Little Ones

Robert S. Turner
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 2, 2016
Pslam 137

If you have not yet seen it, I encourage you to go to YouTube and watch the video of the Syrian baby that was rescued a couple of days ago. Government forces have been focusing most of their deadly attention on Aleppo in the last week, but they have not let other rebel-held areas go completely unnoticed. On Friday they bombed the city of Idlib.

In the wake of the bombing, the “white helmets”—civilian volunteers who recover bodies, look for survivors, and offer medical care to the wounded—rushed to the scene. The video shows one of these white helmets, a bearded man who looks to be in his early thirties or so, cradling a one-month-old baby in his arms as the ambulance makes its way to the hospital. The man holds the little girl as the medics try to clean her up and treat the cuts on her head, and we see him weeping.

The stress and strain of that delicate and desperate effort to dig her out of the rubble, hoping against hope that they would reach her in time, has left her rescuer spent, both physically and emotionally, and he sobs as he explains in Arabic, “I swear to God that it’s four (AM). We have been working for two or three hours, God willing. One month, she is one month old. Oh, God, two hours of work. This is it. She’s thirty days old.”

It is a powerful scene of great pathos—just one of thousands of other stories from the nearly six years of the Syrian civil war, most of which have not ended as happily as this one. Estimates vary widely, but anywhere from 300,000 to 470,000 people have been killed since the civil war began in 2011, and at least 15,000 of them, possibly as many as 50,000, have been children. Of the nearly five million refugees who have fled the country, about half are children. Similar percentages hold for the millions more who are internally displaced within the borders of Syria. Two million children are unable to attend school, and older youths face the danger of being conscripted into the war, either on the side of the regime or the opposition, or of being detained, questioned, or even tortured. The “little ones” of Syria, despite their innocence, are paying the price for their elders’ violence. The same as in every other war ever invented.

Children have become the face of this war, and of the refugee crisis it has spawned. The image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting alone and dazed in the back of an ambulance, bloodied and covered in dust from an air strike on Aleppo, circulated throughout the world a few weeks ago. And who can forget the picture of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background, lying dead on a Turkish beach last September after drowning in his family’s attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea?

Hold these images and numbers in your mind as we listen again to what may be one of the most beautiful poems in all of Scripture, the simultaneously poignant and chilling Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

Happy shall be they who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

The first six verses of the psalm depict the pathos of the exiles who wistfully remember their homeland as they gather by one of the rivers in the land of Babylon. They share the longing of all refugees everywhere simply to go back home. They have been forcibly displaced from the land of Judah by the conquering Babylonian armies, and now they find themselves not only oppressed but also mocked by their overlords. The writer is apparently one of a group of musicians, perhaps Levites who used to play for the worshipers at the now destroyed temple, and the Babylonians, like Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, ask them to play “some of the old songs.” It’s not an innocent request. They are deliberately twisting the knife in the exiles’ ribs, demanding that they play “As Time Goes By,” knowing all too well the painful memories that tune will evoke. Unlike Ilsa, however, they will not listen tearfully, lost in their own sad reveries. They are laughing, mocking, tormenting, indifferent to or even reveling in the pain their request has caused.

But the musicians refuse to play along. They refuse to play, period. They hang up their harps and lyres on the branches of the willow trees in a small but powerful act of resistance to tyranny. They will not allow these cruel Babylonians to take away what little dignity they have left. They take a stand by sitting down. How could they possibly sing the songs of God in this land of idols? How could they play Yahweh’s music in Marduk’s realm? It would be better if the fingers that held the plectrum would become permanently paralyzed; if the tongue made for singing God’s praises be cut off.

But now things take a decidedly darker turn. The patriotism and religious zeal that has inspired their courageous stand not to give in to their captors’ mockery turns out to be a double-edged blade. The psalmist reminds God how their neighbors from the land of Edom took the side of Nebuchadnezzar’s armies on the day of Jerusalem’s fall. All the old enmity between the brothers Esau, father of the Edomites, and Jacob, namesake of Israel, came out in an ugly way as the Edomites cheered on the Babylonian destroyers: “Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” (v. 7). The psalmist thinks he remembers a crowd of thousands of Edomites watching from New Jersey and celebrating when the planes flew into the temple, and he demands that God punish them for it.

But that’s nothing compared to what he wishes for the Babylonians themselves. He offers a blessing to anyone who will be able to avenge Israel’s devastation. Even if their defeat of Babylon has nothing to do with Israel at all, the psalmist will take it and will pronounce a benediction upon them. The exiles have no power of their own, so they need another party to do their dirty work for them. As it turns out, it will be the Persian Empire who finally destroys Babylon. That may be why some in the Israelite community would later hail the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great as the Messiah, the one who had carried out the punishment of Babylon and delivered the Israelites from their captivity. 

But the psalm ends with the darkest note of all: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (v. 9). Not content with revenge on the army and the empire, the psalmist pronounces a blessing on anyone who will kill the Babylonians’ innocent children. It makes me think of that video of the baby girl in Idlib, and the cuts and bruises on her head, where she had been dashed against the rock or, rather, the rocks had been dashed against her. It makes me think of little Omran, covered in dust from the rubble he had been pulled out of. It makes me think of them … and shudder.

What is it about us that makes this kind of viciousness possible? How hard-hearted must one be to say he would deny a five-year-old entry into the United States, on the grounds of protecting us from terrorists, as one of the candidates said during the presidential primary campaign? What kind of callous indifference to humanity could lead the man who would later become the Republican nominee for president to say of ISIS, “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families; when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families”?

One of the commentaries on this psalm that I read this week in preparing for this sermon argued that we who have not endured the horrors of war ourselves should hesitate before passing judgment on the sentiment found here in verse 9. I understand her point—these exiles had very likely seen their own children dashed against the rocks of Jerusalem. The people of Aleppo and Homs and Idlib have seen their neighbors killed by “bunker buster” bombs, have watched their children choking as chlorine gas has fallen on them from the sky, have witnessed uncounted atrocities every day for the last five-and-a-half years. In places such as Nigeria and South Sudan, soldiers and terrorists have used gang rape as an instrument of war. In Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland, grieving parents have seen their children shot dead for no good reason and have watched their killers go unpunished. Since I have not experienced any of these things, how dare I tell those who have how they ought to react to them? I get that.

I’m not trying to tell anyone, from the exiles in Babylon to the parents of Henry Green, how they should or should not feel. I am certainly not telling them that they have no right to be angry, to seek justice, or to rail against the system that has oppressed them. In fact, I feel a responsibility to join, where I can, in their demand for redress of grievances. But I disagree with the conclusion that I have no right to cast judgment on statements such as, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” or “You have to take out their families.” We have to condemn that kind of irresponsible rhetoric, no matter who says it. We have to. The future of humanity hangs in the balance.

I have heard this you-haven’t-been-there-so-you-can’t-judge claim at other times as well. Some people, when they find out I am opposed to the death penalty, tell me, “Yeah, but if it was your daughter that was raped and murdered, you’d be the first one in line to pull the switch.” I find that insulting in the extreme. They are insinuating that my convictions are only strong enough to hold when I am not personally affected; that I will only take the high road when it comes to someone else’s children. While I cannot say exactly how I would respond if one of my girls fell victim of such a heinous crime, or if the bombs started falling in my neighborhood, I do feel confident in pledging that my commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus would win out over my desire for revenge. I take that pledge today, hoping it will never be put to the test, but steeling myself to be ready if it ever is.

Toward the end of the movie Romero, when the community has suffered so many losses, threats, and humiliations that even some of the parish priests have begun carrying guns, the archbishop says with a curious mixture of resignation and determination, “Somebody has to have the courage to say, ‘Enough!’” He found that courage himself, and he caught a bullet in the chest for doing so. But his death, like that of Martin Luther King … of Dietrich Bonhoeffer … of Jesus, has not been in vain. He has continued to inspire people all over the world to take a stand, to say “Enough,” to hold firm to the way of Jesus even if it costs them everything. He continues to inspire me to work to break Lamech’s cycle.

In a somewhat obscure passage in Genesis, a great-great-great-grandson of Cain’s named Lamech says to his wives:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;

    you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:

I have killed a man for wounding me,

    a young man for striking me.

If Cain is avenged sevenfold,

    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold (Gen 4:23–24).

He refers to the mark God put on Cain after he killed Abel; a warning to anyone who tried to do him harm that his death would be avenged seven times over. Lamech apparently has a pretty inflated opinion of himself, because he claims for himself eleven times the protection. In practical terms Lamech is telling his clan that if anyone tries to take him out for his murder of the young man, they should kill seventy-seven of that person’s clan. It’s a recipe for a spiral of violence and counter-violence that will never end.

Two weeks from today, LeDayne Polaski and Joe Henry will be here to lead us in a workshop on conflict transformation. They will teach us some practical ways to turn the negative energy of conflict into something positive, even creative. What could be more timely or necessary in these days of polarization, fragmentation, and unreasoning anger? I hope that you will sign up for this event, and I hope that we will be able to take what we will learn and use it to bring hope out of despair, light out of darkness, life out of death.

That is the call of the gospel, after all. The call to break Lamech’s cycle. The call we hear from Omran Daqneesh, from Alan Kurdi, from Ty’re King, from Tamir Rice, from that one-month-old baby pulled from the rubble in Idlib, and from all of the little ones the world over who are looking for someone with the courage to say, “Enough!” and mean it.