people of Edom,
against the day of Jerusalem’s fall;
when they cried, “Burn it! Burn it! Down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, Devastator!
Happy the ones who repay you
for what you did to us.
Happy the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock!
In the summer of 1965, the Watts section of Los Angeles exploded in racial unrest and riots. It all began on the night of 11 August, when a white California Highway Patrolman beat up Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old black man, during a routine traffic stop. A fight between police and bystanders erupted, and soon all of Watts was in flames—figuratively and literally. Bands of angry black men, fed up with years of abuse at the hands of what they deemed a racist police force—sound familiar?—exploded into rage and began setting fire to cars and buildings all across Watts. “Burn, baby, burn!” chanted the crowds as they stood silhouetted against the blazes, like so many witches around a Shakespearean cauldron. The chant somehow caught up and spit out all the repressed fury born of generations of despair. It took four days for the fires to die down and the crowds to dissipate, and in those days the nation got its first look at black rage. The riots left thirty-four people dead and did $40 million damage.
Was such violence and destruction justified? I suppose it depends on your point of view. White people in my hometown of Birmingham, AL were horrified at the prospect of such violence washing up on their own doorsteps, and thus was born a generation of political rhetoric about “law and order.” But from the perspective of many African-Americans, the riots were the first sign of a growing new self-awareness, and with it a refusal to accept exile, to continue tolerating dilapidated housing, police brutality, and economic privation as normal. It was a cry of rage from beside the waters of Babylon. And you can still hear it, that cry…in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or Charlotte.
Let me be clear. I am not advocating violence of any sort, whether smashing the heads of Babylonian children, or burning cars and buildings, or beating up protestors at political rallies. Violence may end conflict, but it rarely resolves it.
Still, in our haste to disavow bloodshed, let us not try to sanitize this psalm and thereby ignore or explain away the fury and ugliness of these last verses. That’s what’s wrong with Boney M’s song. It ignores a fundamental truth about remembering Zion, a truth that pulses beneath whatever veneer of gentility and good behavior we wear when we sit beside the Babylonian waters. Memory is connected to rage whenever what we remember is a life we can no longer have or cannot attain. To remember Zion is to know the urge, somewhere down inside us, to cut down any barrier that keeps us from Zion, no matter what it costs.
We are today two weeks downstream from the presidential election, and five days before Advent. In strikingly similar ways, both those events gather up hopes and dreams and translate them into lives, be that life a political candidate or a messiah. Politically and religiously, we cannot live without those hopes and dreams, those yearned-for promises of a new kingdom and a new way. The problem is that all too often—dare one say, always?—those dreams are dashed and those promises at best postponed. So it is that we find ourselves beside the Babylonian waters, trying again to understand what has happened and where we go from here. We find ourselves in darkness and in rage. We are not strangers to this place.
Let us not shrink from it. Let us not surrender to bland acceptance of a “new normal” that is neither normal nor new. Let us not douse the fires of memory that may yet light the way to hope. Let us not forget Zion. For you see, Advent kindles its own blaze. Advent holds a grim warning from the lips of the Baptizer in the wilderness to all who trust the status quo: that even now the axe is laid to the root…and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Burn, baby, burn. Before the Kingdom is born and the baby laid in the manger, we must endure labor and delivery in the darkness. Before we remember Bethlehem, let us remember Zion.