I have heard these words before. From friends and colleagues; in The Atlantic and in my Twitter feed.
The lament over an unfaithful nation, over deceitful and wicked oppressors, echoes down the millennia from the psalmist to our front pages, and into our very lives. Perhaps it even echoes out of our own throats.
Psalm 43 is the continuation and conclusion of Psalm 42, in which the psalmist cries out in agony and questions God’s absence:
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
The psalmist is crushed and alone, bone-tired and broken-boned. He has been taught that God, his help, will always be on his side, always comfort and deliver and redeem. But where is this God? Why has this God not shown up? And a better question: How is the psalmist still hanging in there? Over and over–three times in this two-part combo-psalm–he exhorts his soul:
“Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.”
He is resolute in his praise of God the Savior, even when his soul falters in its hope in God.
The distinction between his resolution and his downcast soul demonstrates the power of what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus, that is, an ingrained history that is embedded and incorporated into one’s body. Shaped by the teachings of the Torah and the rituals and influence of his community, the psalmist knows, deep down, in a bodily knowing, that he will praise God no matter what. As one of the chosen people of God, that’s just who he is. But that doesn’t make his pain any less real or any less painful. It doesn’t make his soul less despairing.
It apparently doesn’t make God’s help come any quicker, either. What’s taking God so long? As we hear and utter the cries of the oppressed today, we may wonder the same thing. Where is God? Why is God letting this happen?
I’m reminded of the story of the man who saw another’s suffering and prayed, “Why, Lord, do you let this happen?” And God responded with God’s own question: “Why do you let this happen?”
As a straight-passing, white, middle-class woman, who has little experience of the gut-wrenching oppression of this psalmist, I am confronted by that anecdotal question of God’s in the psalmist’s words: “Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?” I have heard these words before. Not echoing from my own throat, perhaps, but from the throats of others. Why, indeed? Why do I let this happen?
The legendary saying often attributed to St. Teresa of Avila says that Christ, or perhaps interchangeably, God, “has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.” So when the psalmist asks God for vindication, for God to come to his defense, I must ask myself if there are ways that I might hear these cries and answer them, when it seems the God to whom they are directed is absent. Who are these “ungodly people” who must face justice? Am I one of them? Where are the deceitful and wicked oppressors? Am I among them? Or in the words of the old protest song, “Which side are you on?” If I’m not in the place of the psalmist here, I’d better at least be on his side. To be on the side of the oppressed is to be on the side of God, who is always and only on the side of justice and love.
Psalm 43 can be both an encouragement to practice the habitus of praising God–even in struggle– as well as a challenge to pay attention to suffering and and question our own complicity in its perpetuation. As psalms are wont to do, it holds a mirror up to us, revealing the human condition, warts and all, and it asks how we will respond–with compassion and justice, or with indifference.
Divinity Library at Vanderbilt University.