Warranted Rage: Reading Psalm 137 in South Africa

Written on 11/02/2018

Department:
Author: Gideon Strauss

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O God, hear the honesty in my rage,

the sharp pain in my heart.

To you alone I can yield the hatred I feel,

trusting you will somehow use it for good.

But how? What to do with my anger?

For its power I need: it must not be taken from me.

The local municipality of Stellenbosch, encompassing the towns of Stellenbosch, Pniel, and Franschhoek and their surrounding farmland and wilderness, is the most unequal local government area in South Africa, and South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. As Xavier Greenwood reported in Britain’s The Independent, “In 2015, the University of South Africa found that the top 1 percent of South Africans own 70.9 percent of the country’s wealth while the bottom 60 percent only holds just 7 per cent.” This poverty is the result of a set of complex factors, most significantly the joint legacies of Dutch and British racist colonialism and the white supremacist practices of the apartheid regime of the late 20th century and the corruption and mismanagement perpetrated by the country’s governments in the years since South Africa achieved common suffrage in 1994.

It is impossible to blind oneself to the gap between the circumstances of rich and poor people in Stellenbosch. I have invested between one week and four months in the town every year since 2014, and I remain startled by the contrasts between the privileged life to which I have access and the destitution of the town’s poorest inhabitants. A five-minute drive from my favorite coffee shops in Stellenbosch’s bustling downtown, in the neighborhoods of Cloetesville and Kayamandi, destitution is visible and desperation palpable as people struggle for survival. That destitution and desperation spills over into downtown as people scramble for income as informal parking attendants, security guards, and street musicians.

When I watch and listen to the street musicians in Stellenbosch―knowing the intense economic anxiety lurking immediately underneath the surface of song, dance, and laughter they present—I am reminded of the very worst prayer in the Psalter, Psalm 137. “Our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth.” This psalm wore a groove into my heart years ago, in 1996 and 1997, when I prayed it and prayers like it in the evenings after my days of working as an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (translating the testimony of victims and perpetrators of state-sanctioned abduction, torture, and murder). Praying not as a victim myself, but in solidarity with the victims remembered in the words I translated.

Like these words by Zainab Ryklief about an atrocity perpetrated by people fighting for apartheid (now known as the Trojan Horse Massacre): When Shaun ran into the house, he threw himself on my bed. Ms Abrahams threw herself on the bed also and she had blood on her from the children. The children were wearing maroon jerseys so she did not see the blood. When he fell on my bed, he died and he died there on my bed. As the one policeman kicked open the door, he grabbed Shaun. I had a little step at my door and he grabbed the child's leg, the head in such a way that when he pulled up the child's head he then said, “The pig has died.” 

Or these words by Johannes Frederick van Eck, whose vehicle hit a landmine placed by people fighting against apartheid: The vehicle which we used was blown through the air and landed on the ground some way from there where we were covered by flames. When I regained my consciousness, I discovered that my 18-month-old baby boy who had sat on my lap was actually still alive and he was looking at me. It appeared to me that he was uninjured. The car was covered in flames. I realised that the driver of the car was lying on the steering wheel, had his hair on fire, and blood was spouting from his forehead. I tried to get out of the vehicle but because of the effects of the impact, I could not manage. . . . I realised that we were going to burn to death inside this vehicle because before we came on this journey we had filled up the tank. I then crawled out through the window taking my boy with me and I just laid him down on the road nearby. . . . I also looked around for my 3-year-old son but I could not find him. Up to this day I haven't found him.

Psalm 137 is, for me, the prayer in the Bible that most accurately expresses the extreme rage that comes with the experience or observation of the world’s worst abuses, perpetrated in support of exploitative and oppressive political and economic systems. It is a prayer that concludes with an extreme version of the plea, Please, just make it stop, escalated from the level of personal pain to that of national trauma:“Blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

In the late 1990s my rage was a direct response to hearing people confess to—and get away with—gross human rights abuses perpetrated in support of the apartheid regime (a regime that showered me, as a white South African child and youth, with privileges). In part, my rage was the result of realizing myself to have been a beneficiary of—and as such complicit in—these abuses. In the late 2010s I raged at the reality that a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, more South Africans suffer from extreme poverty than did during apartheid, and that all of the sacrifices made during decades of struggle for liberation from a white supremacist regime have not resulted in a better life for the children in Kayamandi today.

As I wrote in my previouspost, the psalms are paradigmatic for our prayers. The warranted rage expressed in Psalm 137 is among the 150 examples of things we can say to God, as theologian John Goldingay suggests. The extremity of Psalm 137 makes room in the dialogue between me and God for talking honestly about the suffering I see in terms that are emotionally appropriate to the wrongs wrought.

I get to do Psalm 137, not just speak it, through my participation in a research project of the Unit for Religion and Development Research and the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Stellenbosch, under the leadership of Nadine Bowers du Toit. The project is entitled “Inequality, forgiveness, and political agency: lived theologies among young adults in post-apartheid South African churches.” (It is funded by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College as part of its African Theological Advance.) It is too early to say how or even if this inquiry will help to dash against the rock the deeply-seated racism at the root of the socio-economic inequality that continues to warp South African society. But it seems to me to be an emotionally appropriate act of faithful scholarship and a scholar’s appropriate act of faithful citizenship: coming to terms analytically and critically with the lived reality of soul-destroying inequality in a town I love deeply, and doing so before the face of God.

Work in us the deeds of your grace.

May we restrain our furious desires,

refusing to be dragged down to their mire.

But keep us from too easy a kindness.

With patient tenacity we must endure;

keep alive the power of our anger.

Note: Psalm 137 is quoted from the English Standard Version. Scripture quotations in italics are from an improvisation on Psalm 137 by Jim Cotter in his volume of prayers, Out of the Silence: Prayer’s Daily Round (Cairns Publications, 2006).

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