I've read Psalm 56 many a time, especially in hard moments of ministry, and have found it of great comfort and encouragement.
It's a Psalm regarding David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath (as the notes say).
Of course, the Philistines are the enemy, and David the victim of their cruelty and great evil. Poor David, we assume, and with him, we shed tears and give thanks that god is his side, and sooner or later these evil Philistines (is that not a redundancy?) will meet their just end - defeat at the hands of the righteous David.
But this morning, I read it upside down.
I found myself reflecting on two moments:
1) Recently, the Kim Davis Affair, and how easily we can isolate ourselves from all questions about our behavior and assume, with plenty of encouragement from friends, family and fellow-believers, that we're in the right, without question, god is on our side, and the enemy is the one who opposes us.
2) My reading of "Empire of the Summer Moon" - about the Comanche and Texas - the clash of two powerful, violent cultures, both given to war and conquest, both wanting land. In the case of the Comanche, land that belonged to them because of their conquest of other tribes, their successful use of Spanish horses, having defeated both the Spanish and the Mexicans, but unable to defeat the Americans, because of their overwhelming numbers of settlers moving westward, their diseases, weapons and the buffalo hunters. Violence on both sides, incredible violence. In the hands of the Americans, it was all turned against the Comanche, the only good one being a dead one. And, for the American, it was their Christianity that gave them the right to this land; it was their manifest destiny. The Indian, unbaptized and pagan, had no rights whatsoever. And if the Comanche are cruel and violent, just wait: Americans know how to be just as cruel and violent, and then some, and all in the name of god.
How different is this Psalm when read upside down.
David might have asked himself:
1) Why do the Philistines see me as enemy?
2) Is it because of my "faith in god," or because I want their land, I want them gone, I want them defeated and dead?
3) Is it because I believe in manifest destiny: god gave this land to us and told us to kill everyone in it, including women and children and even livestock?
Given what I know of David and history, it's no longer possible for me to read this Psalm sympathetically. It's way too easy to read it and simply see "the other" as "enemy" and myself as "the righteous one." Way too easy to exonerate myself and vilify the one "hurting" me.
If David were a counselee, a good counselor would likely explore with him how he's offended and hurt others. How his beliefs and attitudes put others off and alienate them. How his views of life are essentially narcissistic, and his self-serving view of god is the root of violence toward others. A wise counselor would explore this sensibility, "that god is on my side exclusively, and what the Philistines have is mine to take because god said so."
I have read this Psalm in times of turmoil, and been comforted by it, and may well read again in that light.
But it's a dangerous Psalm that can easily blind the reader to her or his own sin against others, and blind the reader to the humanity of the "enemy."
It's a Psalm that needs to be read upside down.