Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A post-election psalm

Depending on one's hopes and the outcome, the morning after an election can bring either exultation or despondency. I think both are to be challenged and resisted.

Did Fr. Reardon plan it this way, or is it by strange coincidence that my psalm for this morning is number 72: "Give the king thy justice, O God, and the righteousness to the royal son!"

As originally uttered, and as repeated through rolling years and perhaps centuries, Psalm 72 was a prayer for the reign of an Israelite king. It expresses bold, triumphal aspirations both for domestic policy ("May he judge thy people with righteousness . . . may he defend the cause of the poor!") and foreign policy ("May his enemies lick the dust . . . may all kings fall down before him!"), exalts his image and invokes blessings on his person ("May he live while the sun endures . . . may he be like rain that falls on the mown grass!"), and hangs upon his reign hopes for unprecedented material prosperity and human flourishing ("May there be abundance of grain in the land . . . may men blossom forth from the cities like the grass of the field!").

Never did an Israelite or Judahite king fulfill this prayer. Kings (and sometimes queens) abused power. They committed adultery and murder. Kings taxed the nation into grinding poverty. Kings led the nation in the worship of false gods. Kings dreamed of foreign conquest and dragged the nation down in defeat. As the author of this psalm knew from the start, or perhaps as the compiler who placed this psalm at the close of book two knew, only the Lord is finally to be praised: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things." Every other hope will fail.

Centuries after David and Solomon and all their heirs rotted in the ground, and not many years after those who aspired to resurrect their legacy were crushed by Roman iron, followers of a king whose kingdom was not of this world pointed to Jesus as the only "royal son" of whom these words could be spoken in full voice. Some still sing: "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun doth his successive journeys run."

And yet, at least in this country, it seems there is always nevertheless the temptation to apply this psalm, or sentiments too closely resembling it, to our own president. May he prove to be the savior of the poor and the downtrodden! May he crush our enemies in the dust! Oddly, we separate these two kinds of messianic aspiration--each has its partisans--but between us, we manage to delude ourselves rather thoroughly, don't we? and to exult or despair on the morning after an election, each according to his or her own preferred delusion? And do we not willfully close our eyes to our leader's enthusiastic sponsorship of one or another variety of heinous immorality, depending again on our own political preferences?

But it would be wrong for Americans to dismiss and exclude our president--or for citizens of any other nation to dismiss their governors--from our prayers simply because we recognize that we cannot sing Psalm 72 to him or about him except with strict qualifications, or with anything more than a choking and halting voice, or with whatever mixture of joy and sorrow or indifference (an undercultivated Christian virtue in our current political climate) we feel on this new but, but not very new, day.

So: May God instill in Mr. Obama righteousness and justice of biblical tenor and proportions. May our nation be preserved and blessed while he presides, and may it be a blessing to other nations. May he live and prosper--if not as long as the sun, then at least for at least four more years. May he and the nation he leads enjoy, and deserve, a noble reputation and the gratitude of many. And may God give him--and all his supporters and detractors and successors--the sure knowledge that neither he nor the nation he leads is the promised Messiah, and the grace to be mindful always of the one who alone does wondrous things, and whose glory fills the whole earth. Amen.

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