The so-called imprecatory Psalms have always presented a problem to thoughtful Christians. Modern Church liturgy largely censors prayers such as this: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps. 137:8-9)
Bashing the brains of babies seems to be a rather startling violation of every code of conduct imaginable. But to dismiss this and similar texts not only impoverishes a sense of just outrage over acts of wickedness but threatens to distort the notion of just punishment itself.
Except during the rapid-fire recitation of the Act of Contrition, punishment has all but disappeared in contemporary discourse – even in the Church. Civil authorities do not send criminals to jail to set the scales of justice aright. They are sent to protect the community from evil behavior and, perhaps, for their own rehabilitation. Rarely is the word “punishment” used to describe incarceration. In modern thinking, there seems to be something dishonorable in punishment and shameful in taking satisfaction in just punishment.
Anyone who admits delight in punishment will likely stand accused of lacking compassion and mercy. (Of course, the delight must be proportionate, without the bloodlust of the Jacobins.) But by refusing to recognize the merits of just punishment, the “rehabilitation” becomes unmercifully perpetual, or absurdly inadequate.
We rarely hear these days that prisoners released from prison have “paid their debt to society” (now a quaint phrase) because, without an understanding of just punishment, demanding such a debt would be considered failing in mercy. And all too frequently we hear of “catch and release” practices that send convicts prematurely back to the streets to continue their mayhem. Punishment should be a clear and certain lesson.
The teaching of Jesus, at first glance, seems to oppose the harshness of such Psalms. Jesus updates Old Testament teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt. 5:38-40) And in the Garden, He tells Peter, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Mt. 26:52)
But God acts throughout Scriptures to mete out His justice and defend His people. The fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah is an example. So is Herod’s unhappy demise – eaten by worms – as reported in the Acts of the Apostles. And the wrath of God revealed in the final book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse, couldn’t be more disturbing.
The Lord Himself learned the Psalms on the knee of His mother. He prayed the Psalms on the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) During His Passion, Jesus prays the Psalms as He takes on the sins of the world. If Jesus and Mary prayed the Psalms, in imitation of Christ, we should pray the Psalms as they did. It seems to be a stretch that Mary – or Jesus Himself – would censor the imprecatory Psalms according to modern sensibilities.
A careful examination of the imprecatory Psalms, moreover, reveals that none of them direct the individual to be an agent of vengeance. The psalmist expects God alone to avenge the injustice. Further, the psalmist expects vindication in this life to demonstrate God’s fidelity to His people. Hence, the imprecatory Psalms recognize and, in times of moral complacency, encourage a response of horror at the evils perpetrated by wicked people.
The Roman Catechism similarly recognizes the legitimacy of outrage in the Church’s teaching on capital punishment. The Catechism also points to the just human instrument of God’s vengeance: “Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.” (Roman Catechism, emphasis added)
God also works through His human instruments. Thus, we return to the question of whether as individuals we can be instruments of God’s wrath, meting out just punishment.
Just human authority – established by God and understood through Revelation and the precepts of Natural Law – the instrument of God’s “wrath” in response to wickedness. A father or mother in a family metes out just and proportionate punishment of children.
During His trial before Pilate, Jesus recognizes the God-given and just power exercised by civil authorities: “Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above.” (John 19:11) Legitimate government authorities mete out just punishment and should be expected to do so.
Indeed, the tradition of the Church also allows the use of force for purposes of self-defense and just war. So the long-suffering taught by Jesus cannot translate into pacifism. But neither does His teaching allow for vigilante justice.
There is a proper place for considering the need for just punishment not only in the life to come but in this life as well. We cannot deny the increasing number of high profile people “getting away with murder” within and outside the Church. It is folly to ignore the cries of the imprecatory Psalms and to dismiss the traditional understanding of just punishment by lawful authorities. So we require a renewed emphasis on the need for righteous retribution by Church and secular authorities.
Perhaps as individuals, we have no right to be instruments of God’s wrath. “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” saith the Lord. (Dt. 32:35) But some of us have an obligation by Divine office – parental, Church, and civil – to be ministers of God’s justice. Or to put it bluntly, to be instruments of His wrath setting the scales of justice aright.
It’s time to revisit an orthodox theology of moral indignation and just punishment.
*Image: Punishment of the Sons of Corah by Sandro Botticelli, 1480-81 [Sistine Chapel]