Once again, we had a mass shooting in the U.S. this past week.[i] To me, it highlights our complicity in the sins of the world.
On Wednesday, a man confessed to killing eight people at three locations. Six of the people he killed were Asian-American, yet the man claimed to have no racial motivation.[ii]
It’s hard to take that claim seriously. Asian Americans make up 5.4% of the population.[iii] A random collection of eight people in the U.S. is statistically unlikely to include any Asian Americans.
When we see such a public display of hatred and violence, considering our own personal sinfulness might feel like a leap. Yet, when we talk about violence against women, racism, sexism, objectification, and materialism, we are not far from the savage murder we heard about this past week. We might not pull the trigger. We might not make sexist jokes or participate in activities that objectify people. We might have a sense of righteousness and think, That’s someone else.
The enemy is us
It isn’t. This is us too. As the famous cartoon opossum Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”[iv] Just as every killer, abuser, or misogynist needs God’s reconciling grace, we do too. We are complicit when we do not stand against all types of violence or shout down those who would rationalize horrific actions.
One public figure in Atlanta said the killer was having a “bad day.” His comment went viral and people rushed to make it sound like he was making excuses for the killer. It’s unclear whether that was the public official’s commentary or his summary of what the shooter told investigators.[v] Either way, it was a worse day for the victims—who are dead. Comments like that make it easier for us to avoid considering our own sinfulness.
We don’t need to jump on the band wagon and prepare tar and feathers for some public official trying to give an update. We need to join the psalmist. We need to take this opportunity to think deeply and critically about the constellation of human sinfulness. We’re all sinners. Period. We don’t need to kill anyone. We are part of the system. The psalmist says, “My sin is ever before me” (51.3). For us, our collective sin and complicity in racism rears its ugly head again and again.
Who is a racist?
I’m not saying that you or I are racists or killers. I am saying that joining the psalmist, and saying “I know my transgressions,” requires a high degree of self-awareness. We can do it, but we have to take a deep dive inside ourselves and ask how we participate in a flawed system that often values profits and materialism over human rights.
The psalmist tees it up for us. “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (51.5). Following the path of the psalm means not staying in our sinfulness. Before we can move on, though, we need to be honest with ourselves. Before we can get to the prayer, “Create in me a clean heart” (51.10), we have to face our sins. Saying, “Create in me a clean heart,” reflects an inner desire for God’s purification. The words are a confession of our need for change.
It’s so easy to point to the killer, the public official who said the wrong words, the rioters at the Capitol, the conspiracy theorists, and the anti-vaxxers. We say, They’re the ones with a problem. They are the hateful ones. Not me.
Psalm 51 is a Lenten Psalm
Psalm 51 is the quintessential Lenten psalm. The whole thing is full of guilt and contrition. It doesn’t end with guilt, but it starts with the recognition of having fallen short of God’s perfection. Someone has done something wrong, something to separate that person from God, and that person’s sinfulness stretches back to birth. Separation from God leads the speaker to a feeling of desperation. That feeling leads to a sense of worthlessness. Yet, the psalmist doesn’t leave us with a sense of hopelessness.[vi]
Inner transformation leads to an outer change. Upon God’s response to the prayer, “Create in me a clean heart,” the psalmist says, “I will teach others how to follow your way, and they will turn to you” (51.13). In other words, my transformation will lead to the transformation of others. “God of my salvation, my tongue will sing your praise. My mouth will declare your praise” (51.14-15).
When we think about sin, the idea can be hard to conceive. Martin Luther writes that sin “means to feel and to experience the intolerable burden of the wrath of God.”[vii] He makes it personal. I would add to Luther’s definition, the awareness of the depth of our personal sins and our complicity in societal sins “means to feel and to experience the intolerable burden of the wrath of God.” Only when we appreciate the chasm between our behavior and God’s perfection can we begin to understand sin.
Hidden or Revealed God?
The psalm clarifies the distinction between what Luther calls Deus absconditus (the hidden God) and Deus revelatus (the revealed God). The psalmist isn’t talking about a hidden, or what Luther also refers to as the Absolute God. It’s about God as experienced in the divine Word and promises. It’s a personal God, Deus revelatus (the revealed God). In this sense, we cannot exclude Christ from the name God. He writes, “We must take ahold of this God… otherwise certain despair will crush us.”[viii]
John Pless writes, “Luther’s interpretation of Psalm 51 reflects the reality that the whole of the Christian life is lived baptismally, in repentance.”[ix] We don’t read the psalm as people who have never experienced Easter before. We read it as a people with hope. Yes, this is Lent, and Psalm 51 is very much a Lenten psalm. We find introspection, contrition, repentance, and transformation. When we read it alongside the headlines of the week, if we are being honest, we find our role in the sinfulness of this world. We need God’s forgiveness.
Psalm 51 forms a single, conceptual framework. It depends on all the parts.[x] We acknowledge our own sinfulness. No one escapes being part of sinful systems—systems that produce the violence like we saw in Atlanta on Wednesday. This kind of systemic sin isn’t isolated to this past week. We’ve have seen it again and again.
I know my transgressions
Once we get in touch with our sinfulness, we can join the psalmist and say, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (51.3). Since God loves us and hears our call, we don’t stop with confession. The loving mercy of our gracious God creates in us a clean heart (51.10) and transforms us so that we can be agents of transformation in our broken world.
It’s still Lent, so we don’t rush to the empty tomb of Easter. We join this prayer, uttered by someone at a low point in life—someone who “exemplifies and defines the divinely ordained attitude… and demonstrates how forgiveness of sin is to be obtained.”[xi]
When we experience this kind of forgiveness, we know that horrors like the shooting last week aren’t the end. Easter’s coming. Life, no matter how good or bad it is, is not the end. There’s something after it, and we get to be part of it. Our forgiveness draws us to be participants in God’s work in the world.
[i] Some white supremacists view homicide or mass shootings as permissible. Steven Windisch et al., “On the Permissibility of Homicidal Violence: Perspectives from Former U.S. White Supremacists,” Perspectives on Terrorism 14, no. 6 (2020).
[iv] Walt Kelly, “Pogo,” Earth Day Poster 1971.
[vi] Emily C. Heath, “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary [Fe 14 2018],” The Christian Century 135, no. 3 (2018): 19.
[vii] Martin Luther, Selected Psalms I, ed. Jaboslav Pelikan, vol. 12, Luther’s Works (St Louis: Concordia, 1955), 310.
[viii] Luther, 12, 312.
[ix] Mark D. Tranvik et al., “Logia Forum: Short Studies and Commentary [26 No 4 Reformation 2017],” Logia 26, no. 4 (2017): 65.
[x] William A. Ross, “David’s Spiritual Walls and Conceptual Blending in Psalm 51,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 43, no. 4 (2019): 607.
[xi] Michael P. V. Barrett, “A Paradigm of Confession: An Analysis of Psalm 51:1-9,” Puritan Reformed Journal 9, no. 2 (2017): 24.