While many nonviolent protests and some destructive riots took place over the past week in reaction to George Floyd’s death, churches have responded in various ways—marching peacefully, holding prayer vigils, and addressing racial injustice from their pulpits. David Bailey, director of the reconciliation ministry Arrabon and founder of Urban Doxology, and David Taylor, associate professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, believe there is another way churches can respond: in worship. But not just any kind of congregational singing. Bailey and Taylor dialogue about their passion for the biblical outlet for anger in singing the psalms.
David Taylor (DT): How do you feel about what has happened over the past couple of weeks?
David Bailey (DB): Former pastor and Native American activist Mark Charles says, “the temperature of race relations in America is always at a simmer and every so often there is an event that turns it to a boiling point.” As a black man living in America, so many decisions in my life are influenced by fear. When I jog, I go to a gym, so I don’t end up like Ahmaud Arbery. I never put myself in a position where it could be one white woman’s word against mine so that I don’t end up in a situation like Emmett Till or Amy Cooper in Central Park. This reality is often a private matter, but when racial disparity is in the news it causes a mixed feeling of vulnerability, relief that more people are aware, embarrassment that you don’t have as much control over your life as white Americans do, and anger that it is this way.
James Baldwin said that “to be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” I don’t think black Americans are walking around in a constant state of rage, because you have to live your life. He is articulating the reality of the constant simmer and how it is something that can’t be ignored even when you want to ignore it.
As a pastor who shepherds people through the realities of race, class, and culture in our country, I’m constantly discipling people through complicated emotions of fear, shame, grief, and anger. In order for me to help others, I’ve had to learn how to attend to my own soul care. I’ve had to learn to lean into the book of Psalms that acknowledges an unjust world and gives language to express fear, grief, and even rage before the Lord. God has given us the psalms to be an “anger school” for us and I’ve discovered that when we skip class, we aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with difficult stuff we’re experiencing now.
DB: As a professional Christian, how have you learned to deal with anger in a godly way?
DT: It’s scary and embarrassing to admit you have an anger problem. You still have to keep confessing and asking for help. But it’s also deeply reassuring to discover in the psalms both permission and help to be angry at the right things—like cancer, domestic abuse, ecological disasters, and the experience of a global pandemic, or like the racism and injustice that we’ve witnessed recently.
As the psalms see it, the difference between a right and a wrong response to anger is a humble heart and a hardened heart. A humble heart is honest to God about one’s feelings; a hardened heart wants only to exact an eye for an eye. A humble heart entrusts one’s enemies to God; a hardened heart demonizes one’s enemies. A humble heart is angry before the face of God and in the presence of the community; a hardened heart hides from God and perpetually finds the community wanting. The psalms always invite us to choose a humble heart.
The extraordinary gift of the psalms is that they show us how to pray angry prayers without being overcome by our anger, how to hate without sinning (to borrow from Saint Paul’s language), or, as Eugene Peterson once put it, how to “cuss without cussing.” To pray these angry psalms is to trust that Jesus prays these same prayers for us, and by his Spirit does something much better than “managing” our anger: he sets our hearts free to love our enemy in a way that we never imagined possible.
DB: In the New Testament, Paul says, “we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood,” but there is a very real and physical reality of racial harm as people “wrestle against flesh and blood.” How should we think about enemies at a time like this?
DT: Evil infects the human heart and people do bad, cruel, and dehumanizing things to one another. Women get gang-raped, the elderly fall victim to scams, workers are cheated out of their pension, a child is lost to a drunk driver, a pastor abuses his authority, a man is profiled because of his skin color, a Christian is persecuted because of her faith, millions are displaced from their homes. One could call this “the challenges of life.” Yet for the psalmist, reality demands that we use the language of “enemy” to describe things truthfully. Its purpose is to remind us that the violent and sinful ways of human beings—including our own violent, sinful ways—need to be named so that God can step in and do something about it.
Psalm 139 is the paradigmatic psalm on this account. In verses 19-22 we find an instance of quintessentially angry “enemy” prayer. “Kill the wicked”? Hating “those who hate you”? A “perfect hatred”? Can we really say this as followers of Jesus? But soon after this imprecation, the psalmist prays a prayer of relinquishment: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts…” (vs. 23-24).
Praying against one’s enemies is most emphatically not a license to do violence to others; nor is it an invitation to indulge our irresponsible desires to call anybody we do not like an enemy. It is instead a way to get us to talk to God. Its goal is healing, not self-gratification. What the psalmist longs for is God’s vindication. The psalms, then, don’t deny our anger at being wronged, but they do deny us the right to take vengeance into our own hands (Rom. 12:18–20).
DT: When was the first time that you thought about or explored the question of anger and corporate worship?
DB: In 2008, my wife and I were part of a church planting team in Richmond, Va. committed to the values of reconciliation, community development, and racial diversity with the vision of living in the community for 40 years to see what God would do. The aspirations of our church vision were awesome! The reality of putting these practices into play has been painful. Just like most things of value, it comes at a cost. One of the costs was that our college-educated planting team was suddenly entrenched in the lives of our urban poor brothers and sisters, and “their” problems became “our” problems. Very soon into the journey, we realized that we were not smart enough to “fix the system” and most of us were ill-equipped for the longevity of this endeavor. Out of desperation, we stumbled into the practice of lament.
We introduced lament in our Sunday gatherings when a young man we were mentoring went to jail or there was a murder in our neighborhood—but it was a Saturday night in the summer of 2013 when the verdict of the Trayvon Martin trial came out. The heaviness of the verdict was palpable in our congregation. For our church, not addressing the trial would be the pastoral equivalent of not saying something the Sunday after the tragic 9/11 event. We held a worship service with the theme of lament, where we allowed people to say whatever was on their heart, unfiltered.
As a leader, there is a temptation to control the public prayer life out of fear that something would be said that would cause division. We’ve found the opposite to be true. Allowing people to express their heart before God built intimacy with one another in ways that a well-crafted sermon or prayer can’t do. Since then we’ve always practice public lament services in response to tragedies.
DT: Are there examples of songs or spoken word hip hop pieces that might capture the connection between justice/injustice and songs of anger/imprecation—especially as it relates to what’s happening in our society right now?
DB: Ten summers ago, we started the Urban Doxology songwriting internship out of the need for language to express both the horizontal aspects of what it means be a Christian and the vertical aspects of Christian worship. Because so much of the Christian publishing and worship resourcing decisions are marketed to the suburban consumer, there is a significant lack of worship resources for churches in the urban context engaging with people of poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. I noticed that there were a lot of songs about loving God, but not a lot of songs about loving our neighbors, so we decided to write the worship songs that are missing.
We began to write from the Old Testament because it has some of the best vision for justice and articulation of calling out injustice. We paraphrased Isaiah 58 in a spoken word format. We wrote a call to worship to love our neighbor and for God “to heal our land, meet the need, set the captives free.” Most recently in response to Ahmaud Arbery, we released a song called “God Not Guns” that is a lament of anger and despair based on Psalm 10 that describes the same exact scenario of Arbery’s murder.
If we don’t address injustice inside the church, then “we will forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. said. We are seeing some of the fruit of that with the mass exodus of young people in the church. As pastors and Christian leaders who address issues of injustice inside the church, but don’t provide people with the tools to deal with the emotional weight of dealing with injustice, there is a level of irresponsible leadership we are engaging in as leaders.
Loving God and loving our neighbor, proclaiming the kingdom of God and prophetically calling out the ways of Babylon, repenting of personal sin and systemic sin is what God calls every Christian to do no matter your tradition. This is what makes the church relevant to society at any age.
DB: You’ve written that these curse or anger psalms ultimately lead to healing. That seems like a surprising outcome. What do you mean by it?
DT: Let me answer it by using Psalm 137 as an example. While the first two sections of the psalm have generated vast numbers of musical and poetic settings—“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept” and “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”—the third section—“Dash the babies against the rocks”—has been removed from worship contexts throughout church history.
But we’re wrong to do so, argues the Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf, who insists that psalms such as these should remain within our devotional practice. “Such psalms,” he writes, “may point to a way out of slavery to revenge and into the freedom of forgiveness.” For most of us, that’s easier said than done. Yet Christian practices that are devoid of the psalmist’s visceral and even violent language leave us vulnerable to theologies and pastoral practices that are incapable of dealing with the anger that so easily leads to violence in public and in the privacy of our homes.
It is never easy to know how to incorporate a psalm like 137 or 88 or 109 into our corporate worship. But it is important to remember that the Holy Spirit, as the author of Scripture, keeps these psalms in the Bible for good reason. They lead us to Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: “The imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him.”
DB: How do you feel churches should deal with this level of pain, disappointment, anger, and rage? What should church leaders do? How can they pray or sing the “angry psalms”?
DT: That’s not an easy answer and Christians have struggled with this question for centuries. But I can think of a few examples that might offer a way forward. There’s a wonderful hymnal, called Psalms for All Seasons, that includes a responsorial setting for Psalm 137. The congregation sings a refrain, drawn from Psalm 137:1 while an individual reads the three parts of the psalm, in turn. This allows the people to sing the words “from the heart,” without being asked to sing the dreadful words about “dashing babies,” which would seem inappropriate. Another way to read this curse psalm is for a poet to offer a personal response to the text or to have a spoken word artist sing an interpretation of the psalm in light of the news of the day, with the congregation invited to sing the refrain at specific intervals.
DT: If a church wanted to try something out with this kind of song or prayer, where would they start? How could they do it carefully, constructively, and in faithful and fruitful ways?
DB: First, it’s important for church leaders to understand that we are in some dire times. Navigating through calm waters is a different type of leadership than navigating through turbulent waters. In turbulent times, you can’t lead with moderation. You have to create “brave spaces” and sometimes they don’t feel like “safe spaces.” In 1831, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison articulated the type of leadership we need in this moment:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as Truth, and as uncompromising as Justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. … I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.
The type of leadership needed in these times is the courage to create brave spaces for people to be raw before God. When people are raw before God, their faith moves beyond moderation towards transformation. I want to encourage people to use one of these resources mentioned in this conversation and make room for the Holy Spirit to do what the Holy Spirit does.
David M. Bailey is a public theologian and the founder and executive director of Arrabon; an organization that builds reconciling communities in the midst of a digital, diverse and divided world.
W. David O. Taylor is associate professor of theology & culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life (Thomas Nelson). He tweets @wdavidotaylor.