“Break thou the arm of the evildoer” (Psalm 10:15).
“Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers” (Psalm 35:3).
“O God, break the teeth in their mouths” (Psalm 58:6).
“Let them be blotted out from the book of the living” (Psalm 69:28).
The above is a small selection of verses from some of the imprecatory psalms — the psalms that pronounce curses upon the foes of God and man. These psalms also are held to be the inspired Word of God — obviously, therefore, there is some place for cursing in God’s economy (!). Yet, it would seem that these psalms are best understood within a Christological framework: in other words, they are not primarily for us to take up against our personal enemies, but they express, rather, the justice that is due those who persecute Christ, who persecute God and his Church — and who do not repent.
These psalms are quoted in the New Testament: for example, in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles where the apostles deliberate on how to replace Judas Iscariot. “Let his camp be made desolate” — “Let another take his place”; two imprecatory psalm verses, shown to have been fulfilled in the person of Judas the Betrayer (Acts 1:20). It would seem, in this connection, that they are shown to have been fulfilled in terms of Judas’ final end — i.e., that he did not repent. It would be incoherent to wish these things upon him if there were still a chance for him to turn back to God — incoherent, in view of Christ’s proclamation of mercy and pardon. Indeed, if God “desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), is there any room for cursing? There is – but only with reference to those who, in retrospect, did not respond to his grace, who did not turn back… who ended badly.
Yes, there is hope for everyone — and by “everyone”, I truly mean “everyone”. There are some people in every age the repentance of whom would be greeted with snarls if it were to happen: “He doesn’t deserve mercy!” “He doesn’t deserve to be saved!” “Look at what he did!” We all too easily come down on the side of the imprecatory psalms in some cases, even where there is still time for someone to turn around with the help of God’s grace. We lack confidence in just how great God’s mercy is. Part of us wants it only to apply to us and not to others — or at least to some others. God, have mercy!
But Christ teaches us a different way: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you…” (Matthew 5:44). “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14). The will of God for us is not that we should pronounce a curse upon our enemies or his; rather, that we should pray for them, bless them, hope for their repentance. It is not for us to curse them. That could well be their fate if, God forbid, they do not turn around. In that awful outcome, the curses of the psalms may well be fulfilled by them. Again, God forbid! But if we were to decide that outcome for them now, we could well find ourselves sharing it with them later.
The will of God for us is to be a blessing: to everyone.
In this connection, it occurs to me that the charming (possibly also worrying) Southern expression, “Bless your heart”, is more or less on track. Now some do use it with a sense of dissimulation: they say one thing but mean the opposite. But if we can grow really to mean that — to desire God’s blessing upon everyone — then it will do us some serious spiritual good.
But what is the deeper wisdom behind our Lord’s teaching? I do not pretend to have plunged the depths of it. But I can say a few things, at least.
The first is: in the heat of passion — when we are offended or outraged — we can be rash. We can overreact, misjudge, exaggerate, and so forth. Sometimes, only later, when we have calmed down, do we see that our initial reaction was disproportionate. But if we at least are making the effort not to be guided by emotion, to let reason take control, and therefore, to bless our “enemy” in that moment, we will have been on the way to doing well. (The goal, of course, is to avoid the emotional overreaction to begin with.)
The second is: we tend to perceive the faults of others more clearly than our own. We forget that old and very wise saying that when we point a finger, three fingers point back at us. In our bursts of self-righteousness we can be so sure of what others deserve and forget that, well, basically, we are “dust and to dust [we] shall return”. The Southern expression “hot mess” often describes well our spiritual condition. God help us! More than this, but connected with it — we often lose sight of where we have come from. Maybe we are in a better place now — thanks to God’s ineffable mercy — but, my goodness!, how much closer we may have been to the very thing we now condemn, in the past.
The third is: we are often just so convinced of our own righteousness whenever we find it “necessary” to convict others. But our vision is skewed. Who of us can really claim to be righteous? Bless, and do not curse. “Maybe if I bless, I’ll receive a blessing…”
I could go on. In the end, it really comes down to: Will we obey Christ or not?
If someone is an enemy — perceived or in fact — you are required by Jesus to bless him. Let God sort out the rest. Pray for his well-being. Pray for his or her conversion. Pray for your own, for that matter. But bless! The curses of the imprecatory psalms have already been pronounced by the inspired authors. They will continue to be fulfilled in those who, sadly, do not respond to God’s saving grace. We do not need to add to them.
If only we could learn to desire the good for others, and not their ill. This is God’s will for us: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord: thoughts of peace, and not of affliction…” (Jeremiah 29:11). Our blessing those with whom we disagree could be an occasion of grace for them. It will most certainly help us grow in charity. It will enable us to fulfill the will of God… and let God be God and recognize our own smallness and limitation. May, indeed, his enemies be cursed — if they do not repent. But may we always bless. Amen.
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LATE ADDITION: I wrote and scheduled this post last week; in the meantime, this past Saturday, the verdict came down concerning the penal dismissal from the clerical state of Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop/cardinal of Washington, D.C., for various crimes that he committed involving the sixth commandment, solicitation in confession, and abuse of power. So I am logging in to add this additional comment before it is published.
Emotions run high in McCarrick’s case, in particular — the fact that he was able to do what he did for so long indicates real, grave problems in the Church, and many of us wonder if they are being effectively addressed.
There is also simply the fact that what he did is so repulsive. In the Church’s law there is a Latin term that describes some of the things that he did — nefas — “utterly and absolutely forbidden”; we get our word “nefarious” from it. A reaction of anger is very normal in cases like his.
But we need to be careful, and reflect upon the above post. McCarrick is still alive and so still has time to repent. Do we mean what we say, when we pray, “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell; lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy“? Let us pray for McCarrick’s repentance, which will do more good for his victims than if he were to die and be damned. People who have done really bad things, like he did, are often greatly tempted to despair of God’s mercy. The devil has them in his grip and does not want to lose them.
But just imagine, if, thanks in part to our prayers, he were to repent and begin praying for those whom he hurt, offering penance and sacrifice for them? That is a great good to be desired, and let us ask great things of God’s mercy for not only McCarrick’s victims but for him, while he still has time and a chance.