I was in a pew at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, on September 16, 2001. Although I was never a member of this now infamous congregation, I did attend Trinity regularly during the seven years I lived and worked in Chicago.
September 16, 2001 was the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. On that Sunday Reverend Jeremiah Wright preached a sermon whose often-distorted excerpts became fodder for attack on candidate Barack Obama. Most people in America remember it as the "Chickens Coming Home to Roost" sermon.
For me, Wright’s sermon on that Sunday will always be the sermon of Psalm 137.
On the clear, blue morning when terrorists took down the World Trade Center towers, destroyed the Pentagon, and murdered thousands of my fellow Americans, I was six months pregnant with my first child. As an expectant mother I felt a particular kind of terror in the aftermath of the attacks. Like other Americans, I knew the world was forever changed; the reality into which my daughter would be born would be marked by this violence in ways I found scary and unpredictable. Like many others, I was confused, angry, sad, and deeply terrorized.
In this state I found my way to church. I remember how sad and unusually quiet we were as a congregation. I remember that many of us were looking for meaning and for comfort. I remember Reverend Wright preaching from Psalm 137.
Here is what he said:
"There’s a move in Psalm 137 from thoughts of paying tithes to thoughts of paying back. A move if you will from worship to war. A move in other words from the worship of the God of creation, to war against those whom God created. And I want you to notice very carefully the next move. One of the reasons this psalm is rarely read in its entirety because it is a move that spotlights the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred.
Look at the verse, Verse 9: ‘Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks.’ The people of faith, by the rivers of Babylon, how should we sing the Lord’s song if I forget thee? The people of faith have moved from the hatred of armed enemies, these soldiers who captured the King, those soldiers who slaughtered his sons and put his eyes out, the soldiers who sacked the city, burned their towns, burned the temple, burned their towers. They moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. The babies. The babies. Blessed are they who dash your babies’ brains against a rock. And that, my beloved, is a dangerous place to be."
I was an expectant mother, and those are the words that have stayed with me for more than eight years: happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks.
Reverend Wright went on to warn that, in the shadow of our anguish, fear, and confusion after September 11, we stood on the precipice of a dangerous political reality, one where, as a nation, we could easily move from hatred of armed enemies to calling for revenge against the innocent. Such a move, he warned, would be destructive to all nations involved.
I thought of Reverend Wright’s sermon today when President Obama decided to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. I am not surprised by his decision. As a candidate, Barack Obama made it clear that he believed Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the most important theater in the war against terror. Strategically, I am not distressed by the decision. Even as he deployed more soldiers, President Obama, unlike his predecessor, offered clear objectives, an exit strategy, and a timeline for withdrawal. Politically, I am less worried than some on the Left, who perceive Obama’s decision as equivalent to Johnson’s choice to escalate in Vietnam. The parallels are not as straightforward as televised versions of American history would lead us to believe.
I am not surprised, strategically opposed, or politically distressed, but I am profoundly, morally uneasy with my nation’s escalation of a war that began as a terrified, revenge response. I am a Unitarian Universalist, and certainly not a biblical literalist, but there is important insight available in Psalm 137. This is the story of a dispossessed people terrorized by their enemies, who find joy in the possibility of killing the innocent in revenge for what they have lost.
If there is a parallel to be made with Johnson, perhaps it is the need listen again to the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, Jr, who spoke forcefully against the war in Vietnam. He did so despite the fact fact that Johnson was his ally on domestic matters. King did not speak against his rival or enemy, he spoke to a nation he loved, led by a president he respected. Still, King stood in the pulpit at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, and said "it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war." He made the case for our shared humanity across national borders and the urgent need to reimagine non-violent solutions for our deepest conflicts.
Jeremiah Wright is certainly not Martin Luther King, Jr. I have never agreed fully with Reverend Jeremiah Wright theologically or politically. I have been openly critical of Wright. But his invocation of Psalm 137, as a warning against the destructive force of revenge, has been a basic moral framework shaping my responses to American intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Today I thought of it again as we move even more deeply into this ill-advised war.
President Obama is a thoughtful and careful leader, but he is constrained by deep and old expectations about war, conflict, and national security. I believe we have already destroyed too much of ourselves and of our so called enemies. I mourn this decision to feed the dogs of war and to bash the heads of babies against the rocks.