Earlier today, I was introduced to a little book of poetry called Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Mark Falkoff. I was immediately struck by the similarity between these poems and the psalms of lament that one finds in the Bible. I will offer an example of each and let them speak for themselves.
First, I invite you to reflect on these words from Psalm 10:
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor— let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”; all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”
Their ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of their sight; as for their foes, they scoff at them.
They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved; throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”
Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
They sit in ambush in the villages; in hiding places they murder the innocent. Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert; they lurk that they may seize the poor; they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.
They stoop, they crouch, and the helpless fall by their might.
They think in their heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed.
Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”?
But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan.
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers; seek out their wickedness until you find none.
The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land.
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.
Now, with this psalm fresh in your mind, think about the poem “Humiliated in the Shackles” by Sami Al Haj, who remains imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay:
When I heard pigeons cooing in the trees,
Hot tears covered my face.
When the lark chirped, my thoughts composed
A message for my son.
Mohammad, I am afflicted.
In my despair, I have no one but Allah for comfort.
The oppressors are playing with me,
As they move freely about in the world.
They ask me to spyon my countrymen,
Claiming it would be a good deed.
They offer me money and land,
And freedom to go where I please.
Their temptations seize my attention
Like lightning in the sky.
But their gift is an evil snake,
Carrying hypocrisy in its mouth like venom.
They have monuments to liberty
And freedom of opinion, which is well and good.
But I explained to them that
Architecture is not justice.
America, you ride on the backs of orphans,
And terrorize them daily.
The world recognizes an arrogant liar.
To Allah I direct my grievance and my tears,
I am homesick and oppressed.
Mohammad, do not forget me.
Support the cause of your father, a God-fearing man.
I was humiliated in shackles.
How can I now compose verses? How can I now write?
After the shackles and the nights and the suffering and the tears,
How can I write poetry?
My soul is like a roiling sea, stirred by anguish,
Violent with passion.
I am a captive, but the crimes are my captors’.
I am overwhelmed with apprehension.
Lord, unite me with my son, Mohammad.
Lord, grant success to the righteous.
Those of us who are American Christians are used to reading the Bible and casting ourselves in the role of hero and victim. We cannot conceive that psalms of lament might be justly composed against us. Listening to the voice of the oppressed and “the other” can often lead us to look at our Bibles, our country, and our lives through a new set of eyes. May God continue to grow us in the direction of true righteousness and, as always, may God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.