Day 81 | Cameron Garrett

As I write this, I’m hurtling to Atlanta on a cramped bus following a trip to Durham to tour Duke Divinity school.  The campus is a beautiful arrangement of Hogwarts-gothic stone buildings, gardens, trees, and lush lawns.  Durham is simultaneously quaint, sleek, and hip.  Right in the middle of the city, however, is an enormous and imposing grey building; a brand new prison smack dab in the middle of the city, bordered by artisan thrift shops and an elite private university.

Last night I had dinner with a friend of mine who’s just graduated from Duke.  One of the coolest experiences of his education, he said, was the opportunity to meet and learn beside prison inmates.  At Duke, divinity students can take particular classes in prisons alongside inmates.  In fact, my friend was awarded a privilege not typically given to divinity students – the opportunity to study alongside death row inmates.

He told stories about some of the guys he’d met with an occasional smirk or laugh.  I smiled and laughed with him.  The people he met wore quirks and gifts with their chains.  For a moment, I forgot that my friend was talking about people in death row.

“So, do you know what any of them did?”

“No.  We’re not supposed to.  But they’re on death row.  All of them had killed someone.”

Verse 9 in Psalm 137 is one of the most brutal lines I’ve run into in the psalms:

“And you Babylonians – Ravagers! 

A reward to whoever gets back at you

For all you’ve done to us;

Yes, a reward to the one who 

Grabs your babies

And smashes their heads on the rocks!”

(137:8-9 MSG)

I submit this: In the same way that it is possible to come to terms with the humanity of death row, so too is it possible to come to terms with psalm 137.  Both confront us with the tension we feel in the lines that divide morality, compassion, and vengeance.  When I read Psalm 137 I feel sympathy, outrage, and disgust.  Likewise, when I hear of a life wasted on death row, I feel both sympathy and outrage.  In the psalms’ conclusion, we find the raw hate exposed in the foundations of justice not only in the Old Testament, but also in the death sentence.

I’ll conclude with another claim:

Being human and being human with God is often not pretty, and we learn a lot about ourselves from texts like Psalm 137 if we pay close attention.

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