Life among the wicked

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 3

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9

Family flees election-related violence in Kenya.

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

Habakkuk 1:2, NRSV)

Do not fret because of the wicked... (Psalm 37:1, NRSV)

The prophet knows that evil is a problem. The psalmist knows that the wicked “will soon fade like the grass” (Psalm 37:2, NRSV).

Which is it, Lord?

The prophet knows that “do not fret” is not an adequate response to those who have suffered the trauma of injury and injustice. Even if the wicked will fade, they are here now, and they are all too strong. “Destruction and violence are before me;... The wicked surround the righteous” (Habakkuk 1:3,4, NRSV). The prophet cannot rest. What he sees afflicts him, and his unanswered cries for help cut as painfully – maybe more so – than the suffering he witnesses.

A number of people have noted that some prophetic literature seems to describe symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It should hardly be surprising. Witnessing or experiencing violence is shocking. We are created for good, and violent perversions of this divine purpose shock and terrify us.

The effects of trauma are not confined to an unlucky few. All those who witness violence and injustice are hurt. Victims, bystanders, and perpetrators alike are damaged. It skews us, it knocks us off a more idyllic or healthy path, sometimes off the path of righteousness. And though it may be self-evident, it must still be said that violence and injustice can be fatal.

The prophet must speak of the real anguish, which is a true experience, and a crisis for all the faithful.

But the Word of God is not one dimensional. Because God suffers with creation, God also speaks from within anguish. And God speaks not only about anguish, but to the anguished.

Sometimes it may be easier to hear from a voice outside our own tradition.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it – always.”

Mahatma Ghandi was himself brutalized by the wicked. But he knew what the prophet and psalmist knew. God’s will will be done. Not soon enough by our lights, but inevitably. In God’s kingdom, the wicked cannot write the last chapter. As Habbakuk says, “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3, NRSV, see also Psalm 37:6-7).

“Wait for it”? You say wait for justice, wait for healing, wait while we are in the midst of suffering!?

Sometimes we may think that “wait for it” means “do nothing.” But that is not the counsel of prophet or psalmist.

“Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.... Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret – it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:5,8, NRSV). We might not be able to change the evildoers, or the fact that the wicked surround us. But we do not have to let them define us. “Fretting” – being preoccupied with evil – prevents us from claiming that which is good, and provokes us to return evil for evil. It is better – perhaps not easier, but better – to keep our eyes upon the Lord.

This is a pastoral response to trauma, urging us to seek not the obsession of retribution or regret, but to seek the power of hope by practicing the righteousness and mercy that is God's answer to the failings of this world.

In truth, one way out of violence and injustice is simply to try and incarnate the kind of world we hope God is bringing about. “The righteous live by their faith,” says the prophet (Habbakuk 2:4, NRSV). Living by faith... the most active kind of waiting imaginable.

This text and additional resources can be found as an American Bible Society E-Bulletin (PDF).


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