The Common Good

Psalm 94 and Sudan

Psalm 94 is not my psalm, and perhaps it's not yours either. Psalm 8; Psalm 23; Psalm 100. They get a lot of air time because they really speak to us. And if it weren't for the lectionary, I wonder if we might never use Psalm 94. Even in our hymn book, the psalter section skips right over Psalm 94. I guess we can't relate to it. So whose psalm is it?

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It was likely written by a person who was reacting from his/her specific setting of terrible oppression. The author prayed to God on behalf of the oppressed community. They prayed against the wicked ones who "crushed" the powerless ones. They prayed against those who mocked God, against those who killed the widows and the orphans.

I think that there are many people in our time who can relate to this psalm. They are largely voiceless peoples, and I wonder if Psalm 94 can give them a voice, while assuring them of the Good News of our Lord.

I want to share a tiny bit of the testimony of one such person.

Over the past few weeks, I've been reading this psalm, while at the same time, I've also been listening to a brother of mine from Darfur, as he has begun to reconstruct his personal story, in order to bear witness to audiences about the oppression of his people in Sudan. His name is Abubakar and the more I listen to him, the more I think that this is his psalm.

About five years ago, Abubakar was a recent graduate of the University in Al Fasher, Darfur. One day he found himself surrounded at gunpoint by several policemen. They arrested him, and brought him to the jail where he was tortured.

After a long period of torture, Abubakar thought for sure he was drifting off for the last time. He closed his eyes, looking for God. But when he opened his eyes, he was lying in a bed, and found and I.V. in his arm. He was in the hospital. The police were guarding his room. He inquired. The police said they wouldn't let him die, because he still had important information. So as soon as he was better they were going to take him back to the jail and start all over again.

Abubakar found his nurse to be a very compassionate woman. The way he describes her, I think maybe she is an angel. At one point, when he was feeling better, he said to her "I think I need to escape." She replied, "I think that is a good idea." They discussed how that might happen. The nurse decided to bring him a traditional woman's dress. She hid the dress in Abubakar's bathroom. He eventually went into the bathroom, and changed into the dress, and then walked right out of the hospital.

Now, Abubakar is in Michigan bearing witness to the oppression in Sudan, and giving voice to the voiceless ones back home. Last Sunday, he ended his speech at Temple Emanuel with a reflection of where he is on his journey of understanding humanity.

He described four kinds of people. He started backwards and said the 4th kind of people are the wicked ones. The evildoers. The ones who crush his people. The 3rd kind are the refugees, and in Darfur the refugees are mostly widows and orphans. The 2nd type, he suggested is the largest group. These are the people that are not wicked, they are not victims, life is good, but they have an ego-centric mindset and focus on their lives having upward mobility. They are not concerned with the needs of others. The 1st type of people he said, to the audience, is "people like you." You come here to care about something outside of yourself and to bring justice to oppressed people.

And Abubakar prays hard to God. He prays for this 1st group of people. He describes these people as being used by God. And, he is even brave enough to pray for the 4th group of people that God might change them. I think this is what it means when the psalmist petitions God to avenge a people. Vengeance may not mean to tear any group of people down -- after all it's the prophets and the evangelicals at the top. Vengeance may instead mean to lift those lower groups up.

I want to hold on to this psalm and give it life for those who are oppressed by the wicked and arrogant people.

We are called to be a voice for the voiceless. In Psalm 94, the Spirit has provided us with their testament. Let's not ignore it. The Spirit has also provided the good news to these people. In verse 14, we are all reminded of the promise of God, "For the Lord will not forsake his people for justice will return." This is the Good News of our Lord. Amen.

Charlton Breen was coordinator for the Michigan Darfur Coalition. He passed away last week on Monday May 3, after a battle with melanoma cancer. Read his obituary here. This article is adapted from a homily he delivered in a chapel service at Western Theological Seminary on November 10, 2009.

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