The phone rang.
“Brian have you heard the news from El Salvador?”
No, what news?
“There has been an attack at the University of Central America. Six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper and her daughter have all been murdered.”
The date was November 16, 1989. The civil war in El Salvador had seen thousands killed by the death squads of the Salvadoran army.
“If you think there’s no difference between right and wrong,just go down to where the death squads live.”
(Bruce Cockburn, “Where the Death Squads Live”)
“I can’t come to class tonight. I feel that I should stay home and pray.”
The student was Steve Martin, who now teaches theology at King’s University in Edmonton.
While I gave Steve the freedom to stay home, I also told him that we would pray in class that night if he wanted to come. He did.
It turned out to be the most controversial class of my young teaching career.
You see, I opened the class with the news from San Salvador and then read a psalm.
I read Psalm 44 with all of the emotion that the day’s tragedy evoked, and with all the emotion that the psalm itself portrays. I read the psalm with deep pain, hurt and anger. But those emotions were not directed at the murderers from that elite Salvadoran army unit. No, those emotions were directed at God. You see, that’s where the psalmist directs his hurt and anger.
You have rejected us and abased us.
You have made us like sheep for slaughter.
You have sold your people for a trifle.
You have made us … the derision and scorn of those around us.
All of this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,nor have our steps departed from your way.
Because of you we are being killed
all day long
and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
Placing the blame for the calamity that has befallen his community directly on God, the psalmist then ends his lament with wailing in the face of this God:
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our afflictions and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
Or to borrow U2’s paraphrase of this psalm:
“Wake up dead man.”
The prayer of the psalmist became our prayer that night. Not that we had experienced what the psalmist and his community had experienced. Nor had we been in the situation of our brothers and sisters at the Universidad Centroamericana that day. But I prayed this psalm in solidarity with these saints, and in solidarity with all throughout Central America who faced similar situations.
But it was too much for two of my students.
Two of them left the class, never to return.
When I asked one of them the next day in the hall why he left class, he began to scream at me for my impiety, for the heresy of speaking to God disrespectfully, for subjecting the class to such an abrasive affront to the majesty of God with such language. I found out later that he was convinced that I was demon possessed. At the end of the year, during my review (which were open events) both students came to that meeting to seek my dismissal.
Maybe if I had read the psalm with less pathos, something a little more detached and distant, a reading that didn’t convey the emotions that I was feeling, or those that the psalmist was feeling … maybe then these students wouldn’t have been so upset.
But all that would have been a betrayal.
A betrayal of what I was feeling that night.
A betrayal of the psalmist.
A betrayal of our slain sisters and brothers.
And … even a betrayal of God.
Sometimes screaming in God’s face is the only way to keep faith.
I don’t know, dear readers, but maybe you need to have the permission to address God with the abrasive honesty of this psalmist this week. Or maybe you have been tempted to given up on God because … well, you just have to be too damn “polite” when you address the throne.
Maybe you need a faith where the shit can hit the fan. Maybe you need to pray Psalm 44.