Thursday, April 7, 2011

The cursing psalms, a raging fire (Part 3)

responding to wildfires It is monstrously simple-minded to read the cursings in the Psalms with no feeling except one of horror at the uncharity of the poets. They are indeed devilish. But we must also think of those who made them so. Their hatreds are the reaction to something. Such hatreds are the kind of thing that cruelty and injustice, by a sort of natural law, produce. This, among other things, is what wrong-doing means. Take from a man his freedom or his goods and you may have taken his innocence, almost his humanity, as well. Not all the victims go and hang themselves like Mr Pilgrim; they may live and hate.
    Then another thought occurred which led me in an unexpected, and at first unwelcome, direction. The reaction of the Psalmists to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong. One may try to excuse it on the ground that they were not Christians and knew no better. But there are two reasons why this defence, though it will go some way, will not go very far.
    The first is that within Judaism itself the corrective to this natural reaction already existed. ‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart ... thou shalt not avenge or bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’love thy neighbour says Leviticus (19:17, 18).  In Exodus we read, ‘If thou seest the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden thou shalt surely help with him,’ and ‘if thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him’ (23:4, 5). ‘Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth’ (Proverbs 24:17). And I shall never forget my surprise when I first discovered that St Paul’s ‘If thine enemy hunger, give him bread’, etc., is a direct quotation from the same book (Proverbs 25:21). But this is one of the rewards of reading the Old Testament regularly. You keep on discovering more and more what a tissue of quotations from it the New Testament is; how constantly Our Lord repeated, reinforced, continued, refined, and sublimated, the Judaic ethics, how very seldom He introduced a novelty. This indeed was perfectly well known — was almost axiomatic — to millions of unlearned Christians as long as Bible-reading was habitual. Nowadays it seems to be so forgotten that people think they have somehow discredited Our Lord if they can show that some pre-Christian document (or what they take to be pre-Christian) such as the Dead Sea Scrolls has ‘anticipated’ Him. As if we supposed Him to be a cheapjack, like Nietzsche, inventing a new ethic! Every good teacher, within Judaism as without, has anticipated Him. The whole religious history of the pre-Christian world, on its better side, anticipates Him. It could not be otherwise. The Light which has lightened every man from the beginning may shine more clearly but cannot change. The Origin cannot suddenly start being, in the popular sense of the word, ‘original’.
    The second reason is more disquieting. If we are to excuse the poets of the Psalms on the ground that they were not Christians, we ought to be able to point to the same sort of thing, and worse, in Pagan authors. Perhaps if I knew more Pagan literature I should be able to do this. But in what I do know (a little Greek, a little Latin, and of Old Norse very little indeed) I am not at all sure that I can…. [You’ll have to get the book to read the rest of this one! –Ken Symes]

C.S. Lewis, ‘The Cursings,’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 322-323.

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