PRAISE BE PEACE: The Psalms of Peace and Nonviolence in a Time of War and Climate Change

Introduction to “Praise Be Peace”

By John Dear

Driving north along California’s Highway One from my little hermitage beside the Pacific Ocean near the village of Harmony to Big Sur and its mountaintop New Camaldoli monastery, I feel a lightness of spirit amidst the breath-taking scenery and the fresh ocean air. The  vastness of the blue ocean, the shocking mountain cliffs, the mysterious rocky coast and sandy beaches, and the array of creatures—the sea gulls, otters, curlews, dolphins, elephant seals, whales, Stellar Jays, egrets, blue heron, and even the ten foot long, prehistoric-looking condors—they toss away all worries and open a new liminal space. Suddenly you find yourself in the best of her creation. Then almost without knowing it, you start longing for and looking for the Creator of such peace.

Big Sur has long been a refuge for seekers and mystics. Thomas Merton traveled up this road shortly before flying off to Asia and his death. Joan Baez lived along this coast for years, and still lives just north. Writers, poets, artists, and spiritually minded people dwell hidden away along the mountain, while some four million people drive this magical coastal road each year.

I’ve been coming here for over thirty years to visit the Catholic monastery on the top of the mountain. It’s a difficult journey, one I take with a mixture of excitement and trepidation as I approach the steep cliff road. After Rocky Ridge and Limekiln, you come to the new road built after part of the mountain collapsed into the ocean in 2017. Then just before Lucia, you turn right onto a one lane dirt road and start the hair-raising, life-threatening, cliff-hanging two mile zig-zag up the mountainside, tacking back and forth, until you come to the church, bookstore, guest rooms and hermitages.

The drive up the mountain terrifies me because it’s only one lane with no guard rails. The “road”—if you can call it that–continues to deteriorate, slowly slipping down the mountain, despite the asphalt repairs, made every few months. But once on top, the vista catches your breath. You look out over the vast ocean, the miles of trees and tall grasses, down the mountain cliffs, and take a bird’s eye view of God’s creation.

As you enter the old cinderblock chapel, Rublev’s gentle icon of the Trinity seated around a table greets you. The white robed monks are just gathering for one of their daily prayer vigils. They stand, face one another and begin. “O God, come to my assistance,” one chants. “O Lord, make haste to help me,” they all respond.

At every prayer time, whether lauds or vigils, Mass or vespers, they turn to the Psalms. In this way, they keep alive a two thousand year old Christian tradition of prayer and song centered on these holy, ancient Jewish texts.

*

Thomas Merton held a romantic dream of the Camaldolese life. In the 1950s, he begged to leave his Trappist monastery of Gethsemani and join the Camaldolese, where each monk lives in silence and solitude, with his own private hermitage and garden, each close to the church where together they gather for daily prayer and Mass. Merton never left Gethsemani but the Camaldolese way pushed him deeper into solitude, and eventually, his own hermitage in the woods where he cultivated silence, peace and grace.

            St. Romuald founded the great monastery of Camaldoli in Tuscany under the Benedictine rule over a thousand years ago. Only one text survives, his “Little Rule:”

Sit in your cell as in paradise…Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms—never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, then take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up. Hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more. Realize above all that you are in God’s presence, and stand there. Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

“Realize above all that you are in God’s presence,” Romuald writes, “and stand there.” Be “content with the grace of God.” Use the Psalms as your daily text. For a thousand years, monks from St. Romuald to Thomas Merton have sat in that grace, emptied themselves into peace, chanted the Psalms, and waited upon God. They not only walk the path to peace, but the live the life of peace.

*

They say Jesus prayed the Psalms regularly. He may have even known them by heart. If so, that’s where he learned fearless devotion, dedicated truth and total dependence on God. If you learn the Psalms by heart, you set your heart and mind on God and God alone. For you, there is only God. For the rest of your life, there is only God. With God, comes love, mercy, generosity, kindness, faithfulness, security, and peace toward yourself, your neighbor, all humanity and all creation. In the Psalms, you hear the divine call to serve and liberate the poor and oppressed and establish universal peace with justice for every human being and all creation.

Jesus was meticulously nonviolent, so he must have brought to the Psalms his own wisdom of nonviolence. The Gospels begin with the story of Jesus’ encounter with God after he was baptized at the Jordan River, where he heard in a moment of prayer a gentle loving God called him “My beloved.” In that moment, Jesus knew God as loving, compassionate and nonviolent. After that, he set forth on the Gospel journey to invite everyone to welcome God’s reign of peace and nonviolence here on earth. He stood up publicly and denounced the ways of empire and injustice, and was crushed to death by the powers that be for his divine nonviolence and civil disobedience, but in his resurrection spirit, his campaign of nonviolence lives on.

The best way, then, to read the psalms is through the eyes of the nonviolent, compassionate Jesus, from a Gandhian/Kingian perspective of nonviolence, through the lens of the key Gospel teachings–the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. If we read the Psalms from Jesus’ vision of nonviolence, we will find new strength to turn away from hate and anger toward greater trust and devotion to God and newfound wisdom, gratitude and wonder.

Reading the Psalms as Jesus read them can help us become more faithful, more devout, more fearless, more secure, more loving, more trusting and more nonviolent. We learn not to place our trust in weapons or violence, not to act arrogantly or unjustly, not to doubt or test God. Instead, like Jesus, we will learn anew to place our security more and more in our gentle, loving God and discover the God of peace as our rock, our strength, our hope, our fortress, our security, and our protection. As we follow the nonviolent Jesus who prayed through the Psalms, we learn to stand in faith, hope and love, unarmed, vulnerable, nonviolent, our eyes focused on God, our hearts transformed like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and our souls open to Creation and the glories of heaven.

If we read the psalms from the perspective of Gospel nonviolence, as Jesus advocates in the Sermon on the Mount, then these prayers take on new life. They make more sense. They lead us out of our inner violence into the spirit of peace, out of the culture of violence into a new culture of nonviolence, out of the world of death into the fulness of life in God.

They can become just what we need.

*

The Psalms are one hundred and fifty ancient prayers, about half of them attributed to David, evoking every emotion of devotion and praise to anger and hatred, from vengeance and violence, despair and dread, to peace and glory. Many are liturgical prayers intended for the leader for a Jewish faith community. Some are hymns of praise. Others offer thanksgiving. Most are individual or communal lamentations. Fundamentally, they are an ancient cry to God, and as such, they are as relevant today as ever.

With sisters and brothers of old, we, too, cry out to God for help and protection, for security and comfort, for justice and peace. We, too, wrestle with both our faith and our emotions in our daily struggles, fears, crises, and breakdowns, as we endure the world’s permanent wars, racism and sexism, corporate greed, killings, systemic injustice and environmental destruction. Like the nonviolent Jesus, we strive to be compassionate and nonviolent, to do our part to bring justice and peace, and to make the world decent and sane. As we get older, and the Psalms wash over us, we realize anew our need for God and the blessings that God offers. We learn what the monks know—that everything depends on God, that God alone is our safety, that with God there is hope and peace for one and all.

The Psalms articulate our primal need for God. They voice our feelings, our hopes and our longings for God. They articulate our urgent plea for help for ourselves, for the suffering poor, and for creation. They tap into the depths of our hearts and unleash the contemplative springs within to bring us living water in parched times.

The Psalms insist that only God is God, that there are no other gods. As we read the Psalms daily, we remember that God is God, and awaken in a new consciousness of God’s abiding presence. With each day, with each poetic line, we enter that liminal space where God feels more present, where the Spirit of peace hovers. In that presence, that waiting, that abiding, we feel new energy and strength to go forward to do our part in service of others and the nonviolent struggle for justice and disarmament.

 For two thousand years, Christians have read the psalms as a basic form of prayer. Priests, nuns, and members of religious orders in particular still read them every single day. They unite the prayer of the global church in a cry for help, a hymn of praise, and a pledge of trust.

But for some seventeen hundred years, we Christians have neglected the nonviolence of Jesus, and so, we have often been misled by the violence in the Psalms and other texts to believe in a false god of violence. For me, Jesus’ most outstanding characteristic is his total nonviolence. Jesus is like Gandhi, like Dorothy Day, like Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s the epitome of nonviolence, the face of the God of nonviolence, the personification of nonviolence. He never hurt anyone, never killed anyone, never advocated violence, and never supported war. He stood against violence in all its forms with soul force. He taught nonviolence morning, noon and night, which means, he wanted followers who practiced nonviolence, who rejected war and hatred, who embodied peace and love. He spent his days in a lifelong campaign of active nonviolence, resistance systemic injustice and empire, preaching God’s reign as a new realm of nonviolence available here and now to everyone. For his nonviolent resistance to systemic injustice in Jerusalem, he was arrested, tried, mocked, tortured and executed, yet throughout, he remained nonviolent. He practiced the steadfast nonviolence he taught his followers. With every step of the way, every act, every breath, he announced that God is nonviolent and to be human is to be nonviolent.

Jesus brought his extraordinary vision of universal love, boundless compassion and total nonviolence to every person, every moment, every situation in life—and so, I presume, even to the scriptures. He announced that he was the fullness of the law and the prophets, that his understanding of God reached beyond our limited understanding to behold a nonviolent God, a God who does not hate, does not kill, does not want us to suffer injustice. The God of the nonviolent Jesus is a God of unconditional, nonviolent, all-encompassing, all-embracing, all-inclusive universal love and peace. As he prayed through the Psalms, Jesus must have found encouragement, strength and hope to go forward and be faithful to who he was—the beloved of God, sent to proclaim God’s reign of peace.

I think this translation of these complicated texts is doable because Mahatma Gandhi approached the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, in a similar way and found there new insights into the wisdom of nonviolence. The Gita tells the story of a warrior learning the fine art of killing, vengeance and retaliation. Gandhi read it instead not as a training in violence, but as a training in nonviolence. He thought the Gita was an ancient call to practice steadfast nonviolence, with the same intensity and dedication as a warrior in battle, ready to give one’s life, but in this case, ready to give one’s life nonviolently for the good of all and for God. Over the course of his long life, Gandhi wrote six commentaries on the Gita trying to explain this complicated scriptural interpretation, which for me and for many, now makes sense. Gandhi spent two hours a day in prayer, and read each day from the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Through this disciplined interpretation and practice, Gandhi found the strength to lead India in a nonviolent revolution and becoming the greatest modern example of steadfast nonviolence. He insisted that his nonviolent interpretation of an ancient scripture was one of the key ingredients that enabled him to practice faithful nonviolence.

I propose that we read the Psalms the way Gandhi read the Gita, that we too apply a hermeneutic of nonviolence to these ancient texts and discover there new wisdom for deepening faith and steadfast nonviolence that we might become better peacemakers. When Jesus prayed through the Psalms, he felt inspired to believe more boldly in his nonviolent God and take ever bolder steps in his public campaign of nonviolence. His was a daily life-and-death struggle to resist the culture of violence and propose an entirely new world of nonviolence, which he called “the reign of God at hand.” The Psalms were his prayer book, so they must have helped him fulfill his mission, trust in God no matter what, endure risk and misunderstanding with patience and faith, and lay down his life for God and humanity in a spirit of loving nonviolence. If that is the Christian calling—to follow Jesus on his public campaign of nonviolence—then the Psalms can help us too as we try to carry our own public campaigns of creative nonviolence for justice and creation.

*

Alas, some verses in the Psalms clearly espouse violence and uphold a violent god as if violence were a sacred, religious duty. “Blessed are those who seize your children and smash them against a rock,” we read (137:9). “God will crush the skulls of the enemy” (68:22). “Slay my enemies, God” (59:12). March with our armies, God (Ps. 108:12).

I suggest the time has come to drop these verses from our prayer, to reject any biblical call to violence, and to adhere only to those texts which help us become people of loving nonviolence, like Jesus. Of course, I’m not the only one who thinks this.

Shortly before he died, legendary Benedictine monk and interfaith leader Bede Griffiths wrote a book about the Psalms where he announced that after a lifetime of praying the Psalms every single day, he now realized that some verses should no longer be recited by Christians. We Christians are summoned to be as nonviolent as Christ, he argued, and so, we need to avoid anything and everything that promotes violence, including scriptural texts calling for violence and war. Bede Griffiths was one of the first major religious figures in modern history to make this bold suggestion, and I think we should take his advice to heart:

It has become more and more difficult to accept many of the Psalms as Christian prayers. Taken in their literal sense many of the Psalms express feelings of anger, hatred and revenge against one’s enemies which are entirely opposed to the teaching of the gospel on love of one’s enemies. Labelling a whole class of people as ‘enemies,’ ‘wicked’ and ‘sinners’ is intolerable for anyone who has been taught to ‘love one’s neighbors as oneself.’

What is perhaps even more unacceptable, the same sentiments of anger, hatred and revenge are attributed to God himself. The Messiah in the famous Messianic psalms (2 and 109) is depicted as a king who will conquer and destroy his enemies, trampling them under his feet. ‘He will rule them with a rod of iron’ and ‘break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ In this the Messiah is shown to be the very opposite of Jesus Christ who allowed his enemies to crush him and came not to destroy but to save.

It has become urgent, therefore, to revise the Psalter, so that all branding of others as ‘enemies,’ ‘wicked’ and ‘sinners’ deserving no mercy or pity, should be removed. When one considers the incalculable harm which has resulted from this habit of mind in the Church, as seen in the Inquisition, the Crusades, the wars of religion and the persecution of ‘heretics,’ it is clear that a revision of this kind is urgently needed.

After issuing a call to delete the most violent verses of the Psalms, Griffiths goes on to explain the historic reasons for the religious acceptance of violence.

We have to remember that ancient Israel grew up in a dualistic culture in which God was considered to be separate—the word’ holy’ originally means separate—from humanity and the created world. Human beings were separate from God and one another and from the surrounding world. Israel was a ‘holy’ nation separate from the other nations of the world. As a result Israel was surrounded by ‘enemies,’ who were hostile to God and to the people of God. The good were separate from the ‘wicked,’ the righteous from sinners, and the end was conceived to be the destruction of the ‘wicked’ and all the ‘enemies’ of Israel. The Messiah was to conquer their enemies and subdue them under his feet.

This was the perspective of the Psalmist and it was precisely this dualism which Jesus came to overcome. He ‘broke down the dividing wall’ between Jews and Gentiles. He came not to conquer and subdue his enemies but to save them and reconcile them with God. He came to save not the ‘righteous’ but sinners, to ‘seek and save that which was lost.’ Thus the whole perspective of the Psalms was reversed and to continue to use the Psalms in their literal sense is to perpetuate what Jesus came to bring to an end.

There is, however, another side to the tradition of Israel, a sense of universalism, a longing for peace and reconciliation, a recognition of the mercy and grace of God towards sinners. These Psalms still retain their value and can be used in Christian prayer. We can praise God for all the work of creation, thank God for his providence over human life, as for mercy and forgiveness and look forward to the joy of reconciliation and union with God. These Psalms retain all their values for Christian prayer when they have been separated from every suggestion of anger, hatred and revenge and can be seen to lead to reconciliation in Christ of all humanity and the whole creation. (Bede Griffiths, Psalms for Christian Prayer, Harper Collins, 1995. Vii-x)

Bede Griffiths makes the case that Christians who love the Psalms need to remember the nonviolence of Jesus, and adhere to the boundaries of nonviolence, even in the way we pray and understand God. I translate that to mean we should read the Psalms, and the Bible, and everything, through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount and keep before us at all times Jesus’ new commandments: “Love one another. Offer no violent resistance to one who does evil. If anyone strikes you on the right check, turn and offer the other. Love your enemies. Be as compassionate as God. Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s justice. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Put down the sword. Blessed are the peacemakers.”

The Psalms can encourage us to be peacemakers if we read them as Jesus did—through the lens of nonviolence. In that way, they regain their power to push us forward in discipleship to the nonviolent Jesus and help us become who we were created to be–peacemakers, the sons and daughters of the God of peace.

***

At the monastery in Big Sur, when the monks chant the Psalms, one of them sings the first line, and then the others join in. “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,” they sing. My friend the prior tells me that when they start singing the Psalms, he enters a dream. It’s as if, for him, the Psalms are a door into the Cloud of Unknowing, into the Mystery of the Divine, into the Holy Spirit. He lets the Psalms wash over him, through him and under him so that he finds himself “content in grace,” in the peace of God, waiting, hoping, looking, loving and being. For the monks, these prayers are the doorway to the fullness of life and grace.

In this little book, I offer reflections on various key Psalms from the perspective of Gospel nonviolence so that you too might find new strength from these ancient prayers to follow the nonviolent Jesus more and more on the path of peace and to be content in grace. May these pages encourage you on your journey and lead you to even greater blessings of peace.

                                                                                                            –J.D.

                                                                                                            Big Sur, California