But You Do See!

Psalm 10 addresses a God whose attention can wander.

1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3 For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
4 In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, ‘God will not seek it out’;
all their thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’

We might say that this God has not yet achieved perfect surveillance.

The Psalmist goes on to describe all the violence and oppression that’s going on in the shadows, under the cover of darkness, rampant and seemingly unstoppable.

On Sunday morning we talked about where in our society we might wish for surveillance.  Who is getting away with injustice?  What do we wish were “caught on camera”?  Where are there dark places we want a light to shine?

In Psalm 10, the Psalmist doesn’t just long for the unblinking eye of the camera.  When God sees, it’s not just a matter of getting actions caught on record.  When God sees, God acts.

14 But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan.

While surveillance in our social context often has an assumption of distance and sterility, in the Psalms God’s seeing means that God is intimately involved in the world, in a deeply compassionate way.

On Sunday morning we talked about the “sit-lie” law in Spokane and the ways in which how we see others affects our judgments and actions. 

Perhaps you’ve heard the poem attributed to Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good

In what ways are we God’s surveillance cameras in the world?  Not just blank faces, but involved, compassionate encounters with injustice?  What does seeing involve?



Guilt by Association

The NSA describes its data gathering methods as looking for connections between people, guessing relationships based on frequency and type of communication. Prospective employers may check out your Facebook page and be as interested in what your friends are up to as they are in your posts. If you thought you’d escaped being judged by the company you keep when you moved to the (big) city, you’ll find that large-scale data gathering has done an end-run around anonymity.

Perhaps we should think of current social graph programs as just an infinitely more patient nosy neighbor peeking from behind drawn curtains and noticing the crunch on the gravel driveway. Or the proverbial Mabel the telephone operator who knows who calls whom and only listens if it’s an emergency.

In a small town, a church, or on the corner of the internet, it can be pretty easy to get a bad reputation. Whether deserved or not, the reputation can acquire a life of its own, spreading to whole families.

Psalm 109 describes in minute detail the experience of total social annihilation. Through the language of curse, the Psalmist describes every aspect of being severed from social life, beyond the reach of human justice or reconciliation. We might call it the ultimate bad reputation, spreading across multiple generations. Though we might find the language harsh, we should also admit that it is often accurate. In Bible Study on Sunday morning, many people were able to point to examples of lives being torn apart by false accusations or just plain bad reputations.

Reputations aren’t private affairs. They affect everyone who keeps company together. The Psalmist reminds us that troth requires nothing less. To know someone, to know their truth, is to be in relationship with them. But what about when far-flung automated programs gather data? Will they understand what relationships mean? Or just lump people together by algorithms?

Many Psalms center on the making and breaking of reputations. But we also have the model of Jesus, who ate with outcasts and sinners. Does radical hospitality lead to guilt by association? Is the Church willing to ruin its reputation in order to welcome everyone? What does our practice of confession and absolution mean in a climate of faceless data gathering (and retention), the disenfranchisement of felons in the name of public safety, the extra scrutiny given to some based on faith or national origin, not to mention the usual array of small-town gossips? And what happens when the Church does get a bad reputation?

The Psalms make it clear that these are not issues to take lightly. Reputations are sticky. But then, so is the God of Psalm 109: “But you, O Lord my Lord, act on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me… With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord; I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save them from those who would condemn them to death.”

Troth and Lies

NIV Psalm 31:5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth. NRSV Psalm 31:5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.

There’s an old-fashioned English word we don’t use much anymore: troth.  It’s related to truth, but it also means fidelity.  Truth and loyalty all bound up together in one word.  If we want to immerse ourselves in the language of the Psalms, it’s a word we might want to bring back to popularity.  In Hebrew, emeth is the same kind of word.  It means both truth and faithfulness.  In different English translations of the Bible you’ll find sometimes one, sometimes the other translation of emeth, depending on the context.  And often the different translations choose differently.

These faithful/truthful translators are relying on us to be aware that truth and faith are inextricably related to one another, even when we don’t always think of them that way in modern English.  Troth might help us do that.  Or think about the phrases where truth and faithfulness overlap: “to be true to one’s beliefs”, “a hi-fidelity recording”, “a faithful rendition of a piece of music”.  Accuracy, loyalty, and understanding start to get all mixed up together.

In the Psalms, the truth (about a person or a situation or God) can really only be known in the context of a trusting relationship.  Troth is essentially relational.

How different is this from a view that truth is just information and facts?  Is there truth in the data collected by surveillance, in smatterings of call logs, photos, or gps trails?

Now, you might be a little concerned about this kind of truth the Psalmist describes.  Do we really need more partisan truths conditioned by loyalty?  Or a world where who you know is the most important thing?  Perhaps we hope for truth stripped clean of encumbering power dynamics and messy human relationships.  What can we do but muddy up the real truth?

In fact, the Psalms agree wholeheartedly about the problems of partisan truths. But in the world of emeth, the Psalmist asks us to consider whether we can have it any other way, as humans.   In the Psalms, truth is not a commodity that can be possessed in differing quantities but a path to follow, beset by trouble on all sides.  In some Psalms, it’s unclear whether anyone is telling the truth.  Hence the Psalmist’s cry to the God of emeth to be rescued from the miry bog (see especially v 13-14 of Psalm 69).

And besides, it helps to see why the Psalms take lying so seriously.  Partisan partial truths whose intent is to harm fall right into the category of deceit in the Psalms.  Lies aren’t merely misinformation; they are false witness, unraveling the personhood of the one lied about.  In deceit, we are uprooted from the land of the living, says Psalm 52.  What’s more, just as emeth requires relationship with God, when we practice deceit we are de facto isolating ourselves from God, even denying God’s presence and care for the world.  Psalm 10 says, “In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, ‘God will not seek it out’; all their thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’… Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.”  Psalm 15 tells us that to be in the presence of the Lord is defined by certain qualities, including truthfulness and avoidance of lying.

False witness isn’t just a biblical problem.  Mistaken identity, damaged reputations, and false witness are all frequently in the news.  Here are a couple stories just from this last week:

St Louis wrongful arrests – a long story about a culture of wrongful arrests and their negative consequences in St Louis

San Antonio 4 – news about the release of the San Antonio 4, women convicted of child molestation who have been released after more than a decade in prison due to faulty testimony.

In situations of deceit or false witness, how does the Church practice truth?

Bible Study Week 1: Refuge

To start out our study Hide Me in the Shadow of Your Wings: Security, Surveillance, and the Psalms, we’ll look at an image that pervades the whole book of Psalms: refuge. The constellation of Hebrew words that sometimes are translated as refuge (other times as saving help, place of safety, and deliverance, to name a few) appear more than 100 times throughout the Psalms. Refuge is the positive side of security. It’s good to be attuned to what the Psalms think safety should be like. It can help us figure out how we fail to provide security in our communities, or when we misunderstand what we really need in terms of help.

Think about the word refuge. What does it conjure up for you? How many people are there? Can others gain access to your place of refuge or is it closed off?

You might try a Google image search for refuge. Do the images look like yours?

In Bible study on Sunday morning we noticed that a place of refuge often looks very different whether you are on the inside or the outside, not to mention how safe you already feel in your refuge.

Take a look at a few of these Psalms. How do their images of refuge compare with your own or to ones that show up as search results?

Visit the Salem Lutheran Facebook page to join the conversation.

Welcome to Security, Surveillance, and the Psalms Bible Study

Welcome to the online component of our Salem Lutheran Bible Study: Hide Me in the Shadow of Your Wings – Security, Surveillance, and the Psalms. For the next 6 weeks on Sunday mornings at 9 at Salem, we’ll be studying this topic together. You’re welcome to come. But if you can’t make it, or would like to continue the conversation beyond Sunday morning, then you’re invited to this ongoing online conversation. This is a new format, so we’ll be trying to find the best way to proceed. (Feel free to make suggestions by marking your comment “To Admin”)

The Psalms have been part of the life of the Church for as long as it has existed (and of course have been around for much longer even than that). Both ancient and exceedingly familiar to us, the language of the Psalms gives voice to almost every kind of human longing and concern. While the Psalms are not laid out like an instruction booklet for a life of faith, they can attune our ears, hearts, and voices to the ways faithful people have prayed to God over the centuries. They can both widen our concerns and give voice to our deepest fears. It is in this context that we will use the Psalms in this study: We will borrow their language to speak about the world in our time, seeing if ancient eyes don’t offer us a new perspective on our own concerns.

Security and surveillance are certainly not new-fangled concerns, but they have surfaced again recently in national discussion, especially with respect to the abilities of governments and corporations to collect vast amounts of electronic data from nearly everyone, with or without their consent. The national debate has centered around terms that are frankly foreign to the Psalms. Information, privacy, and consumer convenience are not notions that the Psalms find salient. But deeper concerns about protection and well-being, deceit and power, exposure and being known are all given expression by the Psalms.

The Psalms also speak from within a world that is already broken, spoiled and hopelessly entangled in sin. The Psalms do not offer idealized solutions for a perfect world, but prayers from this one, in the middle of things. The Psalms often admit to the speaker’s own failings even in the midst of prayers for rescue from forces beyond the speaker’s control. It’s complicated. But in the Psalms, it’s never too late. Things have never gotten so bad that they cannot be set right. Again and again the Psalms acknowledge that it is God who has ultimate charge of the world and its creatures.

To join the conversation, look for the link to the posts on the Salem Lutheran Facebook page.