Alien or Alienating? Monster-Psalm Meditation # 3

The first two sections of Psalm 119 described the psalmist’s love for God’s law and meditation on the question of “how young people can keep their way pure.” In this third section, we encounter conflict for the first time. The psalmist describes being persecuted and alienated and calls upon God for deliverance. Much hinges on how we understand the nature of this alienation.

Psalm 119:17-24

Deal bountifully with your servant,
   so that I may live and observe your word.
Open my eyes, so that I may behold
   wondrous things out of your law.
I live as an alien in the land;
   do not hide your commandments from me.
My soul is consumed with longing
   for your ordinances at all times.
You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones,
   who wander from your commandments;
Take away from me their scorn and contempt,
   for I have kept your decrees.
Even though princes sit plotting against me,
   your servant will meditate on your statutes.
Your decrees are my delight,
   they are my counselors.

“I live as an alien in the land.” That is the first phrase that gives us a hint that all might not be well for the psalmist. Being in love with God’s law has made him an outsider who encounters “scorn and contempt” from the “insolent, accursed ones” and against whom “princes sit plotting.” The idea of being persecuted for what you believe is a popular trope in American Christianity. We teach our children that our country was founded by religious pilgrims fleeing persecution in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 (as opposed to greedy land  speculators looking to strike it rich in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607). We grow up with the idea that you’re supposed to be persecuted if you stand up for what you believe (which means that if you’re not being persecuted, you’re not standing up for anything, a mindset that explains a lot about the ethos of American political discourse).

There’s a difference between being made alien to the world by our love for God’s law and being deliberately alienating to others in order to attract attention and feed our own martyrdom complex. It seems like a byproduct of the information age in which everyone needs to be important and have something unique and controversial to say is this fetish for soliciting persecution. There’s a whole industry that is built off of alienating other people and relishing the “persecution” we receive which is really not persecution but fame. Sarah Palin has made a career out of celebrity martyrdom, which is not to say that the right-wing has a monopoly on this very effective self-promotion strategy. Carson T. Clark calls out the Christian blogosphere for engaging in this cynical controversy fetish in order to increase the hits on their blog pages. I have fallen for that temptation on this blog.

But what the psalm is talking about is so utterly different than being publicly controversial in order to attract attention. We live like aliens in the world when we refuse to see the world according to its terms but instead see the kingdom of God with eyes of faith. It makes us alien to love God’s law. Understand that this is very different than living in an exclusive gated community because we love being protected from the “lawless” masses. Loving God’s law is not the same as being thankful that lawbreakers who pose a threat to our property or physical safety are in jail. When we say we love “law and order,” what we’re really loving is our own safety and comfort and our right not to be disrupted by people who are messy and harmful whether it’s because they grew up poor, they’re mentally ill, or they have some sad, twisted reason for taking up crime. Loving God’s law is different than loving the fact that cops and judges take care of people who might harm me or my family. I’m not dissing the latter; I’m just pointing out a difference that suburban evangelicals have built a whole “family-safe, kid-friendly” world out of conflating.

Loving God’s law is wanting the world to look completely different than it currently looks. It’s wanting God’s shalom to reign over all the Earth. Shalom is not just “peace”; it’s not even just “peace with justice”; it’s perfect completeness. It means that everyone has a place to belong and everyone is filling the unique niche for which God created each of us. That’s what the world would look like if everyone was attuned to God’s law. Because the world doesn’t look that way, we who love God’s law are resident aliens in this world, to use the title of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s 1989 classic that I’ve been reading. We affirm that God’s kingdom reigns even though it doesn’t look that way at all. We affirm that God has invited all, not just to be on the donor list of a non-profit bureaucracy called “church,” but to be the ekklesia (“the called-out ones”), the people who do things that don’t make any sense to the invisible hand of the world’s marketplace, to be a single family, and even more radically, a single body who grow so coordinated in our life together that we behave like a physical body in which each cell has an indispensable part to play but no cell operates in individualist isolation.

Living this way is completely alien to the world, but it’s not necessarily alienating to others; it’s actually attractive. What people want more than anything else is to belong somewhere. That’s just how God made us. A world driven by competition and profit is not a world where people can find belonging. The best thing that can happen to us when God allows things to happen that alienate us from the world, because you have to be alien before you can belong.

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