“That’s silly! Why is Jesus in their house?” my daughter said. We were reading an illustrated book of Psalm 23 where all the scenes are of a family in an inner-city neighbourhood. They dwell in the house of the Lord, which is illustrated by putting a stained glass window of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the kids’ room.

“Well, Jesus is everywhere.”

“Oh. Like Santa Claus and Elmo,” she said, as if this were a matter of fact. (The most remarkable thing to me about that statement is that we don’t have TV and we spent last Christmas in a town without a mall so her recognition of the ubiquity of Santa and Elmo has to do mainly with us taking her outside.)

I really like the book that we were reading and so does my daughter. She repeats every line as if she is trying to memorize it herself and asks me what each phrase means. Trying to explain these things to a three year old is difficult, but I try to be patient knowing that I’ll have years to explain it. Also, I am ostensibly an expert in the Hebrew Bible and I’m not sure I totally understand everything in the psalm.

For instance, what exactly is going on in the scene where the Lord prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies? It kind of mixes the metaphors, doesn’t it? In the first part of the psalm, the psalmist is clearly picturing himself as a sheep being protected by his shepherd. Are we supposed to imagine a sheep eating at a table while a lion looks on quizzically? What sheep eats at a table?

The book’s rendition shows through their house window the family eating a typical supper inside their home while three young men with scowls on their faces trudge by. One of them is wearing headphones and another wears a Georgetown t-shirt (beats me). Between the thug-like kids and the house walks a middle-aged man walking his doberman who is growling at the thugs. Is the man with dog supposed to be God protecting his flock? It is unclear, especially considering that the table seems to have been prepared by the grandmother.

My problem with this scene is not the ambiguity. My problem is that I’m at a loss as to how to treat these so-called enemies. One commentator’s remarks on this line merely writes, “A petty ruler of the fourteenth century B.C. addressed the following request to the Pharaoh: ‘May he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on’ (El Amarna, 100; 33-35).” It is obviously not a commentary meant for pastors. Strangely, the other two commentaries on the Psalms that I own, both much more pastoral, have little to say about this phrase as well.

I remember having a conversation with a friend one time about people at our seminary who annoy us. She volunteered these people and asked me who my enemies were. I said that I didn’t think of them as enemies and that I didn’t feel it was right for a Christian to have enemies. She responded, “Well Jesus told us to love our enemies. So I figure that to be a Christian we must have enemies to love.”

It was a strange way of putting it, but in a round about way, this is my problem with the passage and the way it’s represented in the book. Is the way we are to love our enemies by gloating about our privilege? The kids in the book have loving parents and grandparents who are raising them with a full meal and throughout the illustrations display all sorts of concrete expressions of love all while these ‘thugs’ outside walk the streets with scowls on their faces and loiter in the valley of the shadow of death. I wonder if, after the teachings of Jesus, we should interpret the passage “you prepare before me a table next to the ones who oppose me” and so that we can enjoy your abundance together. Is that too glib?

Everyday I take my kids for a walk and we see drug dealers in front of a convenience store, pimps and prostitutes across the street, people who in some epochs would be considered demon possessed, and aggressive cops who sometimes abuse their power. I’m not prepared to invite them in to share a meal just yet, but I don’t think I’d like to teach my kids to gloat because of their privilege either.

We’ve all thought a bit more about this situation after the events a week ago and I was struck by this blog post, where the writer, a non-religious Jew, writes, “I’m not someone who had a strong emotional response to the bin Laden news, but I don’t really have a problem with the celebratory response. Then again, I’m not a Christian and I’ve always thought of the odd Christian teachings on this point (“love they [sic] enemy…”) to be pretty weird.” Granted bin Laden is a bit different situation than the dealers in front of the 20 hour convenience store.


About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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One Response to Enemies

  1. Pieta says:

    I, too, read books with theological themes to my kids, who are also bookworms. Here is a “problem” I have. My son, now four, will repeat back the words in public.

    For a long time as a two-year-old, he chanted “half man, half god” (from a book about Totem poles) everywhere: on the bus, in kiddie groups, etc. Then it was, “half daddy, half god,” “half t-rex, half god.”

    After we started taking him to Sunday school, he got fixated on the idea that God is everywhere. I remember sitting on the ferry to Victoria with him, while he mused LOUDLY about whether God was in the ocean; in the air; in the forest; with the whales; etc etc. Oy.

    I find these public God discussions acutely embarassing. I know I shouldn’t. But I can feel the ears of every person for miles arund perk up at the sound of a kid talking – at full volume – about God, and awaiting my response.

    Your blog post is about struggling with teaching authentic scripture to your kids. This is far nobler and more useful than my own struggles with outing myself and my kids in a Christian-hostile city.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is – this is an inspiring blog. Great job!!! I certainly have not found this kind of specific discussion about urban parenting and theology @ church.

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