How Does the Empire Fall?
by Debbie Blue
Psalm Reading: Psalm 137
For Sunday, October 3, 2010: Year C—Ordinary 27
There’s a lot to be said for composure, self-control, and detachment. But somehow I’d rather hear about it from Buddhists than Scandinavian Lutherans. And though I wouldn’t mind if Miles Davis told me to be cool, if I’m at the co-op with my kids and we’re hungry and in a hurry and my son breaks a jar of pasta sauce and some white middle class urban hipster tells me to “be cool,” I’d mind it.
The Death of Cool
The jazz guys took up “cool,” as a sort of shield from, or resistance to official culture (racist, white, square). Now cool has become the official culture, the central ideology of consumer capitalism−that’s exactly how the Empire’s machine keeps working, always grinding resistance into its gears. It’s possible that ironic detachment is actually making us drones of the system (limiting our emotional range).
I am all for Terry Jones and Rush Limbaugh and maybe even Oprah learning to tamp it down, but maybe there are a lot of people who could stand to lose their cool. I don’t know. The church has often made it seem like morality requires that one be disengaged from emotions. Is that how it works?
The Psalms are not emotionally contained, restrained or detached. Reading them, you begin to sense that there’s this weepy, confused, sometimes barbaric landscape just under the surface of our apparent composure. Vile cursing, violent ranting, is juxtaposed with quiet, calm moments of reaching toward some sort of piety or comfort. If you’re not feeling Psalm 137 (the sadness and humiliation and outrage of the Israelite forced into slavery in Babylon) there’s not much there.
Of course feeling something and expressing violent fantasies of revenge seem different. But maybe not—if you’ve actually seen your children dashed against rocks. It’s a horrible image. And it’s not like this is the only time it comes up in the text. Infants and little ones and mothers with children are dashed to pieces one place and then another, and another.
There’s a lot of violent imagery splayed across the pages of scripture. There’s a lot of unfettered anger expressed. Do we say it shouldn’t be there, or they didn’t really mean it, or we need to clean it up? Plenty of editing went on, but violent outrage remains firmly a part of the text. Violence remains firmly a part of the world. How does one react to the brutality (or slow suffocation) imposed by the Empire?
Chanting Down the Shitstem
This psalm is about not singing. The prisoners of the empire were not going to take up their instruments to entertain the oppressor. They hung them in the willows, and the writer pledges never to forget what the empire has done to his people. Better to lose his playing hand and have his tongue cling to the roof of his mouth than forget, or accommodate, or detach.
What’s kind of beautiful is how many times and in how many ways this Psalm has been put to music. Verdi put it in an opera—it became an anthem for Italian revolutionaries. The Irish sang it, and Don McLean, and the Rastafarians, whose version I can’t get out of my mind.
For Rastafarians, the waters are the Atlantic Sea and Zion is Africa, where their fathers were taken into captivity and shipped to the Caribbean to be made slaves of the Empire. Rastafarians like the revolutionary vocabulary, the pathos of the Psalms. Music is their political tool—they use it to “chant down” the enemy, the “Babylonian shitstem”: the corrupt machine of the West. They resist by singing revolutionary lyrics and playing that persistent reggae beat, rather than taking up arms.
The Hardest Question
The Empire makes slaves. It oppresses, limits, destroys, murders. Often its violence is met with violence. Che Guevara didn’t lay down his arms; neither did the Sandinistas, or the Italian Resistance. Humanity is still capable of smashing babies against rocks, or raping them, or flaying them with machetes. If you live in the midst of that, how do you possibly face the violent horrors of humanity without violence or without just lying down and dying? And for those of us who enjoy the privileges of Empire, how might we participate in its undoing?
Debbie Blue is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in St. Paul, MN, the author of Sensual Orthodoxy and From Stone to Living Word. She lives on a farm with her family, friends, and animals.