Psalm 137, Exile and Rocket Launchers

[A meditation on Psalm 137 presented at Wine Before Breakfast, September 9, 2014]

Here comes the helicopter – second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher … I’d make somebody pay.
[Bruce Cockburn, “Rocket Launcher”]

With a cheap bottle of whisky,
tears flowing down his face,
and rage erupting in his inner being,
Bruce Cockburn wrote “Rocket Launcher”
in a bare hotel room in San Cristobal, Mexico,

The stories that he had heard over the previous couple of days
in a Guatemalan refugee camp by the Rio Lacuntun
had so shaken him,
had taken him so deeply into the banality of human evil,
and had so revealed the ugliest violence in the human heart,
that it rendered rage a necessity,
and that rage overflowed in this biting song of retribution.

“If I had a rocket launcher,
I’d make somebody pay.”

I wonder if Bono was thinking of this song
when he called Cockburn a ‘psalmist’
at his induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

For Bono it was the highest honour that he could bestow
on his fellow artist.
Cockburn the psalmist.

But do psalmists write lines like,
“If I had a rocket launcher,
I would not hesitate”?

Well if you listen to Psalm 137,
and if you dare read right to the bitter end,
it would appear that this is precisely
the kind of thing that a psalmist would write.

The thing is that I’ve never heard
either “Rocket Launcher”
or the last third of Psalm 137 sung in church before.

Even the songs that are based upon this psalm
invariably stop short of the terrible sentiment with which it closes:

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 rocks!

Both Cockburn’s song and this psalm
emerge out of a context of brutalization.

Whether it is the ancient empire of Babylon,
or the CIA-backed regime of Rios Mont in early 80’s Guatemala,
it is not surprising that in the face of a brutal regime that delights in humiliation,
in the face of a violence that knows no extremes,
people begin singing songs of pay back,
angry songs of retribution.

But not without first refusing to sing the happier songs of home.

“Come on now,” their captors say, “get out your harps and tambourines,
strike up the horns, and sing us one of those lovely little Israeli folk tunes
we’ve heard so much about.”

“Get out the marimba,”
the para-military thugs say as they cut open pregnant women,
“and play us one of your ancient Mayan songs.”

Songs of home,
songs of hope,
songs that keep a faith alive,
are defiled and profaned
when they become the trivial entertainment of voyeuristic oppressors.

These are songs of remembering,
songs that tell the story of a people,
songs that rekindle memories and identity,
but they are lies when reduced to cruel amusement.

Singing such songs in this context would be a profound act of forgetting,
so if I should forget my home,
if I should forget my highest joy,
through such a cheap performance,
may my right hand, with which I strum my harp wither,
and may my tongue cling to my palate, rendering me mute.

If I have a song it is a song about not singing.
I will not play a pious little ditty from the worship set for you,
I will not sing the songs of home in this foreign land,
I will not cover up the sting and humiliation of exile with happy songs.

No, I will sing these blues.
I will sing this lament.

And if you really want me to sing,
then I will sing of my rage.
I will name the defilement.
I will wail at the abuse.
I will let loose my hatred.
I will abandon all piety,
all restraint,
and I will call for death.

“If I had a rocket launcher,
some son of a bitch would die.”

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”

O Babylon you devastator!
(O Babylon, you son of a bitch!)
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us.

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
(as you have taken our little ones)
and dash them against the rock!

I’ve heard people cheer when Cockburn sings those last lines of “Rocket Launcher.”
And I always cringe.
If you cheer when this artist lets out his bile,
if you cheer when he delivers lines born of tears,
if you cheer when he sings these words of unremitting anger,
then you just didn’t get it.

We don’t cheer at the end of “Rocket Launcher.”

Nor do we cheer at the end of Psalm 137.
If anything, we stand in silence.

And if anything, we look hard into the ruthless honesty of these lines
and see our own reflection.
We see our own raging hearts of darkness.

Violence begets violence.

Thirteen years ago they cheered throughout the Arab world
in response to the violence of 9/11.

Thirteen years ago nothing but violence rose from the ashes of the Twin Towers,
nothing but retribution rose from the Pentagon,
nothing but a desire to see some more dead bodies
rose from that field in Pennsylvania.

And today … well today violence continues to beget violence.

Babies heads are smashed against the rocks,
or under the debris of a house that has been bombed,
or at the end of a machete,
or by automatic weapon fire, missiles and artillery rounds,
in Gaza and Israel,
in Somalia,
in Syria,
in Iraq,
in Myanmar,|
in Sudan,
in Central African Republic,
in Ferguson, Missouri,
in Toronto.

Why?

Because we are a species with deep resources of hate.
Because we think that justice is only done when there is retribution.
Because we need to see our rage enacted on our enemies.

Bruce Cockburn has never fired a rocket launcher,
unless we view his song as a rocket fired into the heart
the dirty war in Guatemala.

Maybe the song got that venomous rage out of him so that he didn’t need to enact it.
And maybe the continued performance of this song,
in all of its intensity,
is Cockburn’s continued testimony against oppression.

The Jews in exile did not exact retribution against their captors.
Indeed, it seems that most of them took Jeremiah’s advice
and sought the shalom of Babylon.

Maybe Psalm 137 got that venomous rage out of them so that they didn’t need to enact it.
And maybe its continued performance,
in all of its intensity,
is our continued testimony against oppression.

Both songs are prayers.
Both songs bring the hurt, the disappointment,
the anger and the hatred
before the face of God.

That’s what honest prayer does.
No bullshit. No pious cover ups.

Testimony and rage.
Songs of home and the wailing of displacement.
Ecstatic praise and abrasive lament.
You’ll find it all in the psalms, and it isn’t always pretty.
But it is honest, my friends, and it is true.

Amen

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

6 Responses to “Psalm 137, Exile and Rocket Launchers”

  1. D. L. Hunt

    “Thirteen years ago they cheered throughout the Arab world in response to the violence of 9/11.”

    There were cheers among some, but there was also deep embarrassment and shame that this was violence from people who called themselves Muslims. Surely, they shed tears of anguish over this too because among those who perished were Muslims.

    Reply
    • Brian Walsh

      Fair enough comment. And there were some in the United States who knew that a violent response to the tragedy of 9/11 might feed our desire for revenge, but would not bring justice. I confess to be among those who think that the Bush administration couldn’t have scripted things better to justify their own shift in American foreign policy. That Bush built upon the events of 9/11 to justify a war in Iraq (just say 9/11 and Saddam Hussein enough times in the same sentence and you will hypnotize a whole nation into thinking that the two are connected) only further demonstrates that he was looking for an excuse to expand the Pax Americana.

      Reply
  2. Paul Hansen

    FYI – there is at least one Christian band that sings the whole of Ps137 – Sons of Korah (search them on web or itunes etc & you can get the song, which is excellent)

    Reply
  3. Grant LeMarquand

    Brian, excuse my pious Christocentric ramblings for a minute. One of the best comments I’ve ever heard on Ps 137 came from Harry Robinson who (after pointing out to his Anglican congregation that the Canadian Book of Common Prayer contained the whole psalter – except the last little bit of Ps 137!) found himself forced to read the Psalm in the light of the cross. In the face of our rage and hatred and death-dealing sinfulness, the Son of God himself is dashed against the rocks
    Grant

    Reply
    • Brian Walsh

      Indeed, Grant. And while I am a little allergic to much Christocentric reading of the Psalms (and much of the Hebrew Bible) because of the excesses of the ‘fathers’, this is a reading that the text cries out for. Thanks.

      Reply

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