Psalm 74: Swinging Axes in a Forest of Trees

Ever since Ferguson happened years ago, I’ve posted a few times on this blog and my facebook about Black Lives Matter and racial injustice, but of the posts I’ve left up, there are a half dozen I’ve deleted.

Mostly, this is because I feel cynical about whether posting on facebook or social media does any good, because when I read the comments that some of my white and Asian-American friends post about these issues, it’s clear that they’re cuccooned within an entirely different internet of their own choosing that insulates them from these issues anyway. I feel in these moments that speaking out about racism is like preaching to the Woke choir, while those who really need to hear it just change the channel.

I’m still waiting to meet a white person who went from #AllLivesMatter to #BlackLivesMatter because of something he or she read online–it seems like all my white friends who speak out in solidarity with the black community felt that way already.

But here’s my addition to the choir, more of a reflection on Scripture than a hope to actually change someone’s mind. But if you happen to disagree or want to talk more about what all this means, please leave me a comment and I would love to listen to your thoughts further!

Anyway, Psalm 74 is definitely a B-List Psalm, if that; most people have either never read it, or if they have, it doesn’t really leave an impression. The only verse which leaves an impression does so because it’s weird, and tagged with one of those “The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain” footnotes–which is to say, even the Hebrew scholars are baffled.

O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old, which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage!

Remember Mount Zion, where you have dwelt.
Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary!
Your foes have roared in the midst of your meeting place; they set up their own signs for signs.
They were like those who swing axes in a forest of trees. And all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers.

(Psalm 74:1-6, emphasis mine)

Most of us like trees. Especially us city dwellers–in the midst of the concrete jungle, the shade of a real tree is a welcome thing. If most New Yorkers were given an axe, they wouldn’t even think of taking it to Central Park, much less consider taking that axe and whirling around the park’s wooded areas with it.

Central Park | Springtime by Rick Harris at

Central Park | Springtime by Rick Harris at

Because a tree has a story; it’s grown up over many dozens of years, and feeds other animals and plants, and offers shade and beauty to its surroundings. In other words, that tree’s life matters.

And here’s where Black Life Matters comes in; for some reason, black and brown people are a different type of tree, certainly one portrayed by the media as more likely to be dangerous, more likely to be threatening or guilty. And so when police enter a forest of black people, somehow the axes come out a lot more easily, a lot more readily, a lot less carefully.

And should a black person happen to be denied due process, and happen to fall beneath the gunshots of a spooked police officer…well, what comes to mind is the philosophical question which wonders whether a tree really fell if no one saw it. For years, “no one” saw these precious lives fall–of course, family and friends did, but in a he-said-she-said, colored voices have never done well. Now, with video and social media, everyone is seeing, and it’s super uncomfortable.

For some, the answer to that discomfort is a desire to deny and return to the familiarity of ignorance. For others, it’s a desire to defend and justify, or to dismiss as irrelevant; the thinking seems to go that if you yourself don’t kill black people, nor are you a black person, then this whole thing is not really relevant to you.

But that’s silly. Because in the Psalm, it was not an actual forest of trees in which the “enemies” were swinging axes, but in the temple of God. It was a sacred place for the psalmist, a place that was precious, but those who entered it with axes saw it as not much better than scrap wood.

And video after video seems to show that when police officers enter a white community, they see a temple, but when they entire a colored community, all they see is scrap wood.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 10.46.58 AM

As Christians, our black brothers and sisters hold up the ceiling just as much as we do. If you are a Christian and your black companions fall and suffer, it doesn’t matter if you were swinging an axe–if you don’t do something, the axe swinging will continue. In fact, years after Ferguson, it seems like it has been continuing pretty much unchecked.

I’m pretty disheartened by the seemingly insurmountable politics around all this; I don’t know if in my lifetime, improved police accountability, training, and what’s needed most of all–restoration–will really take hold in the U.S.

But at least I have to fight my human tendency to retreat into my privilege and Move On With Life. To my black brothers and sisters, my prayers are yours. My time and my presence is yours.

And to my friends who are police officers, or are closely aligned with the police community, my heart is with you also. I hope and pray and dream of a reality in which police officers have the respect they deserve, but also wear that respect as the responsibility that it is, and handle it with the weight that it’s due.

Someday, I hope we can all put away our axes.


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