Destroying the Oppressor

Destroy all those who would oppress me, for you are my redeemer, O Lord. – Psalm 143

Today I’m reading Chanting the Psalms by Cynthia Bourgeault. I bought it, logically enough, for tips on learning to chant the Psalter. Being of a musical bent, I have always been very attracted to the meditative power of chant, and the fact that my faith has a millenia-old tradition of it just sitting there unused has picked at me for long enough.

As I was browsing through the book, confirming that it should indeed prove interesting and useful (and it comes with a CD!), I found a section discussing the issue that some people have with the language of the Psalms themselves. The passage quoted above, for example. For a lot of people – and certainly for many non- and ex-Christians, I think – quotes like this are proof of the violent and condemning nature of God and/or of faith generally. Right away that comes into issue because these are not the words of God but petitions to God, prayers said by people – most often King David, according to canon – in a whole wide variety of human conditions, some very harsh. That people in dire straits prayed to God for the destruction of their enemies tells us more about people than it does about God.

Still there is the issue, and I have felt it myself, of how a Jew or Christian of modern mindset and good conscience can continue to utter prayers like this one in our own practice. In this book, Bourgeault describes taking this question to a woman who had been a contemplative Christian for many years. The woman’s answer was, “This used to bother me too. But what I’ve come to understand is that this prayer really means destroy in me that dualizing tendency of the mind that divides my world up into friends and enemies. Let me see through the eyes of divine Oneness that my so-called oppressors are all projections of my own deepest fears.”

That sounds very Eastern, doesn’t it? The non-dualistic tradition certainly does exist in some forms of Christianity, mystical and contemplative ones in particular, but it doesn’t make a big show of itself; you have to go looking for it. Or else you have to have already studied something like Buddhism or – oh, say, Sakta Tantra – for long enough to have references like this pop out at you when you cross them.

What are the real sources of oppression? Not some particular person or creed. If you get rid of those, others will arise in their place, just as bad or maybe worse. And if oppression were purely external, how could we have so many historical figures, great ethical heroes, who were treated with every kind of external harshness and yet refused to act properly oppressed? How did Nelson Mandela get kinder and wiser in prison? Why didn’t Rosa Parks just stand up? How could Frederick Douglass, in his time and place, develop such a fierce conviction that he was not intended by God to be a slave?

What is it that really oppresses us? States of mind. If I become so fixated on possessing material goods that it becomes the focus of my life, at the expense of all other goods including the good of others, then I am oppressed by greed, and I aid the spreading of greed’s oppression. If I fixate on my own glory and honor, I am oppressed by pride and become its servant in oppressing others. 

I can be oppressed easily by superstitions, by prejudices. We all carry a thousand of these. Muslims are violent, Christians judgmental, Jews greedy, Buddhists wishy-washy, Pagans flaky, Atheists smug. Women can’t drive, men think with their genitals, the fat are lazy, the thin are superficial, the poor are greedy, the rich are heartless. Those who dress conservatively are unliberated, and those who dress suggestively are beholden to their lusts. It goes on and on. But these are not facts, only superstitions. They are rules we impose on the world, not real natural laws; they are ways we remove ourselves from the reality of the moment, and in doing so we cripple ourselves against responding to truth in an honest way. That is oppression.

Destroy all those who oppress me, for you are my redeemer, O Lord.

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